Daniel Gibson's Uncanny Shooting Carries Cleveland to the NBA FinalsRookie guard Daniel Gibson set playoff career-highs in scoring (31 points) and rebounds (six) as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Detroit Pistons 98-82 to win the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2. Gibson shot 7-9 from the field--including 5-5 from three point range--and 12-15 from the free throw line. His 19 fourth quarter points set a franchise record for points in one quarter of a playoff game and played a major role in breaking open what had been a close contest. It is no coincidence that Gibson's outburst came on the heels of LeBron James' epochal Game Five performance. The Pistons were determined to not let James beat them singlehandedly with his scoring, so they swarmed him constantly, limiting him to 11 field goal attempts and just three field goals made--but they could not stop James from continuing to attack the basket aggressively (he shot 14-19 from the free throw line) and their zeal to trap James repeatedly left Gibson open. This game is a perfect example of the synergistic relationship between a superstar and his teammates that I discussed in my recent post titled "Making Your Teammates Better": James' presence forces double-teams that break down the opposing team's defense and create open shots but it is up to his teammates to capitalize on those opportunities; if Gibson does not make those shots that would not make James any less of a player but it would have meant that the Cavaliers would not have won this game or the series. James showed confidence in all of his teammates throughout the series, from his much discussed pass to Donyell Marshall at the end of Game One all the way through his reliance on Gibson in Game Six. After Game Six, James told the assembled media what he had said to Gibson prior to the game--and it sounded a lot like a veteran Michael Jordan talking to Steve Kerr in the timeout near the end of Game Six of the 1997 NBA Finals, right before Jordan passed to Kerr for the game-winning shot: "I told Daniel before the game, 'I believe Detroit is going to double-team me, triple-team me before I cross halfcourt, so get that gun and get it locked and loaded and just shoot it, don't second guess yourself, just shoot it.'" Gibson added, "From day one Lebron has been in my corner. He told me from day one he was going to make me something special, he was going to do whatever he could to make me better...when I took shots, he told me to keep shooting, don't hesitate, don't worry about anything else. When a guy like that tells you that, you step to it with a lot of confidence and knock it down for him."
James completely rejected the idea that he is a one man team: "There is no way we would be here in the Eastern Conference Finals or winning the Eastern Conference Finals if it was a one man show. It's never happened in NBA history, it would never happen in the NBA where a team has one guy and he does it all. My teammates are my family. I'm with them more than I am with my own family, honestly. And every time these guys come to the gym, we believe and we made it happen."
James finished with 20 points, a game-high 14 rebounds (tying his playoff career-high) and a game-high eight assists while only resting for 1:38. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the only other Cavalier to score in double figures (11 points, 12 rebounds). Cleveland shot just .389 from the field but that was still better than Detroit's .359 mark. The only Pistons who played well were Richard Hamilton, who scored 29 points on 10-20 shooting before fouling out, and Chris Webber, who scored 13 points on 5-8 shooting. The rest of the Pistons' vaunted starting lineup was largely missing in action: Tayshaun Prince (five points) shot 1-10 from the field, Rasheed Wallace (11 points) shot 5-14 from the field and Chauncey Billups (nine points) shot 3-7 from the field. Billups had no turnovers but also only passed for one assist.
This game had a very disjointed rhythm to it. Detroit started off with a 6-0 run. The Pistons clearly took the Cavaliers lightly in the early part of this series but the prospect of elimination has a way of sobering a team up and increasing its collective concentration level. The Pistons spent this whole postseason acting like they thought that playing three or four minutes of good basketball should be enough to make their opponents fold--but instead of giving in, the Cavaliers answered with a 6-0 run of their own. Obviously, it cannot literally be said that the game was over at that point but I really believe that to a degree it was, because it slowly started to dawn on the Pistons that even their best might not be good enough to beat the Cavaliers and that realization seemed to throw them off of their game. There was a lot of chippy play from the Pistons throughout Game Six, starting with a technical foul on Webber and a double technical foul involving Hamilton and Cleveland's Sasha Pavlovic. You could almost see the Pistons struggling for answers, vainly hoping that if they could not outplay the Cavaliers then maybe they could intimidate them or get them to lose focus. That did not work, though, and Cleveland led 27-21 by the end of the quarter.
Then things took a very strange turn. The scoreboard and shot clocks malfunctioned, necessitating a 21 minute delay. This basically destroyed any momentum that the Cavaliers had built and an arena that had been loud and raucous got much quieter. The players actually had to warm up again and when play resumed the public address announcer did a countdown in place of the shot clocks, which were not repaired until halftime. The Cavaliers seemed to sleepwalk through the second quarter, shooting just 4-18 from the field (.222) as Detroit tied the score at 48 by halftime. The star-crossed nature of Cleveland's sports teams is a frequently discussed subject in the city and in the media room at halftime there was already talk that this game might go down in history as "The Clock" (to go along with "The Drive," "The Fumble" and "Red Right 88," three of the Cleveland Browns' infamous failures). James did not make a field goal in the first half and attempted a playoff career-low two shots--but that is misleading because he shot 9-11 from the free throw line and most of those attempts came as a direct result of aggressively driving to the basket. He also played a good floor game (seven rebounds, five assists). James and Hughes tied for the team scoring lead with nine points, while Hamilton led all scorers with 16.
The third quarter brought the grind it out, trench warfare that we have come to expect from these two teams. Cleveland scored 19 points on 6-19 shooting (.316), while Detroit scored 18 points on 6-22 shooting (.273). So, with one quarter to go the Cavaliers clung to a 67-66 lead. Detroit Coach Flip Saunders tried to buy a couple minutes of rest for starting guards Billups and Hamilton but, as he conceded after the game, that decision "did us in." Gibson nailed two three pointers and James converted a steal into a three point play as the Cavaliers opened the quarter with a 9-1 run. The Pistons trailed 76-67 when Billups and Hamilton returned but another Gibson three pointer promptly made the score 79-67. Remarkably, though nearly 10 minutes remained in the game, the Pistons never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way. Wallace seemed to be on the edge of losing control for much of the night and he boiled over with a little less than eight minutes left. First he committed an offensive foul and then right after that he basically threw the driving James to the ground. That was Wallace's sixth foul but he was not satisfied with merely fouling out or even getting just one technical foul. No, he completely lost his mind, charged at the referees and received two technical fouls, which means an automatic ejection (a player who fouls out can still sit on the bench but an ejected player must leave the court). Those technicals are Wallace's sixth and seventh of the playoffs and the seventh technical is supposed to mean an automatic suspension for the next playoff game. Since the Pistons don't have another playoff game, I assume that the suspension will be enforced in the first game of next season; it is also possible that his over the top conduct will earn him a multiple game suspension and a hefty fine. Cleveland did not fully capitalize on Wallace's implosion, making just two of the four resulting free throws, but by that point the Cavaliers already led by 14 and Hamilton was the only Detroit player who showed any sign of life. He soon fouled out and then even nervous Cleveland fans, used to crushing disappointments, could begin to celebrate.
Notes From Courtside:
Bill Russell presented the Eastern Conference Championship trophy to the Cavaliers after the game. He noted that James is one year younger than he was when he took the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals for the first time. Russell also said that now James is representing not just a city or a team but an entire conference.
James was almost giddy with joy when he spoke with reporters after the game, saying, "If I could put into words what's going on in my head right now we would be up here for another three hours. But this is special, the guys were really mentally prepared." He also reminded everyone what he had promised right after the Cavaliers drafted him: "I said I was going to light it up like Vegas in Cleveland."
A few minutes later, someone asked James if Wallace's ejection was a turning point in the game. James started reminiscing about winning a championship in his freshman year in high school and then said, "I'm lost for words right now, I'm not even answering your question." He chuckled before adding, "I'm so excited, I'm not answering your question at all, but you guys know how I feel right now." James paused and then concluded, "Yeah, it was a turning point when Rasheed got a technical, I guess." James' unfettered joy and his earnest attempt to eventually answer the original question brought smiles to the faces of everyone in the room.
Larry Hughes' numbers don't stand out (nine points, four assists, three rebounds) but he played 28 minutes despite a very painful foot injury, enabling the Cavaliers to maintain their normal substitution pattern. He deserves a lot of credit for gutting it out. By the time the triumphant Cavaliers walked off of the court and to the locker room, Hughes was limping pretty badly.
After the game, Donyell Marshall explained how this year's Cavaliers squad differs from last year's team that lost to Detroit in seven games in the second round: "We've definitely grown. Last year we were learning defense. This year we put in a whole new offense, so we put them both together."
posted by David Friedman @ 8:11 AM