April, 2003. The last win the Magic had over the Pistons in the playoffs. Until Wednesday night.
What a resounding win it was, and it may not be the last.
No wonder those opening game losses caused so many tears, after such a drought which included a sweep and a comeback from being down 3-1 in the McGrady days.
Those of you with younger siblings know how it is when you make them cry. When everything is all better, the tears are still there, but the sobbing quiets.
While this game was all Magic, it was ultimately the Pistons' play that was most tragic. This is, and has always been, the biggest problem I have with Pistons head coach Flip Saunders.
You have a 2-0 lead in the series, and either he or the players change up defensive philosophy. Instead of taking away the three Wednesday night from a jump shooting team, Detroit allowed them to find the range all game long.
The result? A repeated and consistent deep hole to climb out of. Although they were able to chisel away at the less-experienced Orlando squad, Detroit went cold in the fourth, (sound familiar?) and lost this game 111-86.
The Pistons also lost team captain, point guard, unquestioned leader, former finals MVP, and one of the league's best clutch shooters: Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups. Stepping on the foot of Jameer Nelson, Billups' legs spread to a near gymnastic split, causing him a painful hamstring injury.
His status for game four is up in the air. With Billups, the Pistons were in for a tough fight against a Magic team that was, quite frankly and pardon the French, pissed off and chomping at the bit.
After Chauncey's exit early in the first, the load fell onto rookie guards Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo to play major minutes. Both, while showing their inexperience, played above and beyond expectations.
Stuckey shot a terrible five for 13, but was a very Chauncey-esque nine for nine from the line. He finished with 19 points. The rest of his game lacked, and two assists will not get it done.
Afflalo played his usual staunch defense and actually helped slow Nelson, who started off like a house of fire with 12 first quarter points, and finished with 18, including seven big rebounds.
The problem was the defense. I'm not a Rashard Lewis fan because he is one-dimensional and Detroit allowed him to play to his strength, the outside shot. He scored a season-high and a playoff career-high 33 points.
After being in the league for 10-plus seasons, I'm not impressed and he reaps the benefits of having Dwight Howard down low. Although many would argue, to me, this guy is not a $120 million player.
Howard put forth his second strong game, dominating the paint on both ends. He had 20 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocked shots—four came early in the first period, which helped get them out to their big lead.
Hedu Turkoglu (seven for 18, three of five from the arc, 18 points) has looked like everything but the most improved. He started slow again in game three.
He did, though, come through late when the Pistons were scrambling to play both Antonio McDyess (shot poorly, going zero for two) and Theo Ratliff (zero for one) out on the wing when switching to the zone.
They don't come out far enough to challenge the shooters because they are shot blockers and rebounders. Again, Flip is not making the adjustment. The Magic are back to their averages of 25 three-point attempts over the last two games, and it shows.
While placing Jason Maxiell (his first absolutely woeful performance of the playoffs) on Howard makes some sense, and obviously McDyess and Ratliff will take their turn, the length and athleticism of Amir Johnson would help.
Not that he would have to face the much stronger and physical Howard, but playing off and being the help defender makes a lot of sense to me. It would be a better decision than playing Walter Herrmann, which still strikes me as a bad hunch played by coach Saunders.
Juan Dixon should have been active tonight. He is much more of a scorer than Afflalo, and the mix of these guards would have especially been a major help tonight. He plays both guard spots and is the best from the outside off the bench.
Saunders puzzles me with his bench most of the time. Jarvis Hayes should have seen the floor sooner, to see if he could help the Pistons climb back in and get over the hump. It didn't happen.
Lindsey Hunter? Why did we "get him ready" for the playoffs and not use him against the quicker Nelson?
The Pistons shot poorly for long stretches and weren't exactly sharing the ball with a meager 12 assists. I marvel at the fact that with a make here or there, they could have put a little more pressure on the Magic late in the game.
After being down 18, they shaved the lead to three. It's one thing to get a big lead; it can be equally as tough to play with a lead. Quite honestly, Orlando nearly blew this game.
They closed strong as Detroit waved the white flag with five minutes left. Those who saw it know that the Magic could have been had, without Chauncey Billups.
Rasheed Wallace got into foul trouble early (ummm...nah, I won't go there), got frustrated and shot pathetically, going four for 15 from the field. Tayshaun Prince's 22 points look impressive, but did nothing while the Magic were building their commanding lead.
However, it was he and Stuckey (needs to shoot the three when it's there) who began the comeback by taking advantage of their match-ups in the post. Rip Hamilton started slow, but finished 10-20 for 24 points and had a game-high six turnovers.
The Pistons did the same thing Orlando did in game two. They choked in the fourth and lost.
Now that Orlando and Stan Van Gundy got their home game, crowd, cooking, and calls (he, he, he...had to), it's a series again. Game four at Amway Arena is critical for the Pistons.
The team will need Billups without question. After tonight, with some better decision making, tweaking of bench rotation, reverting back to the defensive game plan of games one and two, and ball movement with the extra pass, Detroit is still very capable of going back to the Palace up 3-1.
A valiant effort and a near win—that's something the final score doesn't show. Detroit will need Mr. Big Shot to have one in this series.
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