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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Kevin Durant, the 185 Pound Bench Press--and Cowboy Movies

I don't spend a lot of time analyzing what happens at the NBA predraft camp but much has been made of the fact that Texas star Kevin Durant failed to achieve even one repetition at 185 pounds on the bench press. Many high school and recreational league players can lift that amount (and more), so this definitely raises eyebrows, even if Durant is young and obviously slight of build. It is true that slender guys like George Gervin and Reggie Miller enjoyed long and successful careers--but it is also true that the NBA is a very physical game and that the average player is approximately 6-7, 230 and very strong. The 82 game season is a long grind for anyone and it is even more difficult if you are physically overmatched on nightly basis. On the other hand, Durant was a dominant scorer and rebounder at the Division I level despite his relative lack of strength, so it's not like he can't play at all. I don't doubt that Durant can be a very good NBA player but his subpar bench press and agility drill totals do raise at least a small red flag: Durant coasted on defense during his brief college career and it seems that to this point he has pretty much gotten by on his natural ability; how will he respond when an NBA coach insists that he play better defense and work with the training staff to improve his overall strength? If I were an NBA GM I would not be as interested in the details of Durant's predraft camp performance as I would want to look him in the eye and hear his response to the idea that he must commit to playing defense and working out. If Durant embraces those things enthusiastically then he certainly could become a perennial All-Star--but if he resists taking on those challenges then he will not reach his full potential as a player.

The best part of this story is how Durant's college coach, Rick Barnes, leaped to Durant's defense with perhaps the quote of the year: "There are a lot of guys who can bench press 300 pounds in the NBA who couldn't play dead in a cowboy movie. Kevin's the best player in the draft--period, at any position." I would have taken Greg Oden over Durant even before the predraft camp numbers came out but you have to admire the way that Barnes stuck up for his guy--and I'm sure that potential Texas recruits noticed that, too.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Death by Execution: Spurs' Precision Play Carves up the Cavs

The "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili scored 67 points on 27-52 shooting from the field (.519) as the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 85-76 in Game One of the NBA Finals. Duncan had another understated yet dominant performance--no highlight reel moves or dunks but he controlled the action at both ends of the court with 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. Bruce Bowen did a good job versus LeBron James, who finished with 14 points (4-16 field goal shooting), seven rebounds, four assists and six turnovers, but a big part of why Bowen was so successful was Duncan's presence in the lane. Duncan blocked James' shots on a couple occasions and altered many other attempts by James and his teammates. Daniel Gibson led Cleveland in scoring with 16 points on 7-9 shooting and tied James with a team-high four assists. It is clear now that Gibson is not just a spot-up shooter; he has the same baby faced look that B.J. Armstrong did and the same deceptively versatile offensive game (don't forget that Armstrong made the All-Star team the year after Michael Jordan's first retirement). Gibson also reminds one a little of a young Sam Cassell--he is not affected by the score, the time remaining or the opponent; he just plays.

While the Spurs showed some signs of rust from not having played since May 30, they consistently came up with big baskets and big defensive stops at crucial moments. San Antonio led from the beginning, as Michael Finley opened the scoring with a jump shot, and the Spurs were on top for most of the game, although Cleveland briefly went ahead by as much as three points in the second quarter. The Spurs made six of their first seven shots but this did not rattle the Cavaliers, who only trailed 20-15 at the end of the first quarter despite the fact that James scored just two points and did not make a field goal. Duncan had eight points and four rebounds in the first quarter.

Cleveland had no answer for Parker's dribble penetration, as he repeatedly scored or dished to teammates--often Duncan--for easy baskets. Parker finished with 27 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Larry Hughes would normally guard Parker but Hughes is simply too hobbled by his plantar fascia injury to stay in front of Parker. James, who is not noted for his defense (although he did a commendable job for stretches against Chauncey Billups in the Eastern Conference Finals), actually defended Parker better than any other Cavalier, cutting off his driving lanes and forcing him to shoot contested jumpers--some of which Parker made anyway. Cleveland cannot expect James to carry the scoring, rebounding and playmaking load plus guard Parker for extended periods so this matchup has to be the coaching staff's number one concern going into Game Two. James may have to guard Parker down the stretch in the fourth quarter if the game is close but the Cavs must find some way to contain Parker for the first three quarters or so.

James had just four points (0-7 field goal shooting) and one assist in the first half but Cleveland only trailed 40-35. James' low assist total is a little deceptive, as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy noted, for two reasons: his teammates missed a lot of open shots and James often had the "hockey assist" (the pass that led to the pass that gets credited as an assist) on the baskets that they did make. Still, there is no denying that the Cavaliers stayed close to the Spurs for a half despite the fact that James was hardly dominant. What many people don't understand is that the Cavaliers are a very good defensive team. That means that they are unlikely to get blown out and that they will usually be close enough in the fourth quarter for James to at least have an opportunity to take over the game.

A big problem for Cleveland this year--and particularly in the playoffs--has been sluggish third quarter play. That happened again on Thursday, as the Spurs outscored the Cavs 24-14 in the third quarter. Drew Gooden scored 10 of his 14 total points in the third quarter and James' first field goal of the game brought Cleveland to within 46-41 but the Spurs slowly but inexorably pulled away. A killer sequence happened at the 2:21 mark: Gooden committed a flagrant foul as Ginobili attempted a breakaway layup; Ginobili made one of two free throws and then Bowen drained a three pointer on the ensuing possession. The Spurs then got a stop and Duncan hit a jumper, putting San Antonio ahead 64-49 going into the fourth quarter.

The Spurs went up by as much as 18 points in the final period before the Cavaliers rallied to cut the lead to 80-72 with 1:53 remaining. Then came the defining moment of the game. Gibson stole the ball and Cleveland had an opportunity to make it a two possession game. James dribbled outside the three point line but did not attack the paint, perhaps wary of Duncan's presence; instead, James launched an errant fadeaway three pointer. As ABC's Mark Jackson observed, that is the kind of shot that James made in his monumental 48 point Game Five performance versus Detroit but it is not the best shot in that situation. The Spurs promptly executed a beautiful high-low play, culminating in a slick bounce pass from Robert Horry to Tim Duncan, who dunked the ball to make the score 82-72. If James' shot goes in then Cleveland is only down five but, as Doug Collins might say, it was a high risk, low reward play. The Spurs responded with a low risk, high reward play that clinched the win--and that was the main difference between the two teams in Game One. The Spurs hardly played a perfect game but whenever they needed to score they ran picture perfect pick and roll or backdoor plays that resulted in dunks; meanwhile, they played their characteristic lock down defense for most of the game, except for a couple lapses in the second and fourth quarters.

The Cavaliers are a resilient team, as they proved by overcoming a 2-0 deficit versus the favored Detroit Pistons, so don't assume that they will be discouraged by this loss. They showed that they can hang tough with the Spurs even when James has a subpar performance and it is likely that this will turn out to be his worst game of the series. In order to win Game Two the Cavaliers must limit Parker's points in the paint and make open shots when James is trapped and gives up the ball. Also, James must be more in tune to how he is being guarded--when he gets defensive rebounds he must push the ball and try to score in transition before the Spurs set up their halfcourt defense and when the Spurs sag off of him in the halfcourt he must take (and make) the midrange jumpers that they are conceding to him. Unless the shot clock is about to expire, James needs to shelve the fadeaway three pointers; the Spurs are cutting off his driving lanes but daring him to shoot 15 foot jump shots and he must show that he can consistently make those shots. I would not be surprised if Game Two is a close contest that is decided by a last second shot/defensive play.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:55 AM

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James

LeBron James is a on a fast track to greatness that is unparalleled in NBA history. There have been younger players who led teams to the NBA Finals and there have been players who led teams to the NBA Finals prior to their fourth season but no one who is this young and has only been in the NBA for four years has led a team to the NBA Finals without the benefit of playing alongside at least one future Hall of Famer. Bill Russell won a championship as a rookie, but he played alongside several Hall of Famers; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won a championship in his second season but he had Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson at point guard; Magic Johnson won a championship as a rookie but he teamed up with Abdul-Jabbar, the regular season MVP that year; Larry Bird won a championship in his second season but he was paired with future Hall of Famers Nate Archibald, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

I discuss James' stunningly quick ascent to NBA glory in my newest article for NBCSports.com:

The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James

James has distinguished himself not only with his skills but also with his poise. Consider this telling sequence from Game Six versus the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace committed his sixth foul by throwing James to the floor. James calmly stood up and for a moment the players were right next to each other but looking in different directions—-literally and figuratively. Wallace promptly lost control of his emotions, wildly yelling at the officials and getting ejected, earning his seventh technical foul of the playoffs and ensuring that if Detroit made it to Game Seven that he would be unable to play due to a mandatory suspension. Meanwhile, James assembled his teammates and told them to stay calm and not get caught up in the emotion of the moment. The great tennis champion Bjorn Borg was known for his ability to stay poised during tough matches and to remain calm while volatile opponents like Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe had Rasheed Wallace-like temper tantrums. When I spoke with Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry prior to Game Six, he rejected a James-Borg comparison, telling me that James is "far more vocal and demonstrative than Bjorn Borg." That is true but it is also true that basketball, which has more physical contact than tennis, lends itself more to emotional expression. This season we saw Carmelo Anthony lose his cool and get suspended for 15 games and we saw Amare Stoudemire get suspended for a playoff game because he could not control his emotions. James did not overreact to Wallace’s foul, nor did he lose control in previous playoff games when Antonio McDyess and Mikki Moore committed hard fouls against his teammates. I agree with Ferry that James’ demeanor is not totally emotionless like Borg’s but James has great poise and self-control, both in terms of rallying his team from a 2-0 deficit against the heavily favored Pistons and in terms of not letting himself get caught up in the emotions of hard fouls. By the way, Borg was a prodigy in his own right, one who never lost a match to a younger player until he had been a professional for many years. It does not seem likely that a team led by a superstar who is younger than James will beat Cleveland any time soon, either.

What impresses Hall of Famer Hubie Brown the most about James is how successfully he deals with any kind of defensive pressure that is placed against him, especially considering that, in Brown's opinion, Cleveland's roster is not that much better than it was last year (I spoke with Brown before Daniel Gibson's outstanding Game Six performance): "Their first unit is not that much better than it was a year ago. But what has happened now is this young man has taken his game to a whole new level again, taking that next step. What he has done in Games Three, Four and Five, with the 35 points (per game) and the eight or nine rebounds and then the nine assists, is incredible...You have to give him a lot of credit for not only the scoring but the fact that he is going against three guys: the trap and then the rotating big guy below the trap, five to ten feet behind the trap, ready in case he turns the corner. He’s really playing, on every possession, one against three, whether it is on the side or whether it is at the top."

posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 PM

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San Antonio Versus Cleveland Preview

NBA Finals

San Antonio (58-24) vs. Cleveland (50-32)

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James plays at a Michael Jordan level, the Cavaliers hold their own on the boards and someone--perhaps Daniel Gibson or Sasha Pavlovic--steps up to make open shots whenever James is double-teamed.

San Antonio will win because…winning championships is what the Tim Duncan-era Spurs do. Duncan already owns three rings and three Finals MVPs and the only team that has beaten him more than once in the playoffs when he was fully healthy was the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers.

Other things to consider: There is certainly the possibility that we are witnessing--to borrow a phrase--LeBron James' 1991 Michael Jordan moment. That was the year that Jordan's Bulls finally knocked off the Pistons and then beat Magic Johnson's Lakers in the Finals. Johnson was of course the dominant ring bearer of that era--winning five championships--but those 1991 Lakers were hardly in the same class as the title winning editions. James and the Cavaliers face a Spurs team that is arguably playing as well as any of the three San Antonio championship teams. It is asking a lot of James to lead this Cleveland team to a series win over this San Antonio team but if he does it will certainly be the stuff of which legends are made. This series has some intriguing subplots. Cleveland is basically "San Antonio East"; Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry started his front office career with the Spurs and Assistant General Manager Lance Blanks, Coach Mike Brown and Assistant Coach Hank Egan all previously worked for the Spurs as well. Bruce Bowen will obviously draw the assignment of guarding James but Bowen has not had great success against James recently: Cleveland has beaten San Antonio three games in a row and James averaged 32.7 ppg in those contests. It is important to understand that the outcome of this series does not necessarily depend on Bowen holding down James' scoring; his job is to make James work hard for his points and to enable the other four Spurs to guard their men one on one without having to provide help. The Spurs survived some big scoring games from Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer in previous rounds; they never worry too much about one man beating them as long as they are able to corral the spot up three point shooters and prevent any kind of dribble penetration that leads to easy points in the paint. The Spurs' nightmare is not a 40 point night by James but a 25 point, 10 assist night during which Gibson, Pavlovic and others shoot a high percentage from the three point line and/or get a lot of fast break layups off of turnovers.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:44 AM

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Deconstructing Detroit's Playoff Demise

The NBA Finals do not begin until Thursday, so before turning our attention completely to the Spurs-Cavs matchup--which will be a better, more closely contested series than some might think--let's take a look at what happened to the Detroit Pistons, who were the fashionable pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year. Regular visitors to this site know that I never bought into that. This is what I wrote about the Pistons in my 2006-07 Eastern Conference Preview:

Reasons for hope: Detroit has All-Stars Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, plus Tayshaun Prince, who certainly can play at an All-Star level. This team has won a championship and advanced to the NBA Finals, so they know what it takes to win playoff series. Reasons to mope: Ben Wallace was the heart and soul of this team and personified the team’s identity as a hardworking group that focused on defense and played with a chip on its shoulder because so many players on the roster had been let go by other teams. Supposedly, the absence of Wallace will allow Flip Saunders’ “liberation offense” to reach new heights of efficiency. We heard that same story all throughout last season—how much better off Detroit was with Saunders at the helm instead of Larry Brown—but the “liberation offense” was less than impressive during the postseason. Critics say that Wallace can be easily replaced on offense but that ignores the extra possessions he created with his offensive rebounding. Bottom line: That crashing sound you just heard was Detroit’s window of opportunity to win a championship slamming shut.


People who picked Detroit to win the Eastern Conference fell for the same smoke and mirrors that fooled observers into believing that Muhammad Ali did not have a chance against George Foreman in the fight that became known as "The Rumble in the Jungle." Supposedly, Foreman was an unbeatable giant while Ali was a smaller, aging underdog. Look at the "tale of the tape": Foreman checked in at 6-3, 217 and Ali measured 6-3, 210--they were basically the same size. Now look at the "tale of the tape" for Detroit and Cleveland. Strip away talk of Detroit's championship pedigree (how long can you live off of the 2004 championship?) and championship swagger and you have a 53 win Detroit team facing a 50 win Cleveland team that extended the Pistons to seven games in last year's playoffs. Sure enough, the teams proved to be as evenly matched as their records suggested, with the first five games going down to the wire; in that type of series, one would expect that the team that has the single biggest star would have a greater opportunity to win--and that is exactly what happened, as LeBron James either made the shots or created open opportunities for his teammates by drawing double-teams.

The Detroit Pistons never backed up their sense of championship entitlement by actually playing championship level basketball for a sustained period of time in the 2007 playoffs. As Mitch Albom wrote after the Cavaliers eliminated the Pistons, "There is no royal cloak on this team. They weren't robbed. They weren't exiled. They lost four straight to a young, hungry franchise and left the arena as second runner-up in the NBA playoffs. So long, swagger. By the time the Pistons boarded the bus, the shadow they thought they cast had disappeared permanently into the dark sky of another unhappy ending." In another article, he delivered some pointed criticism toward the Pistons:

Either Flip Saunders or the players. Somebody is going to go. Joe Dumars is rightfully proud of the team he has assembled, and he has bucked the NBA trend of "superstar first," but results are results, and Dumars isn't in this to keep watching the Finals on TV...Either these Pistons, as a unit, can no longer deliver the big victories, or Saunders was simply ineffective in making adjustments and rallying their talent. Either way, standing pat is not an option. Remember, hunger was what got the Pistons their one championship this era: the hunger of players discarded from other teams, the hunger of a coach (Larry Brown) who'd never won the big crown.

Hunger roared the Pistons past a supposedly unbeatable team -- the star-studded L.A. Lakers -- in just five games in the 2004 Finals.

But since that championship year, hunger has been replaced by hubris, an attitude that nobody beats the Pistons, they just, on occasion, beat themselves. Instead of surprising teams, they get surprised. They struggle where they shouldn't. And near the end of the rainbow, they fall off.

Honestly, since the Lakers went down, can you remember any series -- beyond the perfunctory first rounds -- that wasn't a struggle for these Pistons? They let weaker teams get off the mat. They give back most early advantages they have. Doing things the hard way became their mantra.


Flip Saunders knows a lot about basketball. He can design a million beautiful inbounds plays and he loves to tinker with various wrinkles in his zone defenses--but what he has shown that he cannot do is lead a very talented team in a manner that helps it to maximize its potential at the highest levels of postseason play. In 2006, the Pistons had four All-Stars and made a run at 70 wins but they didn't even make it to the Finals, let alone win a title. This year, Saunders supposedly flipped the script (pardon the pun), using the regular season to develop his bench and not worrying about chasing 65-70 wins. His team responded by sleepwalking through most of the playoffs, only playing hard or with focus for short stretches, before losing four straight to a Cavaliers team that has little overall playoff experience and exactly one All-Star. Not only is Saunders not the right coach to lead Detroit but--and this is just as important--his players don't think that he is the right coach. That is why at every step of the way when things get tough they start talking back to him and questioning his strategies. We saw that last year with Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace and it has been well documented that there was a lot of dissension in the ranks during the Cleveland series this year.

Saunders does not deserve all of the blame, of course. The players must be held responsible for not performing at their usual levels. Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber did not distinguish themselves against Cleveland. Richard Hamilton had his moments--and seemed like the only Piston who showed up from beginning to end in Game Six--but also went through some bad stretches. The elephant in the room, though, is Ben Wallace, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year who the Pistons did not re-sign. The Pistons can say that they intentionally sacrificed regular season wins this year in order to be better prepared for the playoffs but the bottom line is (1) that did not work, because they went out in the same round that they did last year and (2) there is no getting around the reality that Wallace's new team, the Chicago Bulls, won more games than they did in 2006 and advanced a round further in the playoffs while his old team won fewer games than they did in 2006 and did not do any better in the postseason. Wallace's first replacement, Nazr Mohammed, sank so far on the Pistons' bench that he collected barnacles and his second replacement, Webber--who was not part of the Pistons' original 2007 plans and simply fell into Detroit's hands by a stroke of good fortune--helped to salvage the regular season but did not have a big impact in the playoffs. TNT's microphones captured a very telling sequence during a Cleveland timeout in Game Six. James implored his teammates to "lock down" on defense because they could then go to the other end of the court and "get whatever we want." Kenny Smith noted the significance of that statement: who would have ever thought that the Pistons' defense would fall to a level where their opponent would have such confidence playing against them? Look at how many highlight reel dunks James had in this series. Look at how many defenders Detroit had to shadow him with to slow him down, which enabled Daniel Gibson to shoot wide open jumpers or blow by rotating defenders to get into the lane. Those things did not happen to the Pistons when Ben Wallace was patrolling the paint. Contrast last year's dominant Game Seven performance by Detroit with any game from this year's series and the difference is clear and striking.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:46 PM

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

LeBron Rewards Long-Suffering Cleveland Fans

Cleveland sports teams have frequently and famously disappointed their fans in most excruciating fashion, which makes the Cavaliers' Eastern Conference Championship even more sweet. Here is a link to an article that I wrote for NBCSports.com about this subject:

LeBron Rewards Long-Suffering Cleveland Fans

posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 PM

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Daniel Gibson's Uncanny Shooting Carries Cleveland to the NBA Finals

Rookie 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

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