- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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CLEVELAND -- Kobe, this is how you lead a team.
You don't defer to the Bryant-ettes. You don't hide behind "the game plan." You don't enter a witness protection program, take just three second-half shots and score zero field goals in the last 24 minutes of a playoff elimination game.
Instead, you do what LeBron James did Saturday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals: You let the game come to you. And when it gets within arm's reach, you grab it hard by the earlobe, pull it close, and don't let go until it whimpers for mercy.
The Detroit Pistons aren't exactly whimpering, but they are in a little bit of playoff pain. They had a 2-0 series lead and a 10-point advantage midway through the third quarter of Saturday evening's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at The Q. But that was before the anti-Kobe stuck a cocktail toothpick in the Pistons' plans for a sweep.
"He does things that most guys can't do," said the Pistons' Chauncey Billups.
If Bryant didn't see King James cut Detroit's series lead in half, then Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson ought to DHL him the game tape as soon as possible. James wrote a baller's how-to manual against the conference's -- and maybe the league's -- best team.
When the Pistons were up by those double digits, James didn't go into a funk (like Kobe did in Game 7 against the Phoenix Suns). He didn't pout (like Kobe did). He didn't play like he was on sedatives (like Kobe did).
He led. He inspired. He willed.
"Honestly, I think this is the best game he's played," said Cavs veteran Donyell Marshall.
LBJ has scored more, thrilled more and dazzled more. But good luck finding a game where James has meant more to the Cavs. He had 21 points, which is nice, but it's still 12 points less than his playoff average and 10 points off his regular-season average. But James also had 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his 10th career triple-double. (And did we mention the four steals and one blocked shot?) He did everything but tape his teammates' ankles.
The King and his Court beat the Pistons 86-77. ABC thought so much of the game that the network skip-passed it to ESPN, from prime time to late-afternoon -- informercial time. Can you blame it? Detroit was up 2-0 and favored by the Vegas smart guys to make it 3-0.
The schedule might have said otherwise, but this was an elimination game. Lose this one and the Cavs could start logging on to Orbitz for their vacation plans. You need to chug Holy Water to come back from an 0-3 series deficit, especially against the heartless Pistons, who have a history of stepping on opponents' throats as if they're cigarette butts.
But James wouldn't let Detroit grind its sneakers into the Cavs. He had only four points at halftime, but he already had five rebounds, seven assists, a steal, and a blocked shot. He was playing the kind of defense you see on instructional videos. And nobody on the floor played every second of every minute of the half as James did.
Kobe had 23 points in the first half of Game 7 against the Suns. The Lakers trailed by 15 -- not good, but not insurmountable. But rather than take control, Bryant stuck to some sort of game plan that apparently called for him to keep force-feeding his teammates. At least, that's what Bryant said after the Suns won by 31 and overcame a 3-1 series deficit.
It was a bogus excuse, the work of a great player having an on-court hissy fit. When the Bryant-ettes couldn't deliver, Kobe did nothing to help them. In essence, he gave up.
James didn't know it, but he delivered the perfect cross-country response to Kobe and the Lakers star's lame reasoning about sticking to "the game plan." Game plans change. They evolve. Sometimes they have to be dumped.
James knows this. Kobe doesn't.
"I don't plan what I'm going to do before the game," James said. "I just react to the game. I get doubled, I get a ball up. It's been my motto all year. It's been my motto all my life.
"But I seen some creases in the fourth quarter and I was able to attack it and give ourselves an opportunity to win the ballgame." LeBron scored 15 of his 21 points in the fourth.
James involved his teammates in Game 3. When he was double teamed -- which happened a lot -- he found the open man. Anderson Varejao (think Florida's Joakim Noah) had an unexpected 16 points, thanks in part to James' feeds off screen-and-rolls. Marshall chipped in nine points, including a run-out basket made possible by a James flip pass that somehow covered three-quarters of the court and dropped perfectly into Donyell's hands.
But in the second half, even after missing his first two jumpers ... even after the Pistons were a shot or two from blowing the game wide open ... James remained patient. And when the time was right, he overwhelmed the Pistons.
A jumper. A dunk that made my teeth rattle. A Raisinets-sweet feed to Varejao that put the Cavs ahead 63-62 with 7:22 remaining in the third quarter. A he-didn't-really-do-that-did-he? underhand scoop shot from the baseline. Another feed to Varejao. Another drive past Tayshaun Prince (who just happens to be a second team All-NBA Defensive Team selection) for a lay-in. And another. A stolen pass. A 3-pointer from the wing that stretched Cleveland's lead to seven points with 1:10 left to play. A skip pass to Damon Jones for a trey.
"I had to step up, and it wasn't by scoring," James said. "I didn't have one of my big offensive nights like I can have."
But he had a big night, which is why this series will live for at least five games, maybe longer. Game 4 is Monday evening.
Kobe should watch. And learn.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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