Jameer Nelson may have not been able to come through on his guarantee of a victory tonight in Detroit, but this much is certain: With a big, and smart, off-season the Magic can certainly rule of the Eastern conference.
As long as they keep the nucleus of Nelson, Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis, Orlando just needs to add the right bench pieces to go along with this year's playoff experienced squad.
But Tuesday night at the Palace, it was the veterans Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess who came through in the clutch late in the game and not only closed out a 91-86 win in game five, but sent Orlando back home alone and off for the summer.
The Pistons are now 15-3 in closeout games since the year 2003, and this one couldn't have come at a better time. It was Hamilton again who came up big with 19 first-half points (15 in the 2nd period) and 31 for the game—the second without Piston captain Chauncey Billups.
Billups, sat out his second straight game nursing a sore hamstring and watched his replacement, rookie Rodney Stuckey, come up with a big performance of his own.
After struggling with foul trouble in game four and playing a mere 22 minutes, Stuckey found his rhythm and ran the team like a veteran, scoring 15 points, dropping six dimes, with zero turnovers. To say this will boost his confidence, playing big minutes in a big game and performing well at crunch time is an understatement.
With Boston and Cleveland deadlocked in a 2-2 tie, Billups should have the chance to rejuvenate and heal his hamstring and be back to his old self by the time the Eastern Conference Finals roll around.
Although Hamilton started off slow, hitting only three of his first 10 shots (finished 7-20 for the game), he did get to the line often (finishing 16-16) and followed up his game for performance of 32 points with another huge game Tuesday night.
While Rip was passing Isaiah Thomas to become the club's all-time leading playoff scorer and Stuckey playing like he'd been there before, both Wallace (7-20, 14 points, 7 boards, 3 big steals) and McDyess (17 points, 11 rebounds, 6 offensive) played big down on the blocks on offense and defense scoring, big buckets and defending Dwight Howard.
Howard grabbed 17 rebounds and scored 14 points, but he could only muster a 4-8 night from the field and a disappointing 6-15 from the free-throw line and what was to be his second straight poor offensive game in the series.
No matter what Detroit did to pull away, Orlando stayed right there. Time and time again Detroit would get out to a lead only to have the Magic storm back and keep the score close.
Hedo Turkoglu (8-15, 18 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 turnovers) and Rashard Lewis (4-13, 14 points, 7 boards, 6 turnovers) kept Orlando from being buried but could not keep themselves from the costly mistake. Three of the Magic starters would end up with five fouls, allowing Detroit to hit 28-32 (Orlando was 16-28) from the stripe and keep them in the pole position.
While things remained even due to Detroit's poor shooting (36% for the game) and Orlando's poor ball maintenance, to play the game was made by Tayshaun Prince. After two Hamilton free throws with 19.6 seconds, Turkoglu drove the ball to the rim for what appeared to be a slam dunk only to have it blocked by Prince.
It was a play we've come to expect from Prince as Detroit fans as he is repeatedly came up with the big block in playoff situations including to this series. After two more Hamilton free throws, making the score 89-84, Orlando still had a shot as they are very dangerous three point shooting team.
It wasn't to be, due to another Orlando turnover on the inbounds pass to Turkoglu. Detroit quickly inbounded the ball to Hamilton who was quickly fouled and hit two more free throws, putting the game out of reach.
A token lay-up by Keith Bogans provided the final score and sealed the deal for the Pistons, who—for the first time since the Lakers in 1984-89—will go to the conference finals for the sixth consecutive year.
Detroit also has some things they need to clean up in their game. When playing the zone defense, too often the bigs are left on an outside shooter at the arc, giving them an open look from three.
Too many times when defending the pick and roll, Lindsey Hunter would end up in a mismatch against Rashard Lewis; not a good situation. Their switches need to be smarter and recognized earlier.
Tayshaun Prince finished with 10 points and eight rebounds but shot poorly at 4-13. In previous games in this series, Prince would drive strong to the hole. Not the case Tuesday night and the Pistons need his scoring when things bog down on offense.
Wallace missed everything from three point land, but was solid in the post. McDyess had easily his best game of this series and maybe the playoffs, as his 6-9 shooting were all big baskets. He and Wallace both finished with four fouls, and too often throw their hands up in the air when expecting a foul call and allowing the opponent to run down the court in fast-break fashion. This often happens after made baskets by the opponent.
The Pistons were beat down the for repeatedly for easy layups and were not getting back on defense. However, the stat of the night was the turnovers as Detroit had only three while Orlando committed 21, most at the worst times in the game.
So Orlando goes home and the Pistons go on. My loyalties in the Boston-Cleveland series will lie with the team needing the win to prolong this series as long as possible. Time is the best thing for this veteran Detroit team and its captain Chauncey Billups as they can rest up, heal up, and pull up a chair to watch their possible opponents beat up on each other.
If their series goes seven, the deciding game will be in Boston on May 18, next Sunday, which means a nice break.
But whether they face King James or the Boston Three Party, the Pistons should be recharged and refocused.