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Wallace, who signed with the Bulls as a free agent last summer, was limited to only eight rebounds and six points in the Feb. 25 loss and missed the teams’ April 4 showdown in Motown with sinus inflammation. In two games in Chicago, however, Wallace was brilliant on the glass, pulling down a combined 33 boards in his team’s two wins.
Can Wallace play at that high level in a building full of fans that once adored him? And, for that matter, can he guide his younger team past the experienced unit he left behind last summer?
He’ll have at least two shots at the former, beginning Saturday when Game 1 of the Pistons-Bulls second-round matchup begins. As for the latter, that remains to be seen.
Entering their second-round meeting, both teams are undefeated. Does it matter? Not much really.
The Pistons sweep, if you’re a Detroit fan, was nice to see because it demonstrated that the team could maintain focus on a night-to-night basis and get the easy wins so as not to tax their starters, three of which logged 38 minutes or more per game vs. Orlando. The team’s inability to put away its opponent, however, even when holding a sizable lead, may leave some Pistons fans with a few lingering concerns.
The fear for some Bulls fans could lie in their team being overconfident after their sweep of the Heat. Not to discount the Bulls’ first-round accomplishment, but the Heat team they swept was not the same “15 Strong” that captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy last June. Older, banged up and not quite as hungry after having tasted championship champagne, the Heat bowed out quietly.
Both Detroit and Chicago had the good fortune of getting a lengthy rest and plenty of time to prepare for what, by all accounts, figures to be a hard-fought battle to advance. Either team could emerge the victor from this second-round clash, but don’t expect either to come out unblemished, as both did a round earlier.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls needed four tries — three consecutive failures — to finally break out of the shadow of the Bad Boys from Detroit. The Pistons and Bulls haven’t met since that 1991 sweep by Chicago, but this year’s teams resemble those of the early ‘90s.
The Pistons, on the day of Game 1, will average 29.15 years of age. That’s nearly three years older than the age of your average Bull (26.39 years). Likewise, Detroit is much more experienced, averaging 7.7 years in the league to the 4.6 of the average Bulls player.
This year’s tandem of Luol Deng (26.3 ppg) and Ben Gordon (25.5) are doing just that through four games. But can they keep up their high scoring attack?
Maybe. But, then again, the Bulls have found a way to have two players come up big against the Heat. A year ago, in the teams’ first round matchup, Chicago’s Andres Nocioni averaged 22.3 points per game, while Gordon contributed 21.0 a night.
Detroit’s stability starts in the backcourt, with point guard Chauncey Billups and shooting guard Richard Hamilton.
Of all players who averaged more than 22 minutes per night, Chauncey Billups was the best in the assists-to-turnover department, averaging 3.59 assists to every giveaway. Billups averaged only 2.0 turnovers per night, while Richard Hamilton gave away a possession 2.12 times per night.
Chicago, however, has one of the better defenses in the league, and forced 17.42 turnovers a night, which ranked second-most behind only Golden State’s 18.59.
Detroit was 13-11 on the season when turning the ball over 14 or more times in a game, including 0-4 when registering more than 17 turnovers in a contest. In four games against the Bulls this year, however, the Pistons averaged only 12.25 turnovers. Detroit's lone win vs. Chicago this year was when it gave up only 10 TOs.
Consider for a moment, then, that the Bulls were even stingier when playing their Central Division rivals from Michigan. In the four-game series this year, Detroit shot only 38.4 percent (126 of 328) from the field.
Those Pistons struggles were best exemplified by the starting backcourt duo of Billups and Hamilton, who shot a paltry .286 and .349, respectively, in three games each. Ironically, it was a Billups miss from the left wing in the teams’ second meeting of the season — Ben Wallace’s first game back in Detroit — that turned out to be the game-winner when Chris Webber was there for the putback.
Billups, Hamilton and the Pistons as a collective whole will have to find ways to get good looks and improve upon that shooting percentage if they hope to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for a fifth consecutive year.
And the Bulls aren’t going into the series thinking it means anything either.
“Not much,” Bulls coach Scott Skiles said to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune on what the regular season series means at this point. “We were able to play well and, obviously, win, but this is a different time of year. We’re better now. They’re better now.”
The Pistons and Bulls match up well at many positions on the floor and both play a similar brand of basketball, so, throw the regular season records out the window because this round could come down to which team executes better and limits its mistakes over the course of the series.
The break also gives the coaching staffs and players of each team ample opportunity to prepare for the upcoming series.
Fortunately, for both teams, each swept its first-round opponent, so the clubs find themselves in the same situation with nearly a week between games.
“We’re some old cats in here,” Rasheed Wallace told the Detroit News after the Pistons swept the Orlando Magic. “We need to rest C-Webb. You heard Magic Johnson talking (on TNT) — we need to get rest for C-Webb.”
All kidding aside, most teams would welcome the opportunity to rest up rather than play an extra game or two and risk any turned ankles, strained hamstrings and the like. The challenge lies in keeping the players focused in the week’s worth of practices, so they can come out sharp in that first game.
If Chicago was better able to do that this week, they very well might steal homecourt advantage from the Pistons by taking Game 1 at The Palace.
Wallace was the anchor of the Pistons defense during his stay in Detroit, but offered very little on the offensive end. Now that he’s moved on to Chicago, the Pistons inserted free agent Chris Webber down low, but he’s a liability on defense.
Through four playoff games, Webber is averaging 12.0 points, on 58 percent shooting, nearly eight boards and two assists per game. Wallace, meanwhile, posted an un-Ben-Wallace-like 9.3 points, to go along with 9.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.
My early feelings are that the Pistons get the edge here. Detroit is very good at helping out on the defensive end and Rasheed Wallace can come from the weak side to pick up the slack for Webber. At the other end, Webber is a dangerous passer from the post, but has also shown that he can still score down low, too.
If the Pistons hope for a return trip to the NBA Finals, the road may lead through two of the strongest Central Division foes: the Bulls, obviously, and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This Bulls team clearly isn’t the same squad Detroit skunked in the regular season a year ago. It remains a real threat to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, so there isn’t much sense in talking about whether Detroit can beat Cleveland in a best-of-seven. Even so, we will.
The Pistons took three-of-four from the Cavs this year, but, if you’ll recall, found themselves down three-games-to-two a year ago in the Playoffs after posting the same regular-season record against the team from Ohio.
Even though the Pistons added another Central Division banner to the rafters at The Palace, they still have to prove they’re the best of the five teams in the Central. That starts with the first team — Chicago or Detroit — to four wins.