Some opportunities only come along once in a lifetime.
Without Pistons captain and glue Chauncey Billups to worry about, the Magic missed a golden opportunity at home with as much as a 16 point lead in the third quarter, only to fold tent late to the veteran Pistons.
Hedo Turkoglu, a Top Five fourth quarter scorer in the NBA, missed a layup at the buzzer to give Detroit a hard-fought 90-89 win and a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Turkoglu survived a non-call on a charge on the play but could not finish off an excellent job he had done in the period.
While having only seven points through the first three quarters of the game, the Pistons began misplaying their switches on defense and allowed Hedo to do as he pleased. While he ended up with 13 in the final stanza and 20 for the game, the big two eluded him in the end.
Rip Hamilton showed us why its nice to have two All-Star guards in the backcourt. He came up huge in this game with a gritty, tough performance, shooting 12-24 from the floor and 8-9 from the line for 32 points.
Rodney Stuckey, the rookie from Eastern Washington starting in place of Billups, struggled on defense throughout and was a non-factor. Not ready for prime time? Maybe, but Lindsey Hunter came in and hit a couple of big three-pointers, the same shots the Magic were daring Stuckey to make. Needless to say, we know what Stuckey will be working on this summer.
The pathetic start to this game was magnified by the absence of Billups. The Pistons could not get into their offense in an acceptable amount of time. Time and time again, be it Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace (16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals), or Tayshaun Prince (17 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists), I would be screaming at the television as they would hold the ball in the post much too long before making a move.
The Pistons were having good success with second chance points and if the shot is hurried, you have to be able to react. It would be an offensive rebound by Antonio McDyess (8 points, 14 rebounds) that gave Prince a chance to hit the game winning floater with 8.9 seconds left in the contest.
As predicted, Detroit shot 35 percent in the first quarter while Orlando came out running off missed Pistons jumpers, shooting 46 percent and taking a 27-21 lead. The highlight of the period (and maybe the series) was the block on a break-away dunk by former Piston Maurice Evans by Prince, who has an incredible knack for this play and has now added Evans to the stack of Reggie Miller and Allen Iverson. The replay showed it to be a clean block and another outstanding play by Prince.
After doing such a great job in Game One, the Pistons have gotten away from challenging the three-point attempts. Too many open looks for the Magic spelled a deficit. While Rip was hot, Sheed, Prince, and Stuckey were all AWOL on offense. Although they were able to muster a 10-2 run to get within two and later take a 30-27 lead, Detroit fell back into bad habits and found themselves down 11 at the half, 55-44. Detroit needed some fire and grit to even keep this thing close as it was getting away fast.
As usual, Detroit surrendered a quick five points out of the gate and the lead was 16. Orlando was running the high pick and roll, and McDyess is not accustomed to having to take the wing shooter.
At the same time, Stuckey repeatedly would pass up three point shots that Billups would love to take. He has to take those shots to make the defender respect him. I love his physical game, driving to the rim. He needs to improve his passing out of the paint and extending that range because it crowds the post offense the Pistons love to run. While Prince can be serviceable playing the "point-forward", his length and lack of bulk hinders his ball-handling and he can be bothered all the way down the floor.
At 63-48 came the turning point for Detroit. A 10-0 run started things off and the Piston defense turned it up two notches. Wallace began playing more assertive, and his three steals were a product of relentless pressure on Lewis and Howard, both of whom fell off from their Game 3 performances.
The run stretched to 15-0 over a five-minute span (with the Magic missing eight straight shots and committing two turnovers) when Rip got out in front after a steal from Rashard Lewis and the game was tied at 63.
Hunter's second three of the period gave them their first lead at 66-65 since the 30-27 edge in the second. With Sheed's eight in the period, it was down to the fourth at 70-70 (thanks to a three by Evans with 1.4 left). No one was resting easy, as Billups is one of the best in the game at closing out opponents, and he was still in street clothes.
Detroit was now shooting 58 percent with one turnover in the second half while Orlando had slacked off to 31 percent and four turnovers. Since the 63-48 deficit, the Pistons were on a 26-7 run.
Here's the thing. The Magic were at home, they can hit the three, and sometimes I don't know why Detroit head coach Flip Saunders does some of the things he does. As if Rip weren't working hard enough carrying the scoring load, Saunders in his attempt to protect Wallace from foul trouble would put Hamilton on Rashard Lewis, which the Magic took advantage of time and time again.
After Rip's third personal, they decided to put him back on Evans (15 points, 3-6 from the arc), whom Sheed was trying to guard (just a bad move to me).
With the game getting tighter and Turkoglu finding his fourth quarter groove (at one time, he had two threes and a three-point play the hard way in a 1:30 span that gave the Magic a 86-84 lead with 2:33 left), something had to give. Rip had been sensational all night and kept the team in it even when things got chippy between the two clubs.
Two missed shots in close that Howard and Hedo thought they were fouled on (weren't) and the double technicals on Howard (3-12 shooting, 8 points, 12 rebounds, 7 offensive, but one block) and McDyess and one on Keyon Dooling after a rough foul on Hamilton (Rip missed the technical foul shot but hit the two for the original foul) were a preview to the wild finish.
Jameer Nelson, who played his second terrific game with 15 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, hit only one of two at the line (2-6 for the game) leaving Orlando with the one-point lead. After Prince's bucket (McDyess' offensive rebound was amongst four Magic players), the stage was set with still too much time and a hot Hedo destined to be the hero.
The same set-up that had worked the entire fourth quarter, Turkoglu got the ball out top as the clock wore down. He may have waited a little long, as he did not leave enough time for a possible offensive board, but he drove on Prince and ran over Jason Maxiell getting to the rim. He missed the shot with Hunter grabbing the offensive rebound on the other side and dribbling out the clock.
“I was reading the situation,” Hedo rehashed of the final sequence. “I didn’t want to rush and force a bad shot. Maybe I was holding it too long instead of going right away. I’m just upset that I couldn’t help the team.”
Howard looked way out of sync in the post. Many of his shots were simply bricks that had no chance. He went to the line a mere two times, something we know the Magic fans will continuously point to about the man who led the league in free throw attempts by more than 100 over the second-place finisher. He did not offer many excuses or place any blame after the game.
“I missed a lot of shots, just had a little frustrated night,” Superman sighed. “Nothing I can do about it — just come back next game and get a little better.”
With a 3-1 lead and heading back to the Palace, the Pistons would be wise to sit Chauncey again and save him for a possible game six if the Magic win next Tuesday. If the Pistons close out the series, and with Cleveland looking like a winner at home in their series with Boston (Celtics leading now 2-1), Detroit can rest the captain for the next series.
But let me make something very clear. The Magic aren't done and will go down with guns blazing. They will come out in Game Five in Detroit needing a win and when you can shoot the three like that, they can get you down in a hurry and come back the same way.
You can't expect Howard to have another sub-par performance like he did Saturday and the Pistons will need another big effort from everyone to close this series out.
After losing four in a row to Cleveland last year, I don't take anything for granted, including Billups, who when you don't have him, leaves a big a hole in a line-up as any in the league.