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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Detroit Smothers Cleveland in Game Seven

Stop me if you've heard this here before: game sevens on the road are death. The Detroit Pistons beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 79-61 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Tayshaun Prince led a balanced Detroit attack with 20 points, while Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups chipped in with 15, 13 and 12 respectively. LeBron James had a game-high 27 points and led Cleveland with eight rebounds. Larry Hughes, returning to action for the first time since the death of his brother Justin, had a solid all-around game with 10 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. He was the only other Cavalier to reach double figures in points. He displayed great chemistry with James, feeding him a lob pass and taking care of some of the ball handling responsibilities, freeing James to attack the defense off the ball. Cleveland trailed 19-6 when Hughes first entered the game but cut the margin to 40-38 by halftime. James and Hughes should be a very formidable duo for years to come.

This was hardly an artistic win by the Pistons, who shot .426 from the field, .231 on three pointers and .563 on free throws while accumulating 11 assists and 11 turnovers. The game was there for the taking for Cleveland but the Cavaliers simply could not make a shot, producing one of the most inept offensive performances in postseason history: their 23 second half points tied the record for fewest points in a second half in playoff history; their 10 third quarter points set a franchise record for fewest points in a quarter in a playoff game; their 61 points were the third lowest total ever for a playoff game and the worst ever in a game seven. Of course, credit must be given to Detroit's defense but Cleveland also missed open shots and failed to execute their offense smoothly. Other than James, the Cavaliers shot 9-41 from the field.

Two things stand out from this game:

1) Chauncey Billups, who received heavy MVP consideration, was his team's fourth leading scorer in the biggest game of the season. He shot 4-10 from the field with eight rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. The most important defensive assignment--LeBron James--was handled at various times by Prince, Hamilton and Lindsey Hunter with a lot of double-teaming by Detroit's bigs. So, again, I ask the question: How can Billups be the MVP of the entire league when he is neither the best nor the most important player on his own team? When the Pistons need a basket, they go to Rasheed in the post, Prince in the post or Rip coming off of screens. Billups has shown a knack for hitting big shots over the years--and he made some in game six--but to even put him in the MVP discussion is ludicrous unless you are going to include all two dozen All-Stars in that talk.

2) James scored 21 points in the first half on 10-15 shooting from the field but in the second half he scored six points on 1-9 shooting. James had 1 point and shot 0-3 from the field in the third quarter. Do those numbers have a familiar ring to them? They should, because in his much criticized game seven performance versus Phoenix, Kobe Bryant scored 23 first half points on 8-13 field goal shooting. He also scored 1 third quarter point on 0-3 shooting. LeBron finished with two assists and Kobe had one assist. Basically, they played the same offensive game and obtained the same result--a blowout loss on the road in game seven. Yet I would be willing to bet that no one is going to accuse LeBron of being selfish or quitting or pouting--and don't tell me that this was different because the game was close for a longer stretch of time or that LeBron was being more aggressive than Kobe. LeBron's "aggressiveness" in the second half consisted of taking forced jumpers, committing offensive fouls and attempting off balance drives; it was not a productive aggressiveness. What happened in both game sevens to these superstars is very simple: their teammates did not meet the challenge of playing in a game seven. Neither Kobe nor LeBron could accumulate assists because none of their teammates could make a shot. Their teammates were so inept that the other team could double-team them at will and then send even more defenders once they put the ball on the floor. Kobe did the best that he could to carry his team to a game seven and then to give his team the best chance to win that game seven--and so did LeBron. The question is why will these two performances be written about and discussed in such different terms. The answer is simple: a lot of people don't like Kobe--they are "haters" and whether Kobe shoots 30 times or 3 they will always criticize him.

Near the end of the season, I wrote an article for ProBasketballNews.com in which I said that Kobe should be voted MVP; I ranked LeBron fifth "with a bullet" at that time. I would move LeBron up to number two after seeing him perform in the playoffs. He is still not good enough defensively to be placed ahead of Kobe. During the ABC telecast of game seven, Hubie Brown repeatedly pointed out that Tayshaun Prince was the one Detroit player who consistently met or exceeded his regular season performance throughout the series. Prince had a superb game seven and he played 47 minutes--which is nothing new for him since he led Detroit in minutes played during the series. Well, who had the primary defensive responsibility on Prince? LeBron James. There was a beautiful play in the second half when Hamilton came off of a baseline screen and received a pass in the lane; LeBron turned his head and Prince cut to the basket, drawing a foul. LeBron's on ball defense has improved a lot and he uses his athleticism to get steals and blocked shots in the open court but his off the ball defense is still not at a championship level. I am sure that he will improve in this area. In one of the post-game press conferences during this series, LeBron talked about not listening to what Charles Barkley or other critics say about his game--but he then listed some of what has been said about him, showing that he is indeed aware of his shortcomings and has worked hard to eliminate them. If their teams improve their rosters just a little bit, Kobe and LeBron will be battling for MVP trophies and championships for years to come.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 PM

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