Hamilton Leads Listless Detroit to Game One Win Over ClevelandThe Cleveland Cavaliers led by as many as nine points but the Detroit Pistons relied on Richard Hamilton's midrange shooting plus some clutch fourth quarter plays to escape with a 79-76 victory. Hamilton finished with a game-high 24 points on 11-21 shooting, adding seven assists. Rasheed Wallace had an excellent all-around game, contributing 15 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots, doing his part to make up for the departed Ben Wallace. Chauncey Billups seemed out of sorts for most of the game, turning the ball over seven times while having just 13 points and five assists but he scored ten of those points in the fourth quarter, including a big three pointer with 1:52 left that gave the Pistons the lead for good. Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 22 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, while Larry Hughes and Anderson Varejao had 13 points each. LeBron James scored a career playoff-low 10 points on 5-15 shooting but he had 10 rebounds, nine assists, four steals and only two turnovers. He did not attempt a free throw or a three point shot; the latter is a good thing for Cleveland and the former is an oddity, to say the least, considering that James is one of the best players in the league at earning free throw attempts.
If the Pistons have in fact learned to not take teams for granted and to play hard for an entire game it was certainly difficult to tell during most of this game. Cleveland took a 10-5 lead by the 8:45 mark of the first quarter and did not trail until the third quarter. The Pistons shot themselves in the foot by allowing Cleveland to feast on the offensive glass and by committing a lot of turnovers. Cleveland outscored Detroit 24-19 in the first quarter and led 41-35 at halftime. The only thing that kept Detroit in the game in the first half was Hamilton, who scored 15 points. James scored a 2007 playoff-low four first half points on 2-7 shooting but he had six rebounds and three assists. Billups had a disastrous first half: three points on 1-3 shooting while committing four turnovers.
Apparently, Detroit confused Cleveland with their first round opponent, Orlando, a team that the Pistons only had to play hard against for about five minutes a game. Detroit opened the third quarter with a 7-0 run to take a 42-41 lead but after that the quarter was played to a 14-14 standstill; Detroit led 56-55 going into the fourth quarter. Cleveland began the final stanza with a 6-2 run to take a 61-58 lead with 9:28 left. Detroit went four minutes without making a field goal and Cleveland led 64-60 after a Sasha Pavlovic three pointer. That turned out to be the biggest fourth quarter lead that either team would enjoy. Detroit answered with an 11-4 run to go up 71-68 but Ilgauskas scored the Cavaliers' next eight points and Cleveland led 76-75 at the 2:08 mark. Cleveland had a big defensive breakdown on the next possession, sending three players at a driving Hamilton, who swung the ball to Tayshaun Prince, who passed to Billups for a wide open three pointer that proved to be the game winning shot, though there was still 1:52 left in the game.
What happened after Billups' three pointer has already been the subject of much discussion and analysis. James and Hamilton traded missed jump shots and then Hughes missed a wild shot but stole the ball from Billups. Cleveland called a timeout with :36 left and then ran a play for Ilgauskas to shoot a jumper, one of the Cavaliers' pet plays and a shot that Ilgauskas made repeatedly during this game. He missed but Hughes got the offensive rebound, a play that Detroit Coach Flip Saunders later termed a missed block out assignment by Billups. The Cavaliers called another timeout and brought in Donyell Marshall, who had scorched the Nets with his three point shooting to close out that series. James got the ball at the top of the key, went away from a pick to avoid being trapped and drove hard to the left side of the hoop. He seemed to have half a step on Prince, but Rasheed Wallace came over from the right baseline and James fired a bullet pass to a wide open Marshall, who missed the potentially game winning three point shot. Billups got the rebound and finished the scoring by making one of two free throws with two seconds left. Cleveland had no timeouts remaining, so Varejao had no choice but to fire a desperation three quarter court heave. In his postgame press conference, Saunders said simply, "We dodged one."
After the game, TNT's Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith each criticized James for not shooting more often during the game and for passing the ball to Marshall on Cleveland's final possession. Barkley said that in an end of the game situation like that he only saw himself and the rim and would not pass to anybody. Smith acknowledged that James' pass did result in a wide open shot but he agreed that James should have attempted a layup. Johnson added with a laugh that James has to learn when to be like Michael Jordan (i.e., look to shoot) and when to be like him (i.e., look to pass). Ernie Johnson asked if James should be cut some slack based on his youth but Magic firmly said, "No," noting that this is James' fourth year. Magic said that he was willing to give James the benefit of the doubt in his first three seasons but that he has been around long enough to make the right decisions now.
I respect the collective knowledge of TNT's studio analysts but I think that they are wrong in this instance. For one thing, Hamilton admitted that the Pistons messed up on the play in question: "We made a mistake allowing Donyell to get a wide open three point shot." Flipping the dial, NBA TV's Fred Carter mentioned the first thing that I thought of when Marshall's shot was in the air: Wallace made the exact same mistake in the 2005 NBA Finals versus the Spurs and Robert Horry made a game winning three pointer that probably cost the Pistons a second NBA title. So how can James' decision to pass be wrong when the Pistons were in the exact same wrong defense that hurt them two years ago? If Marshall had made the shot then the Pistons may have lost the game and homecourt advantage and we would all be talking about Wallace's bonehead move. Wallace, for his part, said that he was not even trying to double-team James but was simply coming in to get the rebound because Hughes had snuck in and gotten an offensive rebound on the previous play. He seemed amazed that James found an angle around the long-armed Prince and was able to deliver such a good pass to Marshall.
On ESPN's NBA Fastbreak, Allan Houston agreed with James' decision to pass to Marshall, apparently referring to TNT's analysis when he said that James seems to be receiving what he called "unfair criticism" and concluding, "Sometimes it just comes down to making or missing."
James offered this explanation during his postgame press conference: "The winning play if two guys go at you is to give it up--simple as that." He also rejected the idea that he should have shot more often during the course of the game: "It's not about taking a high volume of shots. It's about trying to win the basketball game. You got to take what's there and we had an opportunity to win with me taking three shots in the fourth quarter. My game is not sold on taking a lot of shots. I'm going to continue to say that and that's the only answer I can give you."
Barkley said something very interesting: James is the best player on the court but he passes the ball too much to players who are clearly inferior. If Magic or Jordan had felt that way then they would never have passed to anybody (other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Magic's case) and if Barkley really feels that way then he should be on board with Kobe Bryant shooting 60-70 times a game. I mean, if a great player should not pass the ball to lesser players then I cannot understand why anyone would ever question Bryant's shot selection. When Jordan passed to Bill Wennington (at the end of Jordan's 55 point game versus the Knicks during his first comeback) or Steve Kerr (against the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals) did he not know that he is supposed to take every shot?
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash all say the same thing regarding the choice to shoot or pass: they read the defense and take what is there. It is simply fascinating to see how the pundits react to each of these players. Bryant is a three-time champion who is generally criticized for shooting too much. This was James' first ever game at the Conference Finals level and the knock against him is that he passes too much. Supposedly, Bryant is selfish but James lacks Bryant's killer instinct. The funny thing about this is that Bryant and James had virtually identical numbers last year in seventh game losses: Bryant was accused of "quitting" because he shot infrequently in the second half, while not much was said about James' lack of second half shot attempts. I've always felt that Bryant is the only player about whom a referendum is held after every play to evaluate whether he is either being "selfish" or "quitting" but perhaps James is moving up to Bryant's level in this regard. Meanwhile, two-time MVP Nash recently shot 1-8 in the fourth quarter of a playoff game that his team lost. Why is that not called "selfish"? When he hardly shot the ball at all in the first half of the next game, an elimination game which his team lost, was he "quitting"?
During the 1991 NBA Finals, Chicago Coach Phil Jackson called a late game timeout to pointedly ask Michael Jordan, "Who's open?" Jackson repeated that a couple times before Jordan acknowledged that it was John Paxson. Jordan then passed the ball to Paxson several times down the stretch, Paxson made the jumpers and Jordan's Bulls won the first of six titles. Ironically, that happened against the same Magic Johnson who is now saying that James passes too much. Are we to believe that the final step in Jordan's development was to learn to trust his teammates but that the final step in James' development is to not trust his teammates? The simple truth is that a superstar needs help to become a champion. Bryant is the best player in the NBA but when he is double-teamed, gives up the ball and no one can make a shot then his Lakers are going to lose. Nash is a great player but he cannot take over a game as a scorer, cannot guard the great players at his position and cannot lead a team to a title simply by being a passer; if great playmaking was the most important element to winning championships then John Stockton probably would have won at least one championship. Bob Cousy did not win a championship until Bill Russell came along. Oscar Robertson did not win a title until he played with Abdul-Jabbar. Magic won five titles but he also played with Abdul-Jabbar and Magic was a much more complete and dominant player than Nash is.
James is more willing to give up the ball at this stage of his career than Jordan was and has shown that he will continue to do so even if his teammates do not make shots. It's so funny that Bryant gets criticized for not passing to his subpar teammates yet James is criticized for continuing to do so. There is only one real solution for Bryant and for James: hope that their teams' respective managements surround them with players who are willing and able to step up to the challenge. Otherwise, neither player will win a title and both players will be subject to criticism whether they shoot 15 times or 30 (the other solution would be to figure out how Nash is able to get more accolades than either of them but completely avoid any criticism when his team--much more talented that Bryant's Lakers or James' Cavaliers--does not make it to the Finals).
Cleveland's roster does not look like that of a championship team. Coach Mike Brown's offense is frequently criticized. James supposedly does not know when to pass and when to shoot. Yet, the Cavaliers have shown steady improvement during James' career, an upward movement that has accelerated since Brown's arrival. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and in Game One they nearly beat a veteran team that has been in this round for five straight years. There is no reason to think that Cleveland cannot win Game Two to earn a split; certainly there is every reason to expect, based on what we saw on Monday, that this will be a hard fought and closely contested series. Barkley said that Cleveland cannot beat Detroit with James passing this much but that is a strange remark considering that Cleveland was one missed shot away from winning this game. If critical attention should be focused anywhere shouldn't it be directed toward Detroit? If Cleveland is so subpar and James so clueless then how come the Pistons' fate hinged on whether or not Marshall made a wide open three pointer after Detroit blew a defensive coverage that surely had just been talked about in the previous timeout? Should a game between a supposedly great team like Detroit and a supposedly flawed team like Cleveland come down to one final shot?
posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM