Detroit's defense deflates LeBron in Game 7
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.
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 Conference 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.
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.