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LAST FRIDAY the Detroit Pistons were as content as any NBA team can be at this time of year. Not only had they reached the conference finals for the sixth straight season—the longest such streak since Magic Johnson's run with the Los Angeles Lakers from 1982 through '89—but they also had completed their second-round series more quickly than any rival, having finished off the Orlando Magic three days earlier in five games. The playoff-savvy Pistons have learned to enjoy these respites, and so after their workout at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Joe Dumars recounted all of his Eastern Conference finals with Detroit, first as a player and now as president of basketball operations (a total of 11). Coach Flip Saunders showed off photos of his 16-year-old twins performing ballet, Rachel and Kimberly captured in mid-leap ("Now, here are athletes," he said proudly) much like the famous silhouette of Michael Jordan predunk.
Lingering on the practice court was forward Tayshaun Prince, who has had more to do with Detroit's playoff success this season than any other Piston. He has elevated his game since the regular season, averaging 16.0 points and 6.2 rebounds and shooting 56.2% from the field (second on the team in all three categories) through the first two rounds while playing the most minutes of any player on the club. "I've been in a great situation here the first six years of my career," said Prince, who through Sunday had already played in more postseason games (108) than any other player ever had in his first six seasons. "When you're happy, everything else is going to take care of itself."
The sight of a relaxed Prince, seated on the padded base of a basket stanchion, spoke to the Pistons' general state of mind, which was in contrast to the high anxiety of the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were still battling in the other conference semifinal. Two days later, in Game 7 at TD Banknorth Garden, Prince's counterpart on the Celtics, small forward Paul Pierce, would find himself under a basket too—flat on his back, after having been sideswiped into a TV cameraman by the Cavs' LeBron James and Sasha Pavlovic.
Pierce was midway through the biggest game of his life, with 24 points shortly before halftime, but at that moment there was fear that he was done, that this foul would ruin everything for Boston. Then Pierce gathered himself up and limped to the free throw line, hitting both shots to give his team a 12-point lead. Though a 45-point effort from James kept Cleveland in the game, it was the 41-point performance by Pierce that carried the day. His two free throws with 7.9 seconds left sealed Boston's 97--92 victory.
So what are we to make of this Boston team that had entered the playoffs as a top-seeded power (66 regular-season wins) yet barely escaped seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks and then the Cavaliers? Will the weaknesses exposed in the first two rounds—chiefly, an inconsistent offense and a sudden inability to win on the road—prove to be more costly against second-seeded Detroit? Or will winning two Game 7s give the Celtics more confidence and enough experience in the crunch to knock off the Pistons?
THE ANSWERS were to start coming on Tuesday, when Game 1 was scheduled in Boston, and the matchup that will most likely determine which team advances to the NBA Finals is Prince versus Pierce. Prince, 28, is a versatile playmaker, and Pierce, 30, is the more celebrated scorer. Over the last year each has taken a step to become more like the other—Prince improving as a scorer, Pierce as a defender—though they have little in common physically: The 6'7", 235-pound Pierce has the thick torso of a pole vaulter, while Prince (6'9", 215) is built like the pole. Thus will the matchup come down to Pierce's strength against Prince's length.
"Whenever [ Prince] has success against those guys," says Dumars, referring to his player's defensive battles against physically intimidating scorers such as Pierce, "it's when he doesn't allow them to get their bodies on him. When they're going at Tay and—boom!—there's body contact, I know they're going to win that play. Come back down again, and now Tayshaun keeps spacing, spacing, spacing, and they can't get the body on him, I know he's going to win that play."
On Sunday, Pierce restored aggressiveness and hierarchy to the beleaguered Celtics offense by consistently driving to the basket through Cleveland's soft double teams and drilling difficult fall-away jumpers when the Cavs came at him hard. Boston had been in a scoring funk primarily because forward Kevin Garnett had supplanted Pierce as the go-to scorer, when, in fact, the Celtics are most dangerous when the offense runs through KG as a playmaker and secondary scorer. Should the third member of Boston's Big Three, guard Ray Allen (12.7 scoring average on 38.5% shooting in the first two playoff rounds), have a Pierce-like return to form, the Celtics' attack would be back on track. "I don't worry about the fatigue," coach Doc Rivers says of his team's fully extended playoffs. "Hell, these are conditioned athletes, they're not tired. Going through this thing twice has to be a positive to our team. It just has to."
AFTER BEING upset in the conference finals each of the last two years, the Pistons appeared to be worn down and without inspiration, as if they knew each other too well. Dumars and Saunders agreed that two things had to change: 1) They committed to featuring the younger guys on their bench, especially explosive third-year forward Jason Maxiell and rookie guard Rodney Stuckey, to energize the team's play and reduce the starters' minutes; and 2) they needed a stronger performance from Prince, who was known mostly for his All-Defensive skills. "At the beginning of the season I said to Tayshaun, 'You have to be the guy who raises your level of play, because you're that guy [among the starters] who has the most room to grow,'" says Dumars. "In years past when we said, 'Tayshaun, we need it,' he'd step up and do it. Now you don't even say anything to him."
As one of the starters who played fewer minutes during the regular season by design, Prince averaged a four-year low of 13.2 points in helping the Pistons win 59 games and their fourth straight Central Division title. But his production increased in the playoffs as he dominated important matchups against the Philadelphia 76ers' Andre Iguodala and the Magic's Hedo Turkoglu, snuffing out pivotal drives to the basket by Turkoglu in the closing seconds of Games 4 and 5. Far more impressive was Prince's assertiveness when the ball came his way late in Game 4 in Orlando, with the Pistons trailing by one and point guard Chauncey Billups sidelined by a strained right hamstring. "He is the best decision maker we have," Dumars says of Prince. "When it ended up in his hands, I felt something good was going to come out of it." Prince drove into the paint and hit a delicate lefthanded runner for the victory.