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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Rasheed's Play Speaks Volumes as the Pistons Force a Game Seven Showdown with the Cavaliers

LeBron James is about to confront another new challenge in his young playoff career: playing a game seven on the road against the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions. The Detroit Pistons beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 84-82 before a sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night. The Cleveland faithful were loud and raucous for most of the game but quieted to stunned silence at the final buzzer. James led both teams with 32 points and 11 rebounds while adding five assists, but he also had seven turnovers and shot 8-20 from the field. Rasheed Wallace's words have overshadowed his play for most of the series but he came up with a big performance in game six, scoring 24 points on 9-17 shooting from the field, including 4-8 marksmanship on three pointers.

The Pistons looked shaky early in the game, committing three turnovers in the first 4:34 of the first quarter. They trailed 13-6 at that point and Cleveland seemed poised to take a double digit lead. Instead, the Cavaliers only scored six points in the next 7:26, enabling Detroit to take a 20-19 lead by the end of the period. A lot of attention will no doubt be paid to the last minute of the game--and the Cavaliers certainly had opportunities at that time as well--but in a very real sense the game was lost in the first quarter. Both teams felt pressure--Detroit faced elimination, while Cleveland wanted to avoid playing a game seven on the road--but if Cleveland had taken a big early lead then the pressure would have tilted squarely against Detroit for the remainder of the game. Instead, the contest stayed close the rest of the way, favoring the Pistons because they have much more experience dealing with closely contested elimination games.

The first half box score vividly illustrates the opportunity that Cleveland squandered. The Cavaliers attempted 10 more shots than the Pistons in the first half, largely because of a 7-1 edge in offensive rebounds, but Cleveland nullified this advantage by shooting only .400 from the field compared to the Pistons' .500. James shot only 2-8 and Flip Murray made only 1-9, so Cleveland trailed 38-37 instead of being up by several points. Detroit reserve forward Antonio McDyess shot 3-5 in the first half, scoring seven points in only 6:42 of playing time.

The Cavaliers unraveled in the fourth quarter, attempting only eight field goals compared to 21 for the Pistons. Cleveland did have a 16-10 edge in free throw attempts, largely because of James (10-12 from the line in the period). The Cavaliers had five turnovers in the period compared to only one for Detroit. James had four of the turnovers, some of them coming when he drove into traffic and was forced into a spin move by the first defender, enabling a second defender to strip him of the ball. Detroit was justly accused of being tight during the past three games. Were the Cavs tight in the fourth quarter? Rasheed Wallace said, "I don't think they were playing really tight or nothing but I know that the only cat that wanted to shoot was LeBron, so you take it for what it's worth." Wallace added that he did not feel that the win vindicated his earlier "guaran-Sheed" because he's been making predictions since high school: "Can't be right with them all the time but that's just the confidence level I have with myself and my teammates."

Detroit had an astounding eight offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, including three in the final minute when the Pistons were clinging to a one possession lead. Chauncey Billups recovered from a horrible first half (2 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 0-3 field goal shooting) to score 10 points on 2-3 field goal shooting and 6-7 free throw shooting in the fourth quarter; he also had two steals, one assist and no turnovers in the final stanza.

Cleveland sports fans will agonize over the events that transpired in the final minute of play, particularly if Detroit wins game seven. In addition to giving up so many offensive rebounds the Cavaliers also employed some questionable clock management. James rebounded a missed free throw by Billups with 8.8 seconds left and the Cavaliers trailing 84-81. Cleveland had one timeout left, but James drove down court, got double-teamed and was fouled before he could pass the ball to an open three point shooter. By that time only 1.4 seconds remained, so James made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second, hoping for a tying tip-in at the buzzer--which almost happened.

In the postgame media availability, the Cavaliers did not have their story straight about what happened. Coach Mike Brown said that since Cleveland only had one timeout left that he had instructed the team during the previous timeout that if they got a rebound they should push the ball, get a quick score and immediately foul. Then, they could use the timeout to advance the ball after the free throws, giving themselves the last possession of the game. That sounds good in theory, but it would seem to make more sense to call the timeout and set up a play for a tying shot, rather than risking dribbling out the clock without getting off a good shot, which is basically what happened. Also, when James spoke (after Coach Brown had left), he admitted that he had not realized that Cleveland still had a timeout left. Again, as I mentioned above, it is more true to say that the game was lost in the first quarter (or even the first half) than to say it hinged on the last minute, but the last minute was hardly a shining moment for Cleveland.

Of course, whether the game was lost early or lost late there is nothing that can be done about it now. James usually seems to know what to do on the court and what to say off of it and he put the whole game in perspective as well as anyone possibly could: "It's over and done with. It's time for game seven now."

Notes from Courtside:

Cleveland shooting guard Larry Hughes, who had missed the previous three games while mourning the death of his 20 year old brother Justin, caught a 9 A.M. flight from St. Louis to Cleveland and dressed for the game. He did not play, as both he and Coach Brown felt that it would be better to get him back in the swing of things gradually and for Hughes to have at least one practice under his belt before returning to action. It is not certain if he will play in Sunday's game seven. Hughes met briefly with the media before the game. A couple days ago he had two tears tattooed underneath his left eye. Hughes explained that he has a lot of tattoos and that he uses them to express the emotions that he is feeling.

Veteran Chicago Tribune basketball columnist Sam Smith was covering the Suns-Clippers series before the Cavaliers won three straight games. He was not thrilled about trading L.A./Phoenix weather for Cleveland weather. While we waited for LeBron James to emerge from the locker room for his pregame media availability, I joked that it was all James' fault and that Smith should say something to him about it. Smith laughed but replied that he placed more of the blame on the Pistons for playing down to their competition.

During Thursday night's ESPN NBA telecast, Scottie Pippen declared that LeBron James is a better player at the age of 21 than Michael Jordan was at the same age--pretty heady praise coming from a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list who won six championships playing alongside Jordan. Before Friday's game, I asked James what he thought of Pippen's statement. James answered, "I just go out and play. I can't start comparing myself to the greatest basketball player ever--what he was doing at 21 and what I'm doing at 21. I don't get into that, but that's a great compliment."

posted by David Friedman @ 4:36 AM



At Saturday, May 20, 2006 5:25:00 PM, Blogger Ran Flash said...

Rasheed played good, the Cavs blew it, and the game was truly lost in the first half. I agree with all of that.

However, Rasheed was the reason that the Cavaliers still had a chance at winning this ball game.

Not only did he miss both shots at the line earlier in the game, but he also missed both shots at the line at the very end when it mattered most. If the Cavs get that free throw rebound - it's a different ball game.

In addition... Rasheed missed two threes in the final two minutes, both with 8 seconds left on the shot clock and the Pistons holding on to a two point lead. With the game as close as it is, you should run the clock down more and take the ball to the basket. If the Cavs get either of those rebounds - once again - it's a different ball game.

Game 7 in Detroit. Yet again, nobody expects the Cavaliers to win. This could be HUGE.

At Sunday, May 21, 2006 3:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sheed did struggle with his free throws. I noticed during pre-game warmups that he was really favoring the injured ankle. Everytime he took a shot, he landed much more heavily on the healthy ankle and when he shot free throws he had very little flexion in the injured ankle. I'm surprised he shot as well as he did in the game; either the training staff did a great job loosening him up or adrenalin kicked in. From my own limited playing experience, when you have a sprained ankle it's almost easier to shoot threes than free throws because you can at least jump off your good leg and get some power. With the free throw you are standing still and if you can't flex your bad foot then your whole rhythm can be thrown off. On the other hand, Sheed's been shooting his free throws poorly all playoffs, so maybe he is just spending too much time around Ben Wallace.

As for the missed shots by Sheed, I disagree with you slightly. I checked the play by play sheet--he missed one three at the 48.9 second mark (his other missed three in the quarter came at the 7:13 mark) and then a 14 foot jump shot at the 25.9 second mark. Sheed is not a driver even when healthy--his game is strictly on the block or shooting spot up jumpers. The missed three at 48.9 came in rhythm after a screen and roll as part of their normal offense. You shoot such open shots when you can get them in the NBA. If you pass up such a shot, even with 8 or 9 seconds on the shot clock, you will likely end up with a worse shot or a shot clock violation. Passing up an open shot is just as bad as taking a bad shot, in my opinion. The Lakers do this all the time, which is part of the reason Kobe ends up taking so many "bad" shots with the shot clock winding down.

The shot that Sheed missed at 25.9 was a turnaround from the left baseline with about five seconds on the shot clock. That is a normal move for him and it is an unblockable shot. He missed it that time, but that is the shot that Detroit wanted and in that instance they did run the shot clock down pretty far. In the NBA you cannot just stall, particularly with only a 2 point lead. You have to shoot and it is better to get off a good shot by one of your better players than to focus entirely on running the clock down.

You are of course correct that if the Cavs rebounded either of those misses then it could have been a different ball game. My point is that all of that could have been avoided if the Cavs would simply have built on the momentum they had in the opening minutes of the game. Detroit had to have come into the game with some doubt after losing three straight and if the Pistons would have trailed by 10 or 12 after one it would have been interesting to see how they responded. A seven point lead four or five minutes in is not enough to rattle Detroit because the Pistons know that it is still very early in the game. Cleveland needed to push that lead out to really plant doubt in Detroit's mind.

I'm sure that LeBron believes that Cleveland can win game seven. The question is whether he can convince enough of his teammates to believe. As I've said here before, game sevens on the road are death in the NBA. In the past, only veteran laden, championship caliber teams have won such games (Olajuwon's Rockets, Dr. J's Sixers come to mind). There will be three game sevens in this round and the home team in each case is the team that I picked to win the series before the round started. I see no reason to deviate from those selections.


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