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Friday, May 25, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again: Detroit Beats Cleveland, 79-76

Stop me if you've heard this story before: Cleveland takes a halftime lead, falls behind in the second half and has a chance to beat Detroit on the last possession. Yes, the Game One script played out again in Game Two and the result was exactly the same, a 79-76 Detroit win. Rasheed Wallace led Detroit with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He scored the game-winning turn around jump shot with :24 left and had 10 of Detroit's 19 fourth quarter points. Jason Maxiell added 15 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in just 22 minutes off of the bench, while Chauncey Billups again had a subpar game (13 points, six assists, five turnovers). LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 19 points and seven assists, adding six rebounds and three steals but he also had six turnovers, shot just 7-19 from the field and only scored five second half points. He received very little help from his teammates; Anderson Varejao had 14 points and a game-high 14 rebounds and Sasha Pavlovic also had 14 points but starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes combined for 11 points on 5-19 shooting, which is unacceptably low production considering that Detroit's entire defense is focused on stopping James. One adjustment that Cleveland made was to utilize three point shooters Donyell Marshall, Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones to spread the floor and punish Detroit for swarming James; that trio combined to shoot 6-14 from three point range in Game Two.

The Cavaliers actually played an even better first half in Game Two than they did in Game One. James was very aggressive, taking the ball to the hoop and dunking with authority; he had nine first quarter points but Detroit led 20-16 at the end of the period on the strength of Maxiell's seven points and four rebounds. Wallace got into early foul trouble but the Pistons hardly missed a beat thanks to the athletic and energetic Maxiell. In the second quarter the Cavaliers countered with their own energy guy, Varejao, who scored 10 of Cleveland's 34 points as the Cavaliers raced to an impressive 50-38 halftime lead.

Once again, Detroit made a big third quarter push, briefly taking the lead and outscoring Cleveland 22-13 to trail just 63-60 going into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter resembled trench warfare as the teams traded missed shots and turnovers and the scoreboard hardly budged. Cleveland led 69-65 before Wallace went on a personal 7-0 run, hitting a jump shot, draining a three pointer and then stealing the ball from Hughes and going coast to coast for a layup. A Richard Hamilton jumper extended Detroit's lead to 74-69 but Cleveland answered with jumpers by Pavlovic and Varejao and a Pavlovic steal that he took coast to coast to give the Cavaliers a 75-74 lead with 2:31 left. Wallace and James each split a pair of free throws to make the score 76-75 Cleveland at the 1:11 mark. That score should sound familiar because Cleveland had the exact same advantage with just over two minutes left in Game One but the Cavaliers shot 0-5 from the field to close out the game--and they shot 0-5 to close out Game Two also. The Pistons were not exactly scorching the nets, either, but Wallace's big jumper (after he either pushed Varejao or Varejao flopped, depending on your perspective; the referees clearly thought that Varejao flopped) put James and the Cavaliers in a very familiar position.

Of course, the most discussed and overanalyzed Game One play was LeBron James' drive and kick out to Donyell Marshall, who missed what could have been a game-winning three pointer. Should James have passed? Should he have shot? Should he have put on a cape, taken off from the top of the key and dunked on five Pistons like he would in a video game? If you wondered what James would do if he ever faced the same situation again, then Thursday provided the answer: he drove to the hoop against Richard Hamilton, did a spin move and missed an off-balance shot. Hughes grabbed the rebound but his short jumper was also off the mark. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown almost popped a gasket on the sidelines, fuming that James was fouled. Brown got a technical foul, Detroit made a couple free throws and this game ended like the previous one, with Varejao flinging the ball at the hoop from the other end of the court as time ran out.

Was James fouled? James certainly felt that he was and told the officials about it in no uncertain terms. There seemed to be some contact on the play but, as Wallace put it, the officials could have called a push on James, a foul on Hamilton or nothing at all. Neither team shot a lot of free throws despite this being a physical, low scoring game, which indicates that the officials let a lot of contact go throughout the entire 48 minutes. James shot a leaning one hander, which meant that contact would affect the shot more than if he went up with two hands. I think that he should have gathered himself and gone up with two hands, using his size and strength to initiate contact and force the officials to make a call. As Hubie Brown always says, if you go up with two hands then you may get a three point play. He usually makes that comment in reference to post players who are close enough to the hoop to dunk the ball but even though James never got close enough to dunk on his final shot the same reasoning applies.

Although Brown and James complained about the non-call during the game, both men refused to dwell on that play when they spoke to the media afterwards. Each said, "We are a no excuse team," a welcome departure from the incessant whining and complaining that emanated from Phoenix as the Suns' season set. While James was the favorite scapegoat for Game One, TNT's analysts gave him passing grades for his Game Two aggressiveness--even though James' final field goal numbers turned out to be about the same (7-19 in Game Two versus 5-15 in Game One; most of James' additional points came from the free throw line). This time, Brown received most of the criticism, largely because on Cleveland's fateful last possession James did not attack the hoop until less than 10 seconds were left. Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith all said that since the Cavaliers trailed by one they should have gone for a quick score. That way, even if the shot is missed the Cavaliers could still foul and have another chance to score down either one, two or three (depending on how many free throws the Pistons made). This is a valid point but I suspect that the reason that Cleveland did not do this is that the Cavaliers had no timeouts left. That means that they could not advance the ball after Detroit's free throws, nor could they make offensive/defensive substitutions. Earlier in the game, analyst Doug Collins pointed out that Brown was using so many timeouts to break Detroit runs that Cleveland might not have any left at the end of the game; that is exactly what happened and it happened in Game One, also. Brown had to use those timeouts, though; it is one thing for Phil Jackson to not use timeouts to break runs when he was coaching experienced Bulls and Lakers teams but Cleveland is a young team and if Brown had not used those timeouts when he did then the score might not have been close by the final seconds.

The bottom line is that Detroit is the veteran, favored team playing at home and Cleveland had a chance to win both games on the final possession. Brown, James and the rest of the Cavaliers could have done some things better but these games have been a lot more competitive than most people probably expected. If Cleveland plays just as hard--and a little bit smarter and more poised--then the Cavaliers can repeat what they did last year and return to Detroit tied 2-2. So much attention is paid to every shot James does or doesn't take and to Coach Brown's strategies that no one seems to notice that the Pistons hardly look like world beaters. They are literally two shots away from being down 0-2 and several of their key players had forgettable shooting performances in Game Two: Tayshaun Prince shot 0-8, Chris Webber shot 4-13 and Richard Hamilton shot 5-14. That said, the Cavaliers obviously must win both of their upcoming home games to have any chance in this series. It is all right to be encouraged by playing well enough to have a chance to win in Detroit as long as that does not lead to a complacent feeling that just being at home will be sufficient to prevail in Games Three and Four; those games figure to be closely contested, too.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM


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At Friday, May 25, 2007 6:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lebron and cleveland had a chance to win it they should be up 2 to 0 really. but they still could win the sreies if they play hard and are more poised late.

detroit did not respect there opponet here and it almost cost them i didnt think cleveland would have a chance they proved me wrong but detroit still going to win better team.

At Friday, May 25, 2007 2:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Based on the history (teams leading 2-0 in the Conf. Finals have won 55 out of 57 times) I can't be thrilled about Cleveland's chances to win this series now but there are two reeds of hope for Cavs' fans: (1) Cleveland won three in a row last year after going down 2-0, with a good chance to win Game Six as well; (2) Cleveland has demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, Detroit is not a vastly superior team. Cleveland is certainly capable of beating this team and once you win one game in a series and break the ice then things can become interesting. Utah did that to Houston this year, although Houston obviously does not have the same type of team that Detroit does.

At Friday, May 25, 2007 3:17:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

James needs to take over the whole game. And he needs to shoot better from the line.

At Friday, May 25, 2007 4:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure I'm a Detroit fan, glad for a victory on a sub-par night and chortling over the second sub-40% shooting night by LeBron.

But you know what?

Two games in, this series has worn me out. There've been SO many commentators who've highjacked it for their own agendas: LeBron lovers, LeBron haters, NBA conspiracy theorists, TV and print commentators trying to stir up controversy and crisis.

It would be nice if a loss wasn't a referendum on character or part of a storyline. But I fear we're going to be in for serious media overkill during the next week.

At Saturday, May 26, 2007 3:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree that LeBron needs to take over for Cleveland to win. The problem is that Detroit will not let him take over because wherever he goes he is swarmed by defenders. Don't forget that nowadays teams can play zone defense, which is something that MJ never faced--not that he would not have found a way around that particular challenge but he never had to deal with that; on the other hand, the game was a lot more physical then.

Cleveland must do two things to free up James: the other players must make open shots when he passes them the ball; he must attack in transition at every opportunity and not let Detroit settle into a halfcourt defense.

I don't see too many players in this series who are shooting good percentages, so LeBron's numbers have to be taken in the overall context of 79-76 games with low 40s FG%. I agree that it seems like everyone has some kind of agenda when discussing these games and that single plays are being blown entirely out of proportion. Unfortunately, the deficiencies in the way that the media is covering this series are just a microcosm of the deficiencies in the way that the media covers a lot of stories--but that is something that goes well beyond the scope of this blog.


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