Wise LeBron Leads Cleveland to VictoryLeBron James is "wise beyond his years" TNT's Doug Collins said during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals and Wise LeBron lived up to that billing by guiding Cleveland to an 88-82 win over Detroit, cutting the Pistons' lead to 2-1. James had 32 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. He shot 12-21 from the field and scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (16 points, seven rebounds), Sasha Pavlovic (13 points) and Drew Gooden (12 points, six rebounds) each scored in double figures, providing the support that even superstars must have to win at this stage in the playoffs. Rasheed Wallace led a balanced Detroit attack with 16 points, while Chris Webber had 15 points and Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups contributed 13 points each. However, Billups shot just 4-14 from the field and committed five turnovers. Richard Hamilton had his worst game of the series (seven points, 2-8 shooting).
Cleveland got off to a great start in the first quarter, taking a 7-0 lead on the strength of five points by James--two fastbreak dunks, plus a free throw. Billups started the game 0-2 from the field with two turnovers but Detroit weathered the storm and battled back to tie the score at 22 by the end of the quarter. Webber led both teams with nine points on 4-7 shooting, a veritable scoring explosion for him considering his recent production. Larry Hughes had to go to the locker room with what was eventually diagnosed as a "plantar fascia strain," which Craig Sager helpfully explained is not as serious as the now seemingly ubiquitous plantar fasciitis; it is a just a strain that happens in the general area that can be stricken by plantar fasciitis, which is a chronic injury. Hughes is criticized for not being James' Scottie Pippen but that is not fair: Pippen is one of the greatest players of all-time and it is very difficult to find someone with his combination of size, speed and two-way (offense/defense) skills. Also, Hughes is listed as 6-5, 185, while Pippen was 6-7, 228 in his prime. Cleveland assistant coach Hank Egan once described Hughes to me as a "steady Eddie" guy, a calming influence on the team who has an impact in several different ways. Cleveland's best lineup this season includes Hughes at point guard and Pavlovic at shooting guard. Hughes only saw limited action the rest of the way, finishing with six points and two assists. Rookie Daniel Gibson picked up the slack, scoring nine points in the game and playing tough defense on Billups.
James continued to play aggressively and his 19 points, five rebounds and three assists enabled the Cavs to take a 46-43 first half lead. Billups struggled so much that Detroit Coach Flip Saunders benched him for most of the second quarter, but Prince and Webber picked up the slack with nine points each in the first half.
Ilgauskas scored six quick points early in the third quarter but Wallace answered with two three pointers and then Billups hit a three pointer to tie the score at 55. TNT's Marv Albert asked, "Are we watching a meltdown here?" just before Antonio McDyess made a long jumper to give Detroit a 57-55 advantage. Doug Collins noted that the Cavs in general and James in particular have been sluggish in the third quarter of each game in this series. James scored just one point and shot 0-1 from the field in the period, with the lone shot being a wild fadeaway from deep on the left baseline. At halftime, Saunders told Sager that James had gotten many of his points in transition; the Pistons handled the ball better in the third quarter, denying James the opportunity to work his open court magic. Detroit led 63-62 heading into the 12 minutes that would decide, as Collins put it, if Cleveland would make this a series or if the only question left would be how soon Detroit will advance to the Finals.
Cleveland opened the fourth quarter with a lineup of Damon Jones and Gibson in the backcourt, James and Donyell Marshall at forward and Anderson Varejao at center--four shooters, plus rebounder/defender/screen setter Varejao. James nailed a tough fadeaway three pointer from the left baseline on the Cavs' first possession but other than that the shooting lineup started the fourth quarter looking more like the gang that couldn't shoot straight and Coach Mike Brown soon put starters Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden back in the game. Both teams' offenses spent several minutes in deep hibernation until James revived memories of Julius Erving dunking over Bill Walton in the 1977 NBA Finals. "This is as good as it gets!" Collins exclaimed after James uncorked a soaring dunk over Wallace to give Cleveland a 70-68 lead. At the peak of his jump, James held the ball even with the top of the square before throwing it down emphatically. James drew a foul from Wallace on the play but missed the free throw. On a subsequent possession, Gooden fumbled the ball out of bounds and James flexed his right bicep and shouted at Gooden to go up strong.
"When James catches the ball on the wing, he invites the double-team," Collins observed midway through the fourth quarter and this literally seemed to be the case on one key possession, James waving his hand toward himself, then passing to Gibson for a three pointer that put Cleveland up 77-72. A jumper by James made the score 79-73 but Billups, who was just 1-10 from the field to that point, drained a three pointer to cut the lead in half. Ilgauskas answered with a jumper and then James hit a three pointer to put Cleveland up 84-76--but the Rasputin-like Pistons refused to die, trimming the margin to 84-82 before James hit a tough mid-range jumper over Hamilton to give Cleveland a two possession lead, 86-82, with 16 seconds left. That ended the game--and may have started this series.
***During the pregame show, TNT's studio crew continued the minute by minute, second by second (over)analysis of LeBron James' every on court action. Charles Barkley acknowledged that ESPN, TNT and others go overboard with their critiques--and then proceeded to reiterate most of the criticisms he previously made of James, saying that James is not "Above the Law" (Steven Seagal movie reference) and should be critiqued when he does not make the right play. Barkley said that he learned a long time ago that he can't please everyone, so he will speak his mind and he made a kissing sound as an indication of what people who don't like his views can do. Kenny Smith seemed to back off of some of his earlier remarks--or at least he clarified them, saying that he did not have a problem so much with James' pass/shoot decisions but just that James waited too long to make his move in the previous games since Cleveland was trailing. Reggie Miller said that people should stop making mention of the fact that James is 22 years old; if he is going to be the face of the league then he has to carry his team--but Miller also admitted that during his first Conference Finals appearance (when he was much older then James is now, by the way) he and the Pacers were just happy to be there. Miller made an excellent point by noting the irony that the league's young players are often criticized for shooting too much and being selfish but that James is taking heat for making the correct and unselfish play in Game One by passing to a wide open Marshall.
***The game had to be stopped a couple times during the first quarter when foam from fire extinguishers in the ceiling of Quicken Loans Arena fell to the court in response to the pregame pyrotechnics that have unfortunately become a staple of NBA games. As TNT's Steve Kerr said, it is no longer just a game anymore, "It's a circus." The NBA needs to get rid of the explosions and the fireworks and bring the focus back to where it should be: the world's greatest athletes. Listening to Commissioner David Stern speak to a small group of reporters after his press conference in Cleveland prior to one of the Cavs' playoff games with New Jersey, I got the distinct impression that he feels the same way that I (and others) do about the over the top production that goes on before games and during stoppages of play; I hope he finds a way to convince or compel teams to put an end to this stuff.
***Wallace hardly seemed broken up by the loss, amiably chatting with friends/family after he changed out of his uniform. Miller said that this tells him that the Pistons are just on cruise control and plan to win the series in five or six games. He may be right but that is what is wrong with this team: the Pistons do not respect the game or their opponents enough to play at a high level consistently. They kind of muddle along and assume that they can win by playing hard for the last five minutes. I much prefer the manic intensity of the Jordan-era Bulls, who treated a midseason game in Vancouver like Game Seven of the NBA Finals. Pat Riley said that there is winning and there is misery and Bill Musselman took it one step further, saying that defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat. Either Detroit is not as good as many people want us to believe or the Pistons do indeed spend a lot of time on cruise control. They are a Donyell Marshall three pointer and Larry Hughes short jumper away from being down 3-0 right now, so complacency hardly seems wise or appropriate. Cleveland took Detroit to the limit last year and the Cavs are better, deeper and more experienced now.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:06 AM