LeBron praised after first (of many to come) playoffs

Updated: May 22, 2006, 12:58 AM ET
Associated Press

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- With a colorful NBA-logoed towel draped across his shoulders, LeBron James waited for the final horn and bolted for Cleveland's locker room without shaking hands.

His first postseason as a pro had ended inside Detroit's defensive dungeon, and James wanted out. He wasn't going to hang around and watch confetti sprinkle down on the Pistons and their noisy fans.

"He's a phenomenal, phenomenal talent. He grew up a lot in this series. We're going to be facing him for some years to come because he's not going nowhere. He's a terrific player, he's a good dude. I'm a huge LeBron fan, but when you're playing against him, you've got to give it your all."
Pistons guard Chauncey Billups

The star witness had been dismissed.

James, who had carried Cleveland in the regular season and past Washington in the opening round, couldn't get his team by the powerful Pistons, who shut down the Cavs' 21-year-old phenom in the second half of their 79-61 win Sunday in Game 7.

"We can't hang our heads," James said. "We were right there."

James' initial run through the playoffs concluded with 58.2 seconds left when Cavaliers coach Mike Brown sent in reserve forward Sasha Pavlovic to replace James, who spent the second half fighting his way out of double- and triple-teams.

As he got to the bench, James was first hugged by guard Larry Hughes, who had been embraced by all of Cleveland following the death of his younger brother, Justin. Then, James shared a moment with center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who pulled the third-year player close and whispered in his ear.

LeBron James
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Pistons barely left LeBron room to breathe in the second half Sunday in Game 7.
"I told him to keep his head high," Ilgauskas said. "We're going to be here for many years to come, so there's nothing for him to be ashamed of."

James bit his lower lip and seemed to be choking back tears as he dropped into a chair.

He had dominated the first half, scoring 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting as the Cavaliers -- down by 13 early -- withstood an opening flurry from the Pistons, who were only up 40-38 at halftime.

But in the second half, James didn't have room to breathe and finished 1-of-9 from the floor. He got his only two assists on Cleveland's first two buckets of the game.

The Pistons rushed two defenders at him. They ran three defenders at him. They stopped him from taking a shot for more than nine minutes of the third quarter and held him to one point in the period.

At times, James was buried under a tidal wave of white Detroit jerseys.

"'Bron was kind of having his way in the first half, he had it going," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "We made a couple of adjustments at half time. We shut everything down. It was our defense."

It suffocated the Cavaliers, who scored just 10 points in the third, only 13 in the fourth and either set, matched or approached several NBA playoff records for offensive futility.

"The Pistons are so good at moving to the ball on defense," Ilgauskas said. "We had some open looks, too. It's not like we were shooting fadeaway 3-pointers. That's why they are the Pistons."

Cleveland's locker room was somber following a game that many never thought they'd ever play.

The Cavs were blown out in Games 1 and 2 before James scored a triple-double in Game 3, and hit clutch free throws down the stretch for a victory in Game 4. In Game 5, he whipped a pass underneath to Drew Gooden for a game-winning layup as the Cavaliers handed the Pistons just their fifth loss at home this season.

"'Bron was kind of having his way in the first half, he had it going. We made a couple of adjustments at half time. We shut everything down. It was our defense."
Pistons guard Chauncey Billups

James, who averaged 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 13 playoff games, pushed the Pistons to the edge in Game 6 before losing by two points.

For nearly three quarters on Sunday, it looked as if he might be able to give the Cavaliers an historic win. But for now, James' history is on hold.

"He'll be back," Drew Gooden said. "And we'll be back with him."

As he dressed following Game 7, James paused for a moment in front of his locker and stared off into some far away place. Maybe it was to the day he's crowned an NBA champion.

Michael Jordan needed four tries before finally slaying the Pistons in the playoffs. He almost did it on the first try.

"He's a tremendous young talented kind," Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter said. "The best 21-year-old I've ever seen in my life. Still, he's not Michael Jordan, though. But he's great."

Following his news conference, James had just passed Detroit's locker room when Billups grabbed him by the arm. Detroit's Mr. Big Shot gave Cleveland's young superstar a hug and some encouragement.

"He's a phenomenal, phenomenal talent," Billups said. "He grew up a lot in this series. We're going to be facing him for some years to come because he's not going nowhere. He's a terrific player, he's a good dude. I'm a huge LeBron fan, but when you're playing against him, you've got to give it your all."

After a few hugs from family members, James, wearing a New York Yankees cap pulled down low over his eyes, left The Palace and the playoffs.

There's little doubt he'll be back.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press