Just Like Last Year: Cavs Beat Pistons, Tie Series at 2-2Anyone who expected the Detroit Pistons to make short work of the Cleveland Cavaliers was seriously mistaken. The Cavaliers' 91-87 Game Four victory tied the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2. Last year's second round matchup between these teams also was tied after four games, with each team "protecting" its home court. Detroit is the deeper and more experienced team but Cleveland has far and away the best player on either squad, LeBron James, and he was fantastic on Tuesday night, finishing with 25 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. He did much of his damage in the fourth quarter with the game up for grabs, producing 13 points, four rebounds and three assists while shooting 4-6 from the field and 5-5 from the free throw line. Daniel Gibson picked up the slack for a hobbled Larry Hughes, scoring a career-high 21 points while making all 12 of his free throws. Drew Gooden added 19 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Chauncey Billups led Detroit with 23 points and nine rebounds but this was not a good performance for "Mr. Big Shot," who shot 6-16 from the field, committed five turnovers and passed for just two assists. He exercised questionable judgment on several occasions, alternately forcing shots and then trying to make ill-timed or poorly thrown passes. The cliche says that "once is an accident, twice is a trend and three times is a problem," so after four subpar games it is fair to say that Billups is having significant problems versus the Cavs. Richard Hamilton had 19 points and eight rebounds but he only shot 9-21 from the field. Detroit's starting frontcourt was largely silent: Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber combined to score 11 points on 5-13 shooting, though Tayshaun Prince was solid with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The Pistons' most productive big was Antonio McDyess, who came off of the bench to contribute 12 points and five rebounds in 24 minutes.
Cleveland got off to a good start in the first quarter, led by Gooden's 10 points. Billups countered with 13 points for Detroit but the Pistons trailed 26-22 heading into the second quarter. James had just five points--a three pointer and a dunk--but passed for four assists.
The Pistons hit the Cavs with a 7-0 run to open the second quarter: a jumper by Wallace followed by a three pointer and two free throws by Billups. Cleveland responded very well, building a 12 point lead before Detroit cut the margin to seven by halftime. Gibson took center stage with 11 points, many of them scored while James took a brief rest.
I don't know what the Cavaliers eat, drink or do at halftime but they should consider changing their entire routine. No matter how well they play in the first half, they seem to start the third quarter running like they are carrying pianos on their backs (to borrow a great line Jeff Van Gundy likes to use). Put it this way: if you went to the concession stand at halftime and did not make it back to your seat until the 7:00 mark of the third quarter you did not miss a single Cavaliers' point. James shot 0-6 during the quarter and after the game he said that he told his teammates to carry him to the fourth quarter and keep it close so that he could win the game then. Gibson did just that, scoring nine of Cleveland's 15 third quarter points, which was enough to keep Cleveland right in the game, down just 67-65 with 12 minutes to play.
Sure enough, James took over the fourth quarter; maybe the Cavaliers should just rename the third quarter the fourth quarter, like some buildings superstitiously don't refer to a 13th floor. James led both teams in scoring, rebounds and assists in the decisive period and he showed great interest in the one part of the game that to this point has kept him from becoming the very best player in the game: defense. James took on the challenge of guarding Billups, the Piston who had played the best in the first 36 minutes, and basically shut him down, though of course he received defensive help from his teammates, including Gibson, who drew a key charging call on Billups with just 2:28 left and Cleveland leading 87-81. Billups shot 0-3 from the field and had three turnovers and one assist in the fourth quarter. In addition to the charge, Billups threw the ball away to end one possession and badly misfired on an off balance three pointer with :44.9 left and the Pistons only down three, 88-85. James sealed the win by making two free throws at :04 to put the Cavs up 91-87. In the ensuing timeout, he reminded his teammates to simply raise their arms up and not even jump because the Pistons were sure to try to make a three pointer and draw a foul for a potential four point play.
It is said that success has many parents but failure is an orphan but in Detroit's case the "father" of this victory was pretty evident. As Hamilton said, "We can't turn the ball over, we have to put it on the backboard, where our bigs can get tip-ins." Detroit did not commit an outlandish number of turnovers--12--but eight came in the second half and Billups' two most costly ones happened in the final three minutes of a very close game.
Cleveland won Game Five in Detroit last year and it could certainly be argued that they are "due" a road victory in this series considering how competitive the first two games in Detroit were, so this year's Game Five should be very interesting. For the first time in this series, there is a lot of pressure on Detroit, because if Cleveland does win Game Five I don't think that James will let Game Six slip away this year the way it did in 2006. The winner of Thursday's game will probably represent the Eastern Conference in the 2007 NBA Finals.
Notes From Courtside:
While I waited in the press conference room for Coaches Brown and Saunders to make their pregame remarks, I struck up a conversation with Toni Christy, a stenographer who works for ASAP Sports, a company that the NBA hired to produce press conference transcripts during the NBA playoffs. Christy uses the exact same device at the press conferences that she uses when she works as a court stenographer; it looks like a typewriter but has fewer keys and none of them are labelled. The smaller keyboard helps stenographers to type faster--Christy types 230 words per minute--but also requires them to memorize which combinations of keys to hit in which order to bang out complete words or phrases. Christy has a digital dictionary that she plugs into the top of the device that provides the template for each particular event. In other words, for a court case a certain combination of keys may mean "lawyer" or "judge" or other common legal terms but when Christy unplugs that dictionary and puts in the basketball dictionary that same combination of keys now might mean "rebound" or "blocked shot." Christy also has dictionaries for golf and baseball, her favorite sport. In addition to her court duties and transcript work, Christy also does closed captioning for various events, including televised major league baseball games. I always wondered where the closed captioners were located and Christy answered that question: generally, they are sitting at home, dressed comfortably and watching the broadcast on regular television; she also listens to a separate audio feed through headphones, so if her TV goes on the fritz or bad weather strikes her area she can still provide the closed captioning. Christy is very interested in sports and enthusiastically described her experience doing the closed captioning for a very inspirational speech that Dick Vitale gave to University of Florida athletes (as usual when she does captioning work, she listened in the comfort of her own home). She mentioned that he speaks very quickly, which makes the captioning work challenging, but she added that his speech alternately had her laughing at his wit and then in tears as he spoke about Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach who died of cancer. Christy was so enthralled by Vitale's message that she taped the speech for her teenaged son.
During his pregame press conference, Brown downplayed his team's success against Billups and Hamilton, obviously not wanting to provide bulletin board material; Brown has clearly patterned himself after Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich in several ways and this is one of them: you never hear the Spurs saying anything that will get their opponents fired up or feeling disrespected. Brown said, "Those are two great players. There is no way we can stop either one of those guys. They're veterans that have won a championship before...They're going to come out and attack tonight, it's as simple as that." That turned out to be prophetic, particularly regarding Billups, but Cleveland withstood the initial onslaught, made adjustments and won anyway.
As for the offensive end of the court, Brown reiterated that he has emphasized to his players that the way to attack a shotblocker (such as Wallace or McDyess) is to take the ball straight into the player's chest and "put the onus on the referees to make them make the call." There is a great book called Stuff Good Players Should Know in which author and former Duke player Dick DeVenzio calls that "nostril time": you don't double clutch or fade away from a shotblocker; you attack his body and put the ball right past his face so that he cannot create any distance to use his length and jumping ability to swat at the ball, kind of like the way a smaller boxer dives inside to nullify a tall boxer's reach advantage.
The Pistons have a champion's swagger, even though they are three seasons removed from winning the title and no longer have the same head coach or starting center. Before the game, Saunders did not seem too concerned about his team's prospects. One reporter asked him an elaborate question about how well James played in Game Three compared to Games One and Two and whether the Pistons could beat the Cavaliers if James played at the Game Three level the rest of the way. Without missing a beat, Saunders simply said, "Yeah" and turned his attention to the next question. Unfortunately for Saunders and his Pistons, James is a lot easier to dismiss in a press conference than he is on the court and it is far from clear that the Pistons can in fact beat the Cavaliers if James plays at a high level. So far, Detroit is 0-2 in such situations--and barely made it to 2-0 even in the games when James played far below his normal capabilities.
Someone else asked Saunders what Billups' message was to his coach about his subpar play and Saunders replied that Billups told him, "I'll be ready." Again, this is an instance where talk and posturing are cheap. This series is more than half over and we have yet to see anything remotely resembling the best of Chauncey Billups. Frankly, it is not enough to make some shots in the fourth quarter (in Games One and Two) when one of the big reasons that the game was so close in the first place is that you stunk up the joint for the first three quarters of the game. The Pistons are very fortunate that their casual approach to this series did not lead to a Cleveland sweep, which probably would have been the result if Cleveland had made just one more shot at the end of games one and two.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:59 AM