The Cleveland Cavaliers may have the future of the NBA on their roster in the person of LeBron James, but the Detroit Pistons gave them a lesson about how winning works today.
With James trying to single-handedly carry his team to a Game 7 win Michael Jordan-style Sunday, the Pistons put the hammer down with team defense and a box score that looked like this: Prince 20, Hamilton 15, R. Wallace 13, Billups 12.
And like this: Cleveland 61, Detroit 79.
Not a superstar line in the bunch. Not even a star line. Nobody had double figures in anything but points. Nobody had more than three blocks or assists.
Since the end of the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, winning in the NBA has been all about, as Robert De Niro put it so eloquently in "The Untouchables," the team, the team, the team. He punctuated that remark with a baseball bat upside some underling's head.
The Pistons didn't need a baseball bat to dispatch the Cavaliers, but the effect was about the same, the result as decisive.
They did it with that balanced, just-enough offense and stifling, ever-changing defense. "I've seen almost every defense that I could possibly see for the rest of my career in this series," James said after Game 7.
You have to pull out a whole bunch of "since 1955" -- meaning shot-clock-era -- records to describe the extent to which Detroit held Cleveland down, especially in the second half, when the Cavaliers scored 23 points. That's twenty-three, in case you missed the game and thought I typed the wrong numbers.
The Cavs held their own in the first half, withstanding an opening 19-6 blitz and slowly pulling to within two at the half, 40-38, though that score was a little misleading. The Pistons had made only six of 16 free throws. If they'd hit their usual 72.7 percent, they'd have made 12, and while things wouldn't have gone exactly the same with those made shots, the lead would likely have been closer to eight than two.
Then again, if your grandmother had wheels she'd be a trolley car. They did miss them, and the Cavs were within two, thanks to James, who scored 21 points in 24 minutes while his playmates scored 17 in 96.
In the old NBA, the NBA of decades and centuries past, James or someone like him, someone named Michael Jordan, most likely, would have hoisted the Cavs on his back for the second half too, would have shown those superstar-lacking Detroiters what it takes to win in the show. That is, a spectacular assortment of one-on-one moves, seasoned with the occasional brilliant pass.
Not today, Sparky.
Kobe Bryant visited the TNT studio one night last week and had an interesting conversation with Charles Barkley about when and how he decides to "take over a game," to try to dominate offensively. He talked about weighing the personality and defensive strengths of the opponent, whether they can be awed and intimidated by a show of force or whether they're able to render such a performance impressive but ineffective.
It revealed that more thought goes into Bryant's decision making -- or at least his after-the-fact explaining -- than I'd given him credit for, but: Dude, so 1993. So 2000.
You don't take over a game. You get defensive stops and run your offense.
The Cavs had no chance Sunday. They couldn't run their offense. The Pistons switched on screens except when they didn't. They came over them except when they went under. Eventually, they reduced James and his pals to crossing their fingers and hoisting low-percentage threes. How's this for a percentage: 8.3.
"There's nobody on his level that can get his teammates involved like he does," Tayshaun Prince said of James, and that's probably true. James' rapier pass to Drew Gooden for the Game 5 winner wasn't some aberration.
But James' teammates shot 9-for-41 -- 22 percent -- and scored 34 points. That's thirty-four. Imagine if James weren't so good at getting them involved.
James will see many another playoff day, but if he's going to see June, he'll need more help.
The Pistons, meanwhile, move on to the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat in a matchup of two teams that are counting on the ability to flip the switch as needed. I get the feeling the Pistons can clamp down defensively and dominate the way they did Sunday more or less whenever they want to, but it's hard to want to all the time.
The Heat are hoping that, having conserved them, Shaquille O'Neal has enough "on" minutes left in him this year to create enough open spaces for Dwyane Wade and the seemingly rejuvenated Antoine Walker to operate. Shaq presents a tough matchup for anyone, but he is particularly difficult for Detroit, which lacks a behemoth in the middle.
Remember that last year the Heat took the Pistons to the brink in the conference finals with O'Neal and Wade injured.
I've been trying to figure out all year if this Heat team is better than that one. I think it's not. This Pistons team seems to be better than last year's, which is to say it's the same team but without the attendant chaos of the Larry Brown situation.
The Heat will have had a week of rest behind them while the Pistons will have to go to work 50 hours after the end of a grueling seven-game series. It's my considered opinion that the layoff will either help the Heat or make them rusty, and the short turnaround will mean that the Pistons will either be sharp or have heavy legs.
In an effort to avoid columnist schtick, I've been laying off the predictions this playoff season, but I'll just say the Heat had better be pretty damn fresh.
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Game 7 double-header [PERMALINK]
Over on the varsity side -- did I say that? I meant in the Western Conference -- you're going to have to tape the "24" finale because both thrilling conference semifinal series have a Game 7 Monday night.
The San Antonio Spurs, having survived Game 6 in Dallas, host the Mavericks at 8 p.m. EDT, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns tip off in the desert at 10:30.
Counting Sunday's game in Detroit, NBA home teams are 77-17 in Game 7s. In other words, rooting for a visiting team in an NBA Game 7 is very much like rooting for the 2001 Chicago Bulls, the 2000 Clippers, or the Heat, Vancouver Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Mavericks, Cavaliers or San Diego (that's right, kids) Rockets in their first year of existence.
Those teams won 18 percent of the time also, finishing 15-67.
It's a little better than rooting for last year's Atlanta Hawks.
It really would have been a good idea for the Mavericks to have won Game 6 at home.
I've written several times, including recently, that the Mavs have a tough assignment to win the championship with Dirk Nowitzki as their go-to guy. Nowitzki is a wonderful player, but he's not a go-to guy.
Several Nowitzki fans leapt to his defense in the letters section and my own in box, saying I was wrong to call him "soft" -- which I was, it was a poor word choice -- and that he has shown impressive mental and physical toughness lately.
He has, and I've been impressed with him this playoff year, but when the chips are down, he's still not the guy, as evidenced by the ending of Game 6 Friday.
Dallas was down by three with the ball out of bounds in the frontcourt and 15.2 seconds left -- an ocean of time. With Tim Duncan on the bench and San Antonio conceding the inside and guarding the three-point arc, Nowitzki broke to the right wing, fighting his way through Michael Finley to get there, when Finley would have gladly let him go toward the undefended basket.
Nowitzki collected a pass from Jerry Stackhouse in the right corner with 10.3 seconds left -- still an eternity -- and, with Finley draped on him, flung up a desperate three.
Air ball. Rebound Tony Parker. Game over.
Now, this wasn't all Nowitzki's fault. Avery Johnson may have drawn up a play for him to shoot a three from the right wing, though a two-point basket and a foul would have been a much better strategy, extending the game and forcing the Spurs, one of the worst free-throw-shooting teams in the league, to make free throws.
It certainly would have been a better strategy when it became clear the Spurs were willing to concede a two-pointer.
Nowitzki's teammates, meanwhile, stood and watched him struggle in the corner, each of them anchored to the three-point line as though they could do some good from there while Nowitzki grappled with Finley.
But Nowitzki still failed. He had options. The Mavs had a timeout left. He also never used his dribble. Nor did he try a pump fake to get Finley in the air and draw a foul. He simply launched a buzzer-beating desperation heave -- with eight seconds left.
Pick your great playoff performer, from John Havlicek to LeBron James or anyone you'd like in between. Can you imagine them tossing away the end of a game like that?
I'll keep saying it till he proves me wrong: Dirk Nowitzki, fantastic player that he is, Hall of Famer that he's destined to be, is not the guy I want as my team's best option in a playoff game.
No predictions around here, but the Mavericks' social calendar looks like it's about to open up.
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