Cavs Use Old Formula to Beat Pistons With New PlayersLast season, the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals by relying on excellent team defense, strong rebounding and the brilliant all-around play of LeBron James. Several of the faces have changed in Cleveland--and things have not always gone smoothly since the big trade--but that tried and tested formula resulted in an 89-73 home victory over Detroit on Wednesday night. James did his part with 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists, shooting 11-19 from the field and producing a +15 plus/minus rating while playing a team-high 41 minutes. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Pistons 46-39. Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas each had eight rebounds and Anderson Varejao added six rebounds off of the bench. Ilgauskas also scored 20 points on 9-14 field goal shooting. Wally Szczerbiak (10 points on 4-7 shooting) was the only other Cav who scored in double figures but that did not matter because the Cavs held the Pistons to .397 field goal shooting.
Rasheed Wallace led Detroit with 16 points but he shot just 6-17 from the field. ESPN's Mike Breen and Jon Barry repeatedly talked about how Wallace gets up for road games and big games but does not play with that intensity on a nightly basis. Well, this was a big road game against the team that eliminated the Pistons in the playoffs and Rasheed really did not deliver all that much, amassing the worst plus/minus total (-20) of any player in the game. Frankly, considering his bountiful talents, the amount of money that he makes and how vital he is to his team's success, it is not an endearing trait that he does not summon up a high degree of effort and production on a consistent basis. Barry compared him to Derrick Coleman but even Coleman had three straight 20/10 seasons and he made the All-NBA Third Team a couple times; Wallace has never done either of those things even once. There is no doubt that Wallace played a critically important role for Detroit's championship team in 2004 but does concentrating for half a season and one playoff run justify essentially sleepwalking through the better part of his career? Yes, Wallace has made the All-Star team four times but, as Charles Barkley and others have pointed out, he has the talent to be one of the very best players in the NBA but he is satisfied to just coast most of the time. That is not an admirable trait and no one is good enough to turn his game on and off at will--Wallace's shameful attitude filters through the team and is part of the reason that the Pistons have come up short in the playoffs the past several years. You may recall that it was his blown assignment that enabled Robert Horry to nail a crucial three point shot in the 2005 Finals; that is what happens when you are not in the habit of being mentally engaged in the game to the highest degree at all times.
That said, credit also has to be given to the players who checked Rasheed Wallace. Ben Wallace did a great job guarding him in the post for most of the game and Varejao also defended him well on several occasions. One time, Rasheed got so frustrated from jostling with Varejao on the block that he abandoned the low post altogether, drifted outside, received a pass and bricked a three pointer. That just shows up in the boxscore as one missed field goal but Varejao is a physical player who plays with an edge and that quality is very valuable, particularly in the playoffs. Another thing that Varejao does that does not show up in the boxscore is guard multiple players on one possession. For instance, he will defend someone in the post, "show" on a pick and roll to stop a guard from penetrating and then rotate to an open shooter as the ball is swung around. His mobility and aggressiveness played a significant role in Cleveland's playoff success last year.
Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups was largely invisible (10 points on 4-12 shooting, five rebounds, four assists) and Richard Hamilton had a good first quarter but finished with only 14 points, though he did have a team-high seven assists. Barry and Breen spent most of the game talking about how bad Cleveland's offense is but apparently they did not notice all of the shots that the Pistons were bricking. When the injured Daniel Gibson returns to the lineup the Cavaliers will have another shooter to pair with Szczerbiak to space the court and the offense will function more effectively. Meanwhile, James shoulders most of the load, leading the league in scoring while regularly attracting multiple defenders and thus providing open shots for his teammates. Tayshaun Prince told ESPN's broadcast team that James is the toughest player in the league to guard now, adding, "It's not even close." Prince said that when James gets up a head of steam his drives are impossible to stop. There is a lot of truth to that but the Spurs showed in last year's Finals that if you station two seven footers in the lane and force James to shoot perimeter shots that it is possible to slow him down. When the Pistons paired a younger Ben Wallace with Rasheed Wallace they could play that kind of defense but now that Rasheed is pretty much by himself back there (and is only sporadically paying attention) James can indeed seemingly get to the hoop at will versus this team, just like he did in last year's playoffs.
This was definitely the best all-around defensive performance by the "new" Cavs and it came at a very good time; Cleveland will not likely catch Detroit in the standings but it was important to show that the current version of the team matches up just as well with the Pistons as the previous version did. If the Cavaliers will continue to play this kind of defense and if they are able to finally get everyone in their rotation healthy then they can absolutely repeat as Eastern Conference champions. It won't be easy but they know the formula and have proven that they can do it.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM