It has been a while since we've done a Q&A, but tonight's matchup seemed to be the perfect opportunity. We cover everything from playoff seedings to jersey popping and everything in between.
So here are some questions I had for Matt from Detroit Bad Boys (his questions to me follow).
1. So, we still find our teams 1 and 2 in terms of league record, but a lot has changed since the last time we've met. Get us caught up on the Pistons and how they have evolved this year. In other words, what's new in Detroit?
It's been 26 games since these two teams met, and they've posted nearly identical records: Detroit is 18-8 and Boston is 17-9. (Sorry, I had to point that out ...) They've kind of followed the same pattern, too: win a bunch in a row, hit a rough patch and lose a few games and then right the ship and win a bunch more in a row.
For the most part, the starting lineup is doing their thing like clockwork, so the biggest change since these teams last met is probably the bench. Back in December, Rodney Stuckey was still shaking off the rust after missing the first part of the year with a broken hand. He struggled for a bit but turned the corner last month. Plus, Amir Johnson is now pushing Jason Maxiell for minutes -- both of those guys bring a lot of energy and play above the rim (on both sides of the ball). I'm not sure how much either of those two will see tonight (Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess each played 24 minutes or fewer last night), but on most night's they've had a chance to make a big impact.
2. A lot is made of the Pistons familiarity and the edge that gives them. However, I wanted to point out the fact that the Pistons won the title in part due to the spark that a new face (Rasheed Wallace) gave the team in a trade deadline deal. What spark are the Pistons hoping for this year? Please don't say Theo Ratliff.
What, you're not a big Juan Dixon fan? But seriously, (and yes, it's a recurring theme) I think the bench as a whole will surprise a lot of people. The Pistons are (rightfully) known for being a plodding team on offense, but that second unit (Stuckey, Afflalo, Maxiell and Amir) is young and athletic, and Flip Saunders has them running when they're in the game.
Not only that, but Saunders has shown that he's finally willing to let the bench sink or swim for long periods of times, and it's paid off. There have been more than a few games this year that the bench has won for the team after the starters come out without a lot of energy (see: last night). When things are clicking, the Pistons can easily go 10 deep, and when the young guys do get into the game, they're too desperate for minutes to slack off.
3. OK, bottom line it for me. What are 2 good reasons why the Pistons could win the title this year? What is one reason they might not?
We can all agree that the only three teams with a realistic shot of coming out of the East are Boston, Detroit and Cleveland, right? (No offense, Dwight; maybe next year ...) And if the playoff seeds stay the same, the Pistons would only have to face one of those two teams to get to the Finals. Not having to face LeBron James in the second round would be huge -- that guy has really taken the steam out of Detroit's sails each of the last two years, even in 2006 when the Pistons actually won the series. So that's reason No. 1.
Reason No. 2 is that the team will be fresher. Even if the Pistons have to take the long path through Cleveland and Boston, they're much more rested this year compared to any other in recent memory. They have the second-best record in the league without a single starter playing 35 minutes a game -- that's kind of crazy, if you think about it. Obviously the rotation will get shorter in the playoffs, but the bench has already served its purpose by preserving the starters over the first 82. A lot of the starters simply ran out of gas in the playoffs the last few years, but it looks like that won't happen this year.
Why might the Pistons falter? Injuries are a huge concern. As well as the bench has played, they're "change of pace" good, not "replace a starter" good, especially considering how young they are. Stuckey and Afflalo are rookies and Johnson has never appeared in a playoff game -- which is part of the reason the team has acquired vets like Dixon and Ratliff. Also, like I mentioned above, I think the seeding will play a huge role: whichever team avoids facing LeBron will have a huge leg up in the Conference Finals.
Matt's questions for CelticsBlog:
1. With the Celtics possibly needing an adjustment period integrating Sam Cassell and PJ Brown into their rotation and the Pistons playing the majority of their remaining games at home, are you worried about Boston losing the top seed? I'm not sure the top seed is actually preferable given the second-round matchup with LeBron that would likely ensue, but are you concerned that slipping to the No. 2 seed might be blow to Boston's confidence that might linger into the playoffs after most people assumed they'd go wire to wire?
Playoff seedings? Hold on, I remember those. I seem to remember them being important for some reason. You'll have to excuse me if I'm out of practice with this sort of thing. Same with the Celtics themselves, to an extent. This group is so new and new to this situation that I don't think they really care about who they play. There is pressure to win, but not because of wanting to go wire-to-wire or to preserve some psychological edge. The pressure to win is ingrained into the very being of Kevin Garnett's soul. Not to mention the overall feeling of all the thirtysomethings that know how few opportunities like this happen.
Doc has been focusing on the playoffs more and more since the All Star break, as well he should. But that focus revolves around preparing Rondo to handle teams gameplanning against him or getting Powe and Big Baby minutes off the bench. Yes, it will also involve getting Cassell and Brown worked into the rotation, and it might cost us some games here and there. But I don't think the team cares if it is the number one seed or the number two. At least not yet. The last couple weeks of the season might tell a different story.
2. Jersey-popping: bad-ass or kind of annoying?
Funny question. I think it depends on who's popping and why. To the Pistons and Pistons fans, it must seem like the Celtics are overzelous punks. I'm sure Billups has the attitude of "Whatever, you got a regular season win. Stop dancing around like you won game seven of the Finals. Act like you've been there before, like us."
Well, that's easy for him to say. He's stood on top of the mountain and he's had years to reflect on how much more important that is than the regular season victories. Then again, he's also gotten bitter about not making it back to the top of the mountain and has lost some of that youthful exuberance.
The Celtics (minus Posey and now Cassell) have never been there, so they are just enjoying the ride. Every hilltop is a new obstacle overcome. Year after year these guys have had to face teams like the Pistons knowing that they have no shot at winning because of the pitiful supporting cast around them. Now they can go toe to toe with them and give as good as they get. That's exciting. And yes, that leads to over-the-top celebrations. Oh well.
3. I'm just going to copy your last question since it was a good one: what are two good reasons why the Celtics could win the title this year? What's one reason why they might not?
One good reason is the team's age. With so many veterans on the team, they know this is their last and best shot to go into the history books. In many cases, they want it so bad they can feel it. LeBron wants it, but he knows he'll have a dozen or so more shots at it. The Pistons have had it already. The Celtics want it so bad it hurts. That alone counts for something.
Another good reason is simply Kevin Garnett. The guy gets amped putting his socks on. I can't wait to see him when the playoffs start. He's going to be bouncing off the walls and jumping over centers. And have you ever seen the way he looks at his teammates? He looks through you, down to the core of your being and simply wills you want it as much as he wants it. Normally I'd be worried about cliches and hyperbole, but I really don't think there's a way to overstate this. There's just no way Garnett is going to let this team lose. He won't allow it.
So what could derail it all? What is one good reason why it might not work out? I suppose there are a lot of things (a good Pistons team not the least of these) but the thing that I fear the most is injuries. It could be Ray's ankles, or KG's abominal muscles, or Paul's elbow, or some new ailment that we haven't seen yet. A younger team could play through the pain, but at a certain age, you have to be close to 100% to be effective. Ray's shots just don't fall when he doesn't have lift. Paul can't pinbal through the lane effectively if he's limping. KG's abs need to be fully healed - that's why they were so cautious bringing him back.
I don't know if this team will secure the one seed, but I think once the playoffs start, this team has every bit as good a chance to win it all as any other team out there. And they want it more than most teams, so I think that gives them an edge.
Great questions and answers. Thanks again. Best of luck (against every other team) and take care.