AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Thousands of pieces of red, white and blue confetti floated down from the rafters of the Palace after the final buzzer sounded, a celebration ensuing among the Detroit Pistons at center court as LeBron James trudged off hanging his head.
Detroit defense deflates LeBron
There was ample reason for such a display, the type usually reserved for championship celebrations or conference finals victories.
When you shut down the greatest player remaining in the playoffs, when your calling card is defense and you play it so successfully that you hold the opposing team to a grand total of five field goals -- yes, only five -- in the entire second half, you break out the confetti and let it fly.
"It is what it is, it did what it do, and we came out with a victory," was the way Rasheed Wallace summed it up after the Pistons turned to their greatest strength, their ability to play lock-down defense, to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers 79-61 Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Pistons we had come to know over the past two years, the team with the swagger, the confidence and the know-how to stomp the life out of an opponent, was the team that finally showed up in the second half Sunday, putting their stamp on the biggest game of their season by finally finding a way to shut down the one and only player they feared.
By sagging away rather than trying to fight through the picks the Cavs set for James, they closed off the lanes to the basket and forced James to either beat them with jumpers or pass off to his teammates, none of whom brought their "A" game.
James was only 1-for-9 in the second half with zero assists and two turnovers, and for the game his supporting cast shot a combined 9-for-41.
"I've got to give the Pistons' defense credit, because they did a heck of a job on him, but fatigue sets in, too, and I'm sure after playing 48 minutes for six straight nights and then trying to do it tonight going against that team and that type of pressure, it wears you down. And it got to him a little bit tonight in the second half," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "He just ran out of gas."
James disagreed with that assessment, shaking his head and saying "No" when asked if he agreed that fatigue was a factor. But he did not elaborate, nor did he provide much of anything in the way of a detailed explanation as to what had gone wrong for him in the second half.
"I'm disappointed that we lost, of course. We were right there, and we had a chance to win the series at home, but things happen. This is a great team, and you've got to give much credit to the Pistons. They worked hard all year for home court, they took care of business the other night in Cleveland and it paid off for them tonight," James said.
So we move on now to a rematch of last year's seven-game classic in the Eastern Confeernce finals, the Pistons going up against a revamped Miami roster that was rebuilt following the Heat's meltdown in the final 125 seconds of their Game 7 loss to Detroit last season. It's the series everyone was expecting all season, except for the fact that the Pistons will go into it after a tougher test than nearly anyone predicted for them.
Detroit enters Game 1 with its offense looking somewhat stagnant and its free-throw shooting (18-for-32 on Sunday) a serious concern, but at least the defensive intensity got where it needed to be when the Pistons needed it most.
Rasheed Wallace said his teammates talked afterward about how they expect the next series to be called, saying they don't expect the referees to give the same preferential treatment to Dwyane Wade as they did to James (with the exception of Sunday, when he took only eight shots from the foul line).
Detroit will also be looking to get the same type of balanced offensive production it got Sunday, with Tayshaun Prince scoring a team-high 20 points, Richard Hamilton adding 15, Rasheed Wallace 13 and Chauncey Billups 12.
The Pistons also got a big boost in Games 6 and 7 from 13-year veteran Lindsey Hunter, whose 5-year-old son, Caleb, was imitating one of Kobe Bryant's moves in the locker room after the game as his dad finished getting dressed.
"Kobe's not playing anymore, Caleb. He's watching," Hunter said. "But your favorite player is still playing, D-Wade, and we're going to beat him."
Not exactly a Guaran-Sheed, but a pretty strong signal nonetheless that the Pistons are mighty self-assured once again. It certainly showed on the court, and we'll see it'll carry through the next round.
The Heat have better role players than Cleveland, a far more dominant center and a speedster in the backcourt who might be the only player in the league who gets into the lane with more frequency and consistency than James.
"Game 7 brings a lot of pressure," Billups said, "but for us pressure is not that big of a deal."
Can't argue with Billups on that one, and that's why the Pistons were able to break out the confetti.
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Ever since their painful Game 7 loss to the Pistons in the 2005 Eastern Conference finals, the Miami Heat have been preparing to face Detroit. Looks like the Motown faithful is ready, too.
Kobe Bryant, in the second half of Game 7 against the Suns, plays passively and is roundly criticized for either quitting or making a statement or both.
LeBron James, in the second half of Game 7 against the Pistons, has an almost identical performance and the closest anyone comes to asking what happened is my colleague Chris Sheridan, relaying to LeBron that Coach Mike Brown suggested he was tired. Which James quickly and firmly denied.
So. If there was ever a blatant demonstration of the double standard when it comes to judging Kobe vs. LeBron -- or just about anybody else -- this is it.
When Kobe took only three second-half shots vs. the Suns, all the questions were directed at him: Why did he do that? What was said at halftime? What was he trying to prove?
If you don't buy that he needed his teammates to trim Phoenix' lead to single digits before he could take over, fine. If you think after his 23-point first half he should've started firing at every opportunity and that that would've somehow inspired his teammates to play the kind of staunch defense they couldn't muster in the first half while getting touches, OK.
But then you have to ask the same questions of James and the Cavaliers.
After all, he had 21 first-half points while taking only four jumpers (missing three) on 10-of-15 shooting and Detroit led by a mere two points. Sure, James took nine shots in the second half, three times more than Kobe. But he made only one and seven of them were jumpers. Moreover, the Pistons didn't do anything more defensively than have Tayshaun Prince guard him rather than Rip Hamilton, but the only reason Hamilton was on him in the first place is that LeBron had tortured Prince earlier in the series.
Now, granted, Cavs coach Brown did Detroit a huge favor by playing Larry Hughes 26 minutes and putting him in the middle of the floor rather than LeBron during that time. Hughes simply couldn't create the chances for himself or his teammates that LeBron could.
Hughes' stat line didn't look bad, but this is all you need to know: He played in three games in this series, all of them losses, two of them blowouts. Cleveland, conversely, won three of the four games he didn't play, all of them going down to the wire.
Meanwhile, having James attack from the wing also allowed the Pistons to corral him more easily by forcing him to the baseline.
Look, I understand why Kobe is guilty until proven innocent and the judge and jury are making goo-goo eyes at LeBron. Kobe has made his share of publicity blunders while the closest LeBron has come to offending anyone was having a suspicously financed chromed-out Hummer in high school. It can be hard to like Kobe, while LeBron makes it easy. I truly get that.
I'm also not here to denigrate James' effort or performance. There's never been anyone in NBA history who has had his combination of size (6-8, 250) and speed (f-f-f-fast enough to turn the corner on anyone), and he has an amazingly mature game for someone 21 years old.
He made his share of tactical blunders and bad decisions in this series, but that's no surprise; I wouldn't expect him to understand the game the way Kobe or Tim Duncan or Steve Nash do. He is going to be a force to be reckoned with for a long time and I can't imagine how amazing he will be once his mental game catches up with his physical talents.
All I'm saying is, that their personalities and Q ratings shouldn't have anything to do with how their performances as NBA players -- nay, superstars -- are judged. And based on how similar their playoff exits were, and how dramatically different they were treated, that's clearly not the case.
-- Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine
In the wake of Cleveland's Game 7 defeat, Mike Brown will face a lot of questions about how he can get more players involved in the offense. Another question, however, is just as nagging in my mind:
How on earth do you not foul Ben Wallace in the fourth quarter?
When Wallace checked back into the game with 3:57 left and Detroit holding a 12-point lead, the Cavs still had a sliver of a chance. Their best hope was to extend the game by creating as many possessions as possible, and hoping their inept offense would finally produce some points with all those extra chances.
Brown had the perfect setup for pursuing that strategy in the person of Ben Wallace. A poor free-throw shooter throughout his career, he's become completely ridiculous of late. Wallace entered those final minutes having made only two of his past 17 free-throw attempts, and was at 10-for-42 (23.8%) for the postseason.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say a large chunk of the league's players could do better than that blindfolded.
Based on Wallace's recent success rate, the Cavs could have expected to give up about one point for every two possessions, and would have had several opportunities to foul Wallace quickly before the foul rules shifted at the 2:00 mark.
The only alternative for Detroit would have been for Flip Saunders to negate the strategy by taking the Defensive Player of the Year off the floor -- something Cleveland would have welcomed just as much.
Instead, Brown let the Pistons milk the clock and put the game to bed. In four possessions before the two-minute mark, Detroit scored on three of them and used 16, 20, 15 and 17 seconds. Employing Hack-a-Ben instead likely would have yielded two points instead of six, and burned eight seconds instead of 1:08. So instead of trailing 75-59 with 2:11 remaining -- essentially, game over -- the Cavs would have had a more manageable 71-59 deficit and over three minutes left on the clock.
No, it probably wouldn't have mattered, especially the way Cleveland struggled to score. But the strategic choice is no less baffling. The Hack-a-Ben gave the Cavs a golden opportunity to rally in those final minutes, and for some reason their coach didn't take it.
-- John Hollinger
Like Rip Hamilton's mask, the Pistons' Game 7 win was more effective than pretty. Time to get ready for Shaq, D-Wade and the Miami Heat.
Detroit now halfway to a title
D. Lippitt/Einstein/Getty Images
Tayshaun Prince's 20 points and defense on LeBron James, with a strong supporting performance by Lindsey Hunter, means Prince and the Pistons won't have to worry about LeBron again until next year.
Quote of the Day
-- Royce Webb
One of LeBron James' famous traits is his unselfishness. Sunday the Detroit Pistons used it against him.
Despite maintaining a lead for the entire first half of Game 7, the Pistons went to the locker room worried. Ahead by just two points with the stat sheet reading James was more than halfway to 40, the stage was set for the sort of history-making performance the Pistons didn't want to see.
So routing back to a philosophy used by numerous teams over the last two seasons, the Pistons decided to make sure James didn't beat them. They voraciously double-teamed him in the second half and, as the book on him reads, he gladly gave the ball up.
This approach turned out to be an utter failure as the pressure of Game 7 and the Pistons' attack shut down the Cavs' already shaky offensive system in the 79-61 win.
"We know them inside out, I know what those dudes had for breakfast," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "LeBron was kind of having his way a little bit in that first half, we made a couple adjustments at halftime."
James scored just six of his 27 points after half, but it was his teammates and the team's offensive system that led the Cavs to one of the worst offensive showings in NBA playoff history.
It was the exposure of a flaw that has plagued the Cavs all season and one they'll have to address as a unit before James can carry them any further in the playoffs.
While Cavs coach Mike Brown's defensive system took hold as the season wore on, culminating in a masterful effort against the Pistons when they limited Detroit's high-powered offense to an average of 82 points over the series' final six games, his offense has been wheezing for months.
Known as a defensive specialist, Brown built his offense off principles he learned from Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Rick Carlisle in Indiana. But it degenerated in to an approach with very few actual plays aside from high and side pick-and-rolls featuring James and lots of dribbling.
For the entire series the Pistons forced James to the wings when he came off high picks -- one of the reasons why wily big man Anderson Varejao often burned them going to the basket on the resulting rolls -- to cut the court in half. The sidelines defended two sides and the Pistons tilted their defense to box him in.
In the second half on Sunday, the Pistons sometimes didn't even wait for the pick -- they'd just double team him straight up to prevent him from even thinking of driving. So he passed and his teammates combined to go 9-of-41 for 34 points in the game.
"Me being the player I am, me being the person I am, I had to give the ball up," James said.
It took Michael Jordan five or six years to trust his teammates enough try to let them help in playoff games. James' two triple-doubles during the playoffs this season show he has no such qualms. But letting his teammates decide his fate in the current system isn't working. James averaged 26.6 points in the series and no one else on his team averaged more than 10 as the Cavs mustered just 80 points a game.
It isn't that James shouldn't pass, it's that Brown system doesn't seem to put his teammates in the best position to help him. Despite more than $160 million in total salary due free agent signees Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, who were supposed to help with the scoring burden, all saw their scoring averages fall from last season. Meanwhile James' scoring average went up and his assists went down.
The real lesson learned Sunday was that for all the improvement the Cavs have made on defense, until they find a way to best use James' talents they will be susceptible to such playoff endings.
-- Brian Windhorst in Auburn Hills, Mich.
D. Lippitt/Einstein/Getty Images
LeBron James followed Sunday's storybook first half (21 points, 10-for-15 shooting) with a subpar second half, ending his initial playoff run of 13 games in disappointment.
From the Daily Dime mailbag:
Tone (Ohio): The day the "King" met the Prince.
Mark (Kalamazoo, MI): Hey, Cleveland, um ... SCOREBOARD!
Justin (Detroit): It just goes to show that one man cannot beat a team. The one man can take them far, but the team will eventually be victorious.
Michael (Atlanta): Is it an advantage or disadvantage for the Heat? They haven't played in awhile yet they are rested.