CLEVELAND -- LeBron James has won the Cavaliers plenty of games on talent, a load more on skill.
Fourth gear belongs to LeBron
Saturday he won them a big one with emotion.
From a purist's perspective, the Pistons earned perfect scores for the first three quarters in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
They'd taken advantage of Larry Hughes' circumstantial absence by putting their guards in position to succeed against lesser defenders.
They even were playing disciplined and slow in a road playoff game.
Yet when James summoned another gear, as stars often do in vital games, on this day the Pistons weren't quite able to match. Led by a late surge from James, the Cavs struck a blow with an 86-77 victory to pull the series to 2-1.
James scored 15 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, which of course means he had just a half dozen after logging 36 minutes, and finished off his second triple-double of the playoffs with 10 rebounds and 10 assists to go with four steals. He did it with a black band across his left shoulder, a memorial to Hughes' brother Justin, who passed away Thursday following a long battle with heart problems.
That tinge of inspiration along with a rowdy sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena enjoying the first second round playoff game in its history seemed to push James down the stretch. After yielding to the unrelenting shadow of Tayshaun Prince and his helpers all evening, he pushed through to make 6-of-8 shots in the fourth.
"We couldn't lose this game, it would've dug us a hole we couldn't get out of," James said. "I try to put us in a position to win down the stretch. I wasn't able to do that in the first two games but this was one of the biggest games of our season."
That has been the Cavs' formula all season. They were 17-4 against winning teams at home and had 18 fourth quarter come-from-behind victories, a byproduct of their precision in close games.
But before James got really aggressive, finding heretofore unseen seams in the Pistons' middle for three clutch layups, it was defense that kept the Cavs close. Despite muddling through some bad offensive sets -- they missed 11 of their first 12 3-point tries and shot just 43 percent through three quarters -- they altered their defensive strategy against the Pistons.
Instead of bringing as much help defense as in Games 1 and 2, the Cavs stayed up on their men and in the passing lanes. As a result the Pistons were forced to take more contested shots and make more risky passes. Detroit ended up turning it over an uncharacteristic 17 times and shooting just 39 percent.
Running off pick-and-rolls where James got all the attention, Cavs backup center Anderson Varejao kept the Cavs in it with a career-playoff high 16 points. Five of his six baskets were assisted by James.
In the fourth, though, it was James making all the plays.
"We got it to the tempo we wanted, but they grinded it and you have to give them credit," Billups said. "LeBron does things most guys can do; he made all the right plays at the right time, at the end."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon-Journal.
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AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Thanks to the quick hands of super soph Devin Harris, the Spurs found themselves in the unusual position of fumbling away a chance to win the game when Manu Ginobili couldn't save the ball with two seconds remaining.
Another Game 3 against the Spurs at home. Another Dirk Nowitzki injury.
One big difference, though.
It wasn't a buckling knee this time, as seen in Game 3 of the 2003 Western Conference finals . . . after which Nowitzki wasn't seen until the following season.
Nowitzki merely rolled an ankle Saturday night.
He rolled it badly, true. Nowitzki himself admits that he rolled it "pretty nicely." He also put it "up there," in career terms, when asked where it rated on his personal Twisted Ankle Power Rankings.
However . . .
He's also fond of saying that it's something he's done "a hundred thousand times before."
Which is why you shouldn't be surprised if he's pretty close to fine for Monday's Game 4.
Especially if you saw what Nowitzki did at the end of Game 3, sealing the Dallas Mavericks' 104-103 squeaker over San Antonio before hobbling to and from the interview room with black tape wrapped tightly around his lower leg.
"These are the games I'm searching for to see how mentally tough we are," said Mavericks coach Avery Johnson.
"I thought we did some strong-minded stuff tonight."
Put Nowitzki at the top of that list. You can debate whether his attempts to draw contract on Tim Duncan merited a trip to free-throw line -- and a fuming Duncan protested vigorously -- but Nowitzki was pretty steely after landing his right foot on Duncan's right foot added up to Duncan's sixth foul with 1:05 to go.
Nowitzki sank two free throws after a timeout to gather himself. Nowitzki spun down the lane on the next trip and found Jerry Stackhouse for a tough layup when three Spurs converged. Nowitzki then grabbed an offensive rebound to set up the clinching free throws to complete one of his stranger gaudy stat lines.
He made only three shots all evening, but still finished with 27 points and 15 boards. He didn't attempt a 3-pointer, but was sufficiently aggressive against a five-man platoon of Dirk defenders -- Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, Michael Finley and Manu Ginobili all took a turn -- to earn 24 trips to the line, sinking 21.
"This is the new and improved Dirk," Johnson reminded.
Said Nowitzki: "I don't think we're a 3-point shooting team any more. . . . That's a tribute to Avery."
The Spurs, by contrast, aren't sporting such a fresh look, after those three days off that were supposed to energize them so.
They look as shell-shocked as a team trailing 2-1 can look, mainly because the Spurs just lost the sort of game they always seem to win. Maybe also because they've never faced this daunting a deficit against their fellow Texans.
Unlike the retooled Mavs, San Antonio has the same core group as it had in the '03 West finals. It's a group that has always secured a higher playoff seed than the Mavs, even though Dallas is the only other team in the league to win at least 50 games in each of the past six seasons, and it's a group that had never lost a playoff game in this building in three previous attempts.
The Spurs are trailing, 2-1, and facing what even the normally reserved Duncan labeled a "must-win" Game 4.
They're mad at themselves for starting so sluggishly after those three days off and wasting Duncan's 35 points and 12 boards. They're wondering what happened to their vaunted D, which couldn't get a meaningful fourth-quarter stop and thus negated their own sparkling efficiency (13-for-17 shooting) in the fourth. They're stunned that the sure-handed Manu Ginobili and Robert Horry were short-circuited on a crunch-time handoff by Devin Harris . . . and even more stunned that the Mavericks, particularly Harris, continue to get in the lane so easily.
So easily that Dallas racked up 50 free-throw attempts, a whopping 22 alone in the final period.
"It's like Superman playing Bizarro Superman," Spurs guard Brent Barry said. "Up is down. Left is right. The players are different [on both teams], but it's like you're playing against a carbon copy of yourself. Their system and philosophy, they're trying to do the same thing we do."
The Mavs are succeeding, too.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich emptied his adjustments reserve for this one, starting Barry in place of Ginobili and reluctantly shifting Bruce Bowen onto Josh Howard at the start, with Horry taking Nowitzki. A lot of it worked as well. Howard never got in the flow offensively, Bowen wound up guarding Nowitzki plenty and Ginobili matched Duncan's 10 points in the fourth quarter to finish with 24.
"Usually we win games with defense," Ginobili said. "Tonight we just couldn't."
Which means they have to Monday night, or else San Antonio, which has never overturned a 2-1 playoff deficit in the Popovich era, takes something truly unusual back home.
A 3-1 deficit.
Nowitzki's history proves that he knows how to play through ankle pain. We're about to find out if these Spurs know how to play from behind.
-- Marc Stein in Dallas
Dirk Nowitzki made two free throws with 7.9 seconds remaining for the final points in the Mavericks' 104-103 victory over the Spurs in Game 3. That left Nowitzki with a team-high 27 points, which he accumulated in a weird manner: only three field goals, but 21 free throws. Nowitzki became the first player in NBA history to fail to score as many as 30 points in a playoff game in which he made at least 20 free throws.
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The bad news for Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki hurt his ankle late in the fourth quarter. The good news: he fouled out Tim Duncan on the play. Dirk sinks his free throws, and Dallas soon wins.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
LeBron James prepares to jam in the first quarter. The dunk inspired a big scissors-kick from Damon Jones, far left, a moment later.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
The Suns will continue to get good position in the post if the Clippers run bigger men out on Steve Nash to slow him down and Tim Thomas drags Elton Brand to the outside to defend his shooting. Starting Thomas, Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw strengthens the front line defensively but also allows Phoenix to get more rebounds.
The Clippers might stay straight up with Shaun Livingston guarding Nash, so that Los Angeles can keep Brand out of foul trouble. The quickness of the frontline of Phoenix has made the Clippers look slow. When Brand isn't in the middle blocking shots, it allows the Suns to be more aggressive and get fouls on the Clipper big men.
Meanwhile, the Clippers' defense seemed more focused on using Brand out on the perimeter, helping on Nash than playing defense in the post. Los Angeles is not going to allow Nash to just drive past one defender and dictate his offense. Despite a poor scoring performance from Nash, the Suns can still win, and all the substitutions aimed at slowing down the Suns really hurt the Clippers' offense.
The big surprise on Saturday wasn't Cleveland winning Game 3, it was how Cleveland won the game. The Cavs were supposed to be at a major disadvantage against the Pistons' mighty frontcourt tandem of Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace, but in Game 3 it was the Cavs' big men who had the upper hand. The quartet of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Anderson Varejao outscored Detroit's Wallaces and Antonio McDyess 41-22.
They had the advantage in quality as well as quantity. Detroit's group shot 8-for-21, while the Cavs' quartet was a more robust 17-for-27. That mark improves to 17-for-24 when you consider only 2-point shots, a shocking figure considering the renown of Detroit's interior defense. It turned out to be Cleveland's saving grace, allowing it to win even as its perimeter players missed one wide-open jumper after another.
Of particular note was Varejao, who made 6-of-7 from the field -- including a spectacular drive that began with a behind-the-back move at midcourt -- to finish with 16 points in 22 minutes. He also provided his energy at the defensive end, helping to limit the Wallace's touches.
All of which raises an interesting question -- is it time to put Sideshow Bob in the big tent? Ilgauskas has struggled mightily throughout the playoffs, while Gooden has been on-and-off thanks in part to some nagging injuries. Meanwhile, Varejao's number are ridiculous. He's shooting 70 percent for the series and has 37 points in 50 minutes -- a better per-minute rate than LeBron James.
While expecting Varejao keep up that kind of production for any length of time would be foolish, they do suggest the Cavs have much better odds if he's on the floor more often. Heading into Game 4 with a chance to tie the series, it seems like time to pull the trigger.
-- John Hollinger
Turnovers will kill you in the playoffs, especially in crunch time. The Nets had only had 13 turnovers for the game but they committed six in the fourth quarter and it cost them. This was the first close game of this series and turnovers and free throws are big in close games.
The Nets had the ball in Vince Carter's hands a lot late in the game and he committed three of the turnovers. Carter is a great player but not the strongest ballhandler and the Nets may have to rethink pick-and-rolls for him down the stretch.
Their reliance on Carter offensively may have also cost them. Although Carter scored 43 points in Game 3, he took 34 shots. This means that there are other scorers who are standing around and not moving or involved on offense.
Kidd had 10 points at half and zero in the second half. Jefferson had 13 field goal attempts for the game but only four came after halftime. Every time Jefferson is guarded by Walker he should get the ball. He blew by Walker in Game 3 like he wasn't even there.
New Jersey may have to look at distributing the ball more in Game 4 with their other scorers so that Miami cannot load up on Carter so much down the stretch of the game.
Plain and simple: Nenad Krstic needs to step up his game for the Nets to win this series. He is 8-for-24 (33 percent) in the last two games but the problem is more than that. Krstic is passing up shots he knocks down with regularity and he appears to have lost his confidence.
If the Nets could run pick-and-pops with Krstic, and he could make a high percentage of his shots in Game 4, it would help the Nets offensively.