Commentary

Cavaliers never let up against Pistons

Originally Published: April 26, 2009
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

LeBron JamesNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesLeBron James and the Cavaliers needed just four games to take care of the Pistons.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Cavaliers had just pasted the Detroit Pistons in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series, leading by as many as 29 points, and everyone, it seemed, was whispering the same thing. Folks were covering their mouths, leaning inconspicuously into one another, and rolling their eyes while saying in stunned and quiet tones, "The Pistons don't wanna play!"

Word eventually reached LeBron James, who was sitting alone at his locker reading his Blackberry.

He didn't want to hear it.

"No matter what they do, I ain't letting up," he said, shaking his head. "I ain't letting up."

Let those words define Cleveland 4, Detroit 0: No Let Up.

While the Cavaliers were clearly the superior team, this series didn't have to end so quickly, didn't have to resemble a Mike Tyson fight circa 1987. Knowing the Pistons were on their last legs and that victory was all but certain, Cleveland could've let it go five, even six games, without much risk.

But losing focus would've been out of character, for the Cavaliers' entire season has been about refusing to entertain complacency. In racking up their league-best 66-16 record, they pounded just about anyone who was bad, mediocre or good. They actually struggled against the league's elite, going 3-6 against the Lakers, Celtics and Magic, but they walked out the old cliché of "beating the teams they were supposed to."

Boston, which went seven games with Atlanta in the first round last year, proved that a poorly played opening series doesn't automatically spell doom. But the fact that Cleveland never took its foot off the gas has to make Cavs fans happy. It shows that their eyes are zeroed in on the prize.

That wasn't always true of LeBron and the Cavs. While they've been at their best in the postseason, they've sometimes been stargazers during the 82. They won just 45 games last season, and the year before, when they turned it on during the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals, they were one Chicago Bulls victory away from being the fifth seed in a weak Eastern Conference.

You can even go back to LeBron's fabled high school career. Sure, he won three Ohio state titles, but as a junior, his team lost in the state final to a team they obviously should've beaten.

"He lost focus that year," said Maverick Carter, one of LeBron's closest friends and a former high school teammate.

Carter said James is different this season.

"I've never seen him so focused," he said, "and I've known him for almost 20 years."

You want focused? James averaged 32 points, 11.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists this series to join Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30, 10 and 7 in a playoff series.

But the real focus for James and the Cavs has been on the defensive end, where they were ranked first or second in the league (along with Boston) all year long. James, never a truly great defender before, became a feared stopper whose fabulous blocked shots rivaled his thunder dunks for highlight appeal.

Daniel "Boobie" Gibson said he and his teammates noticed the difference in James as soon as training camp began. While resting on the sidelines during practices after helping Team USA win Olympic gold, James kept yelling about defense, encouraging his teammates to sell out on that end of the floor. Obviously, he backed up his words once he started playing.

"I had never seen him like that before," Gibson said. "All he was talking about was defense."

James' motivation was obvious: After Cleveland lost Game 7 in its second-round series with Boston last year, he realized the importance of home-court advantage. So there would be no more giveaways during the regular season. Before taking the floor for every game this season, the Cavs reminded themselves that they were playing for the league's best record.

"Since I got back here, I've been saying that if we would've had Game 7 at The Q, it might have been a different outcome," said Joe Smith, who rejoined the Cavs in March.

"That's all we talked about down the stretch -- do whatever it takes to get the home court throughout, not just the Eastern Conference, but the entire playoffs."

After six months of being dialed in, the Cavaliers aren't about to let up now. They may lose, but it won't be because they get complacent. Before this series began, James said he had put all the team's regular-season accomplishments behind him.

"You've got to understand it's two seasons," he said. "The regular season is great, and how many wins you get and how many franchise records you set can't be taken away from you. But once the second season starts, everything you did in the first season doesn't matter. You're 0-0 once that playoff starts. And it's the first team to 16 wins that wins the whole thing. If you understand that, you'll be OK. You've got to start over and get back to the basics."

That was his approach before the often-difficult close-out game on Sunday.

"We don't go in thinking, 'We're up 2-0 or up 3-0,'" James said. "We go in saying, 'It's 0-0 and let's get this win.'"

The Cavs will be rewarded for their tenacity with a week or so of rest as they await the winner of the Miami-Atlanta series.

There are always questions about whether so much time off is good or bad for a team, but the Cavs have answered at least one question: While rust is possible, a letdown definitely is not.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.