This is the matchup in the Eastern Conference finals that was anticipated when the playoffs began. Although the Celtics were pushed to the limit in both series and the Pistons had some speed bumps and injuries along the way, both teams are right where they were expected to be.
No matter how up and down each team might have been at times in the first two rounds, the important factor to consider is that at the critical moments in each series, both teams held true to form -- with tough team defense and clutch offense from their best players.
Expect this series to mirror the three regular-season games they played -- tough, physical, half-court slugfests that were close in the fourth quarter. Detroit won in Boston on Dec. 19, 87-85, then the Celtics won in Detroit on Jan. 5, 92-85. On March 5, Boston won at home 90-78 to take the season series.
The NBA's two best half-court defenses have been just that in the playoffs -- Boston has held opponents to 86 points per game on 40 percent shooting, while the Pistons have given up 87 points per game on 44 percent shooting. Both defenses have been suffocating in the half court, and have gotten lockdowns on key players during the most critical possessions of games.
Detroit will look to grind along at the NBA's slowest pace, and Boston will look to run more. Turnovers will be a key for both teams getting out in the open floor, because easy baskets will not be found in half-court sets.
Both team's benches played prominent roles in their three regular-season games, as well as in the playoffs so far, so look for Boston's coach Doc Rivers and Detroit's coach Flip Saunders to use a wide variety of players to try to find the right combinations from game to game.
Chauncey Billups will be a key early in this series, as the status of his hamstring injury will be tested in Game 1. During the regular season he was dominant. The Pistons will look for offense on endless screens and cuts from Richard Hamilton with looks into Rasheed Wallace in the post. Detroit's precision and execution in the half court will be tested on each possession against the NBA's best defense.
The disappearance of Ray Allen's offensive game in the playoffs will be of major concern for the Celtics in this series. With very little turnaround time between series, major adjustments to get Allen going may not be possible before Game 1. Kevin Garnett was the big gun for Boston against the Pistons in the regular season, and with Paul Pierce coming off a 41-point effort in Game 7 against the Cavs, look for these two to have most of the action run for them on the offensive end.
The Pistons come into this series with plenty of rest, having dispatched the running, 3-point shooting Orlando Magic in five games. Boston comes in tired from the physical pounding of seven games with Cleveland. If the Celtics cannot recharge and reload quickly enough, Detroit could come rolling into Boston and take Game 1 and do away with the Celtics' home-court advantage.
Detroit won the last two games of the semifinal series against Orlando with Billups in street clothes, and his fitness to return from a hamstring injury will be evaluated in Game 1 of this series. He averaged 22.7 points on 7.0 assists in three games versus Boston this season, scoring 28 in the Pistons' win on Dec. 19 and 23 in the March 5 loss. He went to the foul line 35 times in those three games, and he will look to be physical against the smaller, slighter Rondo. Expect more drives, back-downs and post-ups when Billups has this matchup.
Boston's fourth-leading scorer in the playoffs, his back-to-back 3s against Cleveland in Game 5 might have been the two biggest baskets in the series. He provides quickness and penetration on offense, and he has nearly a 4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the playoffs. Rondo averaged 11 points on 14-for-33 shooting versus Detroit in three regular-season games. He will have his hands full defensively with the physical Billups, but will try to go at Billups with his speed at the offensive end.
He is Detroit's leading scorer in the playoffs and carried much of the load with Billups out against Orlando -- scoring 63 points in those two games, which included 24-for-25 from the foul line. Hamilton averaged 18.0 points on 51 percent shooting against the Celtics this season, including 21 points in Detroit's Dec.19 win at Boston. He will score off screens, pull-up jumpers, drives and post-ups. Hamilton's scoring output has increased in the playoffs, and with Allen struggling, look for this matchup to be a key to the series.
Allen is living through an offensive nightmare in these playoffs. He averaged only 9.3 points against Cleveland on 32.8 percent shooting, making only 4-for-24 from 3. During the season he averaged only 12 points in the three games, shooting only 4-for-13 in his last two games against Detroit. In the December loss he had 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting. His 3-point shooting will be needed in this series, but don't expect his offensive struggles to get any easier with Hamilton as his primary defender.
The Pistons' best defender has picked up his scoring in the playoffs, averaging 16.0 points with a team-leading 56.2 percent from the field. Defending Pierce will be his primary responsibility, and he held Pierce to 11 points on 5-for-16 shooting in Detroit's regular-season win in Boston. Prince averaged only 5.3 points in three games versus Boston, but look for him to post up and spot up for the corner 3.
Pierce took over Game 7 against the Cavs, and his aggressiveness offensively against Prince will be a key in this series. His scoring and offensive consistency have been up and down in the playoffs -- ranging from 4 points in Game 1 versus Cleveland to 41 in Game 7. Pierce averaged 15.0 points on 35 percent shooting against Detroit in three regular-season games, scoring 15 and 19 in the two Celtics wins. He will catch and shoot, go off the dribble, and post up against the longer, taller Prince. Look for Pierce to be Boston's go-to guy during crunch time.
Detroit's best interior scorer has also led the team in 3-pointers made in the playoffs with 16. He will work his post-up game against multiple Boston defenders, and will move out to the 3-point line to spot up and to pick-and-pop with Billups. During the regular season he averaged 16.0 points and 8.3 rebounds on 40 percent shooting. Wallace's shot blocking will also be one of the keys for Detroit's defense of Kevin Garnett, whether he's matched with KG or helping from the weak side.
Garnett is the Celtics' leading scorer and most consistent performer in the playoffs -- averaging 20.3 points on 51 percent shooting. He played a big role against the Pistons in the regular season, averaging 24.0 points on 54 percent shooting in three games, including 31 in the Celtics' win on March 5. Although they won't guard each other all of the time, his matchup with Rasheed Wallace will be a key, as both players can score inside and out, not to mention both players are the emotional barometers for their teams. Look for each to try to get in the other's head early.
McDyess has lost minutes to Jason Maxiell in the playoffs, but he provides midrange shooting and a big body on defense. His ability to complement Wallace in the Pistons' high-low action opens things up for Wallace inside. McDyess had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the Pistons' 87-85 win in Boston in December, but only nine total points in the two regular-season losses.
Perkins provides rebounding and size for the Celtics' front line. During the regular season against the Pistons he averaged 7.3 points and 11.3 rebounds -- including a 10-point, 20-rebound performance in Boston's 90-78 win in March. He will contribute with hustle plays at both ends of the floor.
Maxiell brings a physical, athletic presence to the Pistons' front line, and his energy and aggressiveness have been a key element in the Pistons' playoff success. He has started six of 11 playoff games and averaged 25 minutes per game -- averaging 5.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Stuckey gives Detroit size in the backcourt and can play the 1 or the 2. When he started in place of Billups in Game 5 and Game 6 versus Orlando he averaged 10.5 points in those wins. In the playoffs he is averaging 7.3 points and 3.7 assists on 35 percent shooting.
Hunter is a crafty veteran who handled the ball and hit some big shots during the Orlando series. He's a pesky defender and locker room leader.
He's a shot-blocker off the bench, averaging 11 minutes in seven playoff games. Did not play against Boston this season.
Afflalo is a big guard who can defend, averaging nine minutes per game and 1.7 points in the playoffs. Had four points in 11 minutes in the Pistons' regular-season win.
Hayes is a small forward who can score, but averaged only five minutes and two points per game in the playoffs. In the January loss to Boston he had four points on 2-for-5 shooting.
Posey is averaging 22 minutes per game in the playoffs and he provides defense and 3-point shooting. During the playoffs he has made 17 3s in 14 playoff games, but was a nonfactor in 15 minutes per game in the regular season against Detroit.
Powe brings energy and aggressiveness to the Celtics' front line -- much like Maxiell does for Detroit. Look for more minutes from him as his value has increased in the playoffs.
Davis saw increased minutes against the Cavs in Game 6 and Game 7. During the January win against the Pistons he had 20 points in 23 minutes and on March 5 he had seven points and four rebounds in the Celtics' win. Big Baby brings a big body to the Celtics' front line, and he will do his damage around the basket.
House brings emotional energy and 3-point shooting to the backcourt. During the regular season he averaged 3.7 points in 14 minutes per game against Detroit.
Cassell has seen his playoff minutes plummet with his offensive inconsistency, averaging 5.4 points on only 24 percent shooting against the Cavs. His scoring punch may be needed if Boston struggles in the half court.
The veteran big man will be needed against the big, deep Pistons front line. He averaged 3.9 points during 11 minutes per game in the semifinals.
This series will be another long, drawn-out physical battle for the Celtics. After being taken to the limit in both of the previous series, they will now face an even more punishing defensive team. Detroit has not had to weather the physical trench fighting in its two earlier series, so this will be a new test for it. Expect close games, hard fouls, tough defense and grind-it-out offense -- just what we would expect from the Eastern Conference. Boston hasn't proved that it can be the same team away from home, and Detroit can and will win on the road in this series.
Prediction: Pistons 4, Celtics 2
Mike Moreau is the Director of Basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.