Coach Doc Rivers saw his Celtics play an almost-flawless first half in Game 3. His team got a championship performance from its starters and its bench in Boston's most important and most impressive win of the playoffs thus far. Detroit countered with its most disappointing showing of the playoffs, throwing away the momentum it had built and resurrecting those same old doubts about its focus and emotional consistency.
The Celtics got swarming, physical, aggressive defense in the half court, and their rotations and double-teams in Game 3 were quick and synchronized. All five defenders moved as a unit, and Detroit could not make easy baskets all night.
Offensively, the Celtics pushed the tempo, shared the ball and hit the open man. Boston started the game with all five of its starters scoring the first five baskets. The bench kept things going, as nine different Celtics scored in the first quarter.
Boston's defense suffocated the Pistons in the half court. As we anticipated in our Game 3 report, the Celtics were much better in their rotations to the Pistons' screeners after Richard Hamilton cleared on the cut -- getting to Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace more quickly to contest their jump shots.
Kevin Garnett was in McDyess' face on the first possession after Hamilton curled and kicked back to McDyess on the baseline, and Celtics defenders consistently contested every jump shot the Pistons took.
Boston was much more physical with Hamilton, as Ray Allen chested Hamilton on his cuts, bumped him off his routes and denied Rip the easy catch. Paul Pierce also took Tayshaun Prince completely out of his offensive game, jamming him on cuts and not giving an inch on Prince's attempted back-downs in the post.
Detroit must make some major adjustments to its offensive attack in Game 4. Its spacing was awful in Game 3; many possessions resulted in seven or eight players jammed inside the foul line. Boston clogged up everything in the lane, and Detroit assisted that logjam by trying to run its offense from inside 15 feet.
In Game 3, the Pistons completely abandoned two staples of their half-court offense -- their high ball-screen action with Wallace and Chauncey Billups, and their pinch-post sets with Prince at the point. Both of these sets create better spacing and different looks, so expect Detroit to get back to this action in Game 4.
Concern about Billups' hamstring injury has returned, especially because he did not look to attack or score in the first half of Game 3. He was passive on ball screens, passed up wide-open shots, and even failed to attack Rajon Rondo when Rondo had lost a shoe at the other end. Something isn't right with Billups, and the Pistons can't win without his aggressive playing in Game 4. Because Rodney Stuckey is playing well, look for coach Flip Saunders to go to him early if Billups isn't himself.
The Pistons desperately need Wallace to be a more consistent low-post presence in Game 4. Wallace has been content to play a supporting offensive role thus far, but the Pistons need him to demand the ball and force the action. Look for Detroit to establish him early as a first option in the half court in Game 4.
Detroit was mysteriously lost defensively in Game 3. The Pistons lost track of open men, failed to get to shooters and committed costly fouls. Kendrick Perkins roamed free as Wallace and McDyess failed to communicate in transition. Jason Maxiell, Lindsey Hunter and Stuckey all committed silly fouls, too, when they bought shot fakes, then jumped into the shooter.
The excessive fouling just killed the Pistons in Game 3, so expect the Pistons' defenders to stay better disciplined in Game 4, staying under control to contest shots. Also expect more aggressive, vocal communication -- which the Pistons did not show at all in Game 3. The team defense from the Pistons will be better in Game 4.
Detroit normally forces and funnels drives to the baseline and toward the corner, but in Game 3, Boston's ball handlers seemed to dribble at will into the middle and into the lane on almost every possession. In Game 4, look for the Pistons to play much more aggressively on the inside shoulder of the driver -- taking away the middle.
As expected, Garnett was much more aggressive in the low post in Game 3. With Detroit not doubling down, Garnett and Perkins were able to play one-on-one and score inside. Look for more of the same from the Celtics in Game 4, and expect Detroit to contest the entry pass much harder or to bring a double-team as soon as Garnett starts his move.
Garnett can tend to overdo it in the post with excessive and extra moves, as he did when Maxiell blocked his shot in the first half of Game 3. Look for him to counter the Pistons with a quick spin off the back-down, or a quick step-back jumper on the face-up.
Although Pierce took only six shots, his two second-half 3-pointers put daggers in Detroit's comeback attempt. Because Perkins and Rondo played so well offensively in Game 3, Pierce did not have to force the action. Because Game 4 should be much closer, look for Pierce to have the ball in his hands much more.
Look for the Celtics to continue their flex cuts and down screens for Pierce in Game 4, in which he reads and has a choice of cutting across the lane off the baseline screen or cutting to the top off the down screen. He sent a message in Game 3 on the first possession as he started his cut, threw Prince off him and caught the pass at the basket for the dunk. Boston will run this until the Pistons prove they can stop it.
Detroit did give the Celtics trouble in the second half with its 1-2-2 half-court trap, which the Pistons went to in desperation to try to force turnovers and quick shots. In Game 4, look for Boston to attack with a wide 2-1-2 set, with either Pierce or Garnett in the middle looking to attack on the catch.
The Celtics must look for the diagonal pass from the top to the block for layups behind the trap (look for Perkins here) or look from the baseline to the opposite wing for the diagonal 3 (look for Allen and Pierce) as Detroit rotates to the basket. The Celtics must resist the urge to dribble penetrate into the trapping areas, and must use the dribble only after the ball has been rotated and defenders are running to the ball.
This should be the most aggressive and physical game in this series. Prince and Wallace should play much better, and Billups should be much more aggressive despite his hamstring issues. Both Pierce and Garnett should have big games for Boston. If the Celtics' bench steps up like it did in Game 3, the Pistons are in trouble. But Detroit owes this one to its fans, and the Pistons' faithful can expect a better performance from the home team.
PREDICTION: Pistons win Game 4
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 an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.