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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Put Away the Brooms, Detroit

LeBron James had the second triple double of his brief playoff career (21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 86-77 victory over the Detroit Pistons in game three of their playoff series. The fourth straight sellout crowd for a playoff game at Quicken Loans Arena cheered wildly as James and Anderson Varejao (16 points on 6-7 shooting from the field) propelled the Cavs to the win despite the absence of starting shooting guard Larry Hughes, who is away from the team to attend the funeral of his brother. Rip Hamilton had 22 points and five assists for Detroit and Chauncey Billups scored 20 points with five assists.

The third game of a playoff series is often an important "swing" game. If one team goes up 3-0 then the series is over--no NBA team has ever come back from that deficit--but if the series stands at 2-1 after the third game then the series is as mathematically close as it could be at that point. It doesn't matter if the teams alternated victories or if one team took two games in a row. So a team that is up 2-0 has an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series, while a team that is down by that margin knows that it is in a do-or-die situation. Ultimately, James and the Cavs responded well to this pressure, although it hardly seemed that way for a good portion of the game. The Pistons came out flat, making only 5 of their first 14 shots of the game, but the Cavs did not take advantage of this opportunity, only leading 14-13 at that point. Detroit's shooting improved greatly in the second quarter and the Pistons took a 42-36 halftime lead. James shot 2-7 from the field in the first half and had four points, seven assists and five rebounds at intermission.

The Pistons took their biggest lead of the game, 54-44, at the 5:48 mark in the third quarter. The Cavaliers' hopes were on life support by that time, but they closed the quarter strongly with two field goals by Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a three pointer by Flip Murray to trail 56-53 heading into the fourth quarter. The final period is when elite players show their stuff and James put on a clinic, pouring in 15 points on 6-8 shooting and dishing off three assists, as the Cavaliers outscored Detroit 33-21. James had shot just 3-10 from the field in the first three quarters but he truly saved his best for last.

After the game, James rejected the idea that he consciously spent the first three quarters of the game getting his teammates involved before actively taking over in the fourth quarter: "I don't plan what I'm going to do before the game. I just react to the game. If I'm doubled, I give the ball up. That's been my motto all year and it's been my motto all my life since I've been playing basketball. But I saw some creases that I could attack in the fourth quarter to give ourselves a chance to win the ballgame."

James was especially proud that Cleveland held Detroit to 28 field goals and a .394 field goal percentage; those were the two statistics that he felt were the keys to victory. He understood the importance of this game; in his comments to the assembled media both before and after the game he stressed that there was no way that Cleveland could fall behind 3-0 and expect to win the series. Perhaps that is obvious, but it is significant that he is thinking, talking and acting like the outcome of the series is not a foregone conclusion. Most skeptics--myself included--still expect Detroit to ultimately prevail, but James is not thinking that way. Noting how tough it was for the Cavs to get one win, a reporter asked James to talk about how daunting a task it would be for the Cavs to beat Detroit three more times to eliminate the Pistons. James responded, "Well, they have to beat us two more times. We have to beat them three more times. You don't look at it like that. You just take it game by game, minute by minute, second by second; if you looked at it like that, you'd get swept every time. The Pistons are a great team. We're becoming a good team. Monday's game is going to be very key. We can't ride on waves and be on cloud nine about game three. It's over and done with, the series is 2-1 and it's a new ball game."

A key adjustment that both James and Cavaliers' Coach Mike Brown mentioned was using Varejao with James in pick and roll plays. Varejao is very active and James noted that if the first pick doesn't work then Varejao still rolls all the way to the basket and then comes back and sets another pick from a different angle. Brown brought this up as well; this play led to several easy baskets for Varejao on assists from James.

This was a good win for Cleveland but game four will be even tougher. Detroit will come out fired up to atone for their mistakes in game three. If Detroit was overconfident or relaxed in game three, they will be focused and determined in game four. How will Cleveland respond to that kind of pressure? Do the Cavaliers have the mental and emotional wherewithal to send the series back to Detroit tied 2-2? This is an interesting stage in the development of James and his team. I expect that James will continue to play well but that Detroit will have a close win in game four.

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Notes from Courtside:

During his pregame standup, I asked Detroit Coach Flip Saunders how the Pistons would avoid having a letdown considering that they are up 2-0 and that Hughes would not be in the lineup. Saunders answered succinctly, "That's what we're going to find out." He seemed confident that Detroit would not in fact have a letdown. During warmups, Ben Wallace was launching three pointers, including several from well behind the arc, making a few but mostly chipping paint off of the rim (to borrow a phrase from Fred Carter) and Rasheed Wallace took some left handed three pointers (which he regularly shoots--and makes--in practice). The Pistons certainly seemed loose and carefree before the game.

Rip Hamilton took a more serious approach, receiving feeds from Assistant Coach Ron Harper and alternately shooting from the left wing and then the left baseline, areas that he curls to off of screens in game situations. He also shot several times from the free throw line extended on both sides.

So did Detroit come in too complacently and lose a game that they could have won? Perhaps, but Cleveland also deserves credit for fighting tooth and nail throughout the game. Despite committing more turnovers than usual and not shooting particularly well, the Pistons did build a 10 point second half lead. Many teams would have given up and lost by 25, but the Cavs hung in there. That is a mark of a team that is starting to understand what it takes to win in the playoffs against strong opponents.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM

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