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Thursday, May 18, 2006

"They're Not the Big, Bad Wolf and We're Not the Three Little Pigs": LeBron James and the Cavaliers Stun Detroit in Game Five

LeBron James made the above storybook reference moments after his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Detroit Pistons 86-84 at the Palace of Auburn Hills to take a shocking 3-2 lead in their second round series. James had 32 points, five rebounds and five assists, while Tayshaun Prince led the Pistons with 21 points while also adding eight rebounds and two blocked shots. Detroit, which won an NBA-best 64 regular season games, has lost three straight to the Cavaliers and now must win two in a row to avoid being eliminated from the playoffs. James' quote is a fitting way to describe Cleveland's rise off of the mat after losing the first two games at the Palace and summarizes the single most important factor in this series: James has never for one moment believed that Detroit should beat Cleveland--and since James is the best player on either team, his confidence has created a positive mindset among his teammates and has obviously put some doubt in the minds of the Pistons.

Detroit, a veteran team that won a championship two years ago and lost a tough seven game NBA Finals last season, has looked tight, tense and scared. The Pistons are turning the ball over, getting technical fouls and not making shots that they normally make. TNT's Kenny Smith observed a key difference between this Pistons team and the Pistons teams from the past few years: the current Pistons "think they can beat you offensively and take shots that they would not have taken" previously. All year long we have been hearing about how replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders as head coach liberated the Pistons and freed them up offensively--but now, in the most crucial games of the season, Detroit hardly looks free offensively, nor are the Pistons making the big defensive stops down the stretch that were their trademark when Brown coached the team. Charles Barkley said it best when he pointed out that the pressure is squarely on one person when the series returns to Cleveland on Friday: Flip Saunders. Larry Brown had a rough season in New York but that does not in any way diminish what he accomplished with the Pistons. Detroit certainly can still win this series--the Pistons have shown that they can win big road games and that they can come back from a deficit in a series--but nothing about Cleveland's wins has looked fluky. These have been knock down, drag out games, the type of games that are supposed to be Detroit's calling card, and yet the Cavaliers have prevailed three straight times. Rasheed Wallace, the key addition who put Detroit over the top two years ago, sprained his ankle in game four and has not looked the same since then. Detroit's combination of bluster and feigning nonchalance about the Cavs' chances looks more and more like whistling past a graveyard hoping things turn out all right.

It took Michael Jordan several tries to win a playoff series and then several more tries to beat the "Bad Boys" Pistons. Can LeBron James take a team to the Eastern Conference Finals--or beyond--in his first playoff season? One thing's for sure: he has no doubt that he can and he has convinced all of his teammates to believe as well. I'll never forget standing in the horde of media that interviewed James before his first playoff game versus Washington. His answers were a little bit more clipped than usual and he frankly admitted that he could not wait for us to go away and for the game to start. James had butterflies but in a good way--he was looking forward to facing this challenge. That is the way that he has approached each playoff game. Perhaps the most impressive thing about what he has done is that he is not surprised at his accomplishments but yet he also does not come across as arrogant. He keeps saying that Detroit is a "great team and we are becoming a good team" but it is clear that his respect for Detroit does not in any way diminish his belief that the Cavs can beat the Pistons.

The Pistons have spent most of this series running their mouths and acting like the Cavs are just a speed bump on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals--yet their nervous play during the past few games belies the indifference that they have attempted to project regarding Cleveland's chances. Now Detroit faces the very real possibility of elimination. If they were tight before--and Saunders has admitted that they were--how will they perform in game six? Detroit is used to players and teams who crumble when the Pistons turn up the pressure; the Pistons are like the neighborhood bully who relies on intimidation. LeBron James has looked them straight in the eye and delivered the message that he is just as big as they are and not scared at all. Detroit has four All-Stars but the Cavs have by far the best player on the court--and both teams know it.

One final thought: will everyone who voted for Chauncey Billups for MVP please turn in your ballots and give someone else a chance to vote? I've said it all year: I love Chauncey Billups' game and his willingness to take big shots; he's an All-Star and this year he played at an All-NBA level--but he is not even the best player on his own team (Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton are just as important, if not more so), so how can he be the MVP of the NBA?

posted by David Friedman @ 12:53 AM

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