This year you can expect more of the same: a lot of close, low-scoring, grind it out games from two defense-first teams. If you are a real basketball fan, you know this is the kind of b-ball that gets you deep into the playoffs. Unfortunately, I think the Piston's more sophisticated offense is going to be the difference maker here, and my official prediction is Pistons in seven games. However, I would like to point out that I think the Cavs, who have the best player on the floor in LeBron James, could prove me and many of the experts at ESPN wrong. Remember, the Pistons won only three more games than the Cavs this season. Naturally the home court advantage in a series like this is a big factor, just as it was last year, when the Cavs were stuffed in Detroit after frittering away game six in Cleveland.
Keys to the Cavs winning this series: obviously they need to maintain their defensive intensity. This shouldn't be difficult, with the Cavs are playing perhaps the best defense in the history of the franchise. Still, the Pistons have many more weapons than the Nets, so the Cavs have their work cut out for them. On offense, the Cavs need more of what we saw in game six of the semi-finals. More passing, more lineup changes, and more of LeBron attacking the defense. Look for Larry Hughes to be more aggressive too, or else you can expect to see more of Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones, who can at least stroke the jumpers that Hughes has been clanging. Overall, more Cavaliers getting touches will keep the Pistons honest.
Cavs X-factor 1: Age. The Pistons have a lot of dinosaurs on this team, lot of creaky knees slowing them down, especially in the frontcourt. It was a huge factor last year in the ECFs against Miami, when Detroit has nothing left in the tank after the semis.
Cavs X-factor 2: No Ben Wallace. Chris Webber is infinitely softer on D than Wallace was, which should make things easier for Z in terms of hitting the offensive glass and scoring.
Player by player analysis:
PG: Larry Hughes vs. Chauncey Billups. Last year the Cavs did a good job exposing Billups' weakness: driving to the hoop. Larry can't give him any seams to shoot his clutch jumper. On defense, Larry can't let Billups off the hook by taking and missing a lot of jumpers. Take him off the dribble! Advantage: Billups.
SG: Sasha Pavlovic vs. Richard Hamilton. Sasha is going to get a real test here, a much bigger test than Vince Carter was. Hamilton is constant motion and is one of the craftiest scorers in the league. Sasha needs to keep his eye on him at all times. Advantage: Hamilton.
SF: LeBron James vs. Tayshaun Prince. Tayshaun has been one of the more successful players in the league at guarding LeBron, although LeBron seems to have solved him in more recent times. LeBron must again be aware of all the help defense he is going to be seeing. If he stays intense, Prince will not be a scoring threat. Advantage: LeBron.
PF: Drew Gooden vs. Rasheed Wallace. Drew needs to keep Wallace from killing the Cavs with three pointers, as he has done so many times before. Be active and aggressive on the boards and try to get Wallace into foul trouble, or better, technical foul trouble. If Gooden uses his energy, he can take advantage of Wallace's age. Advantage: even.
C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. Chris Webber. This matchup could be Cavs' ace in the hole. Webber's career is one playoff meltdown after another. At this point Z is the better scorer and rebounder, though Webber's true strength is his passing. Advantage: even.
Bench: Cavs have the true 6th man of the year in Anderson Varejao. Pistons counter with Antonio McDyess, who has killed the Cavs. Cavs shooters include the three "Ds" Daniel Gibson, Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, all of whom can get hot at any time. Pistons have only the ancient Lindsey Hunter to bomb off the bench. Otherwise, Carlos Delfino and Ronald Murray are the only other non-starters getting more than 10 MPG in the playoffs. This bench, also featuring Dale Davis is old and unimpressive. On the other hand, look for Eric Snow to really ground the Cavs' offense at times. Advantage: Cavs.
Coach: Mike Brown has had a lot of early success, and this series will be the biggest one yet. Has a team of scorers convinced they should play defense first. He must prove he can improvise on offense as he did in game 6 against New Jersey. Flip Saunders has proven nothing with a crew that had been to the finals twice before he arrived. Still, these are two competent coaches who will be well-prepared. Advantage: even.
In the West: With the runners and gunners duly eliminated, two real teams remain standing in the west. While I respect coach Sloan and believe he has a lot of talent on his roster, the Spurs' experience is going to prevail in this one. Spurs win 4-2.