That's more like it, LeBron.
LeBron James was a little more Michael Jordan, a lot less Dirk Nowitzki Thursday night in Game 2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Detroit Pistons NBA playoff series. The result was the same as in Game 1, a 79-76 Pistons victory, but for Cleveland's star, it was a different game in an important way.
Widely panned -- including in this space -- for his passive, get-my-teammates-involved performance and especially his last-second dish to Donyell Marshall Monday night, James defended himself one last time Thursday in an on-court halftime interview with TNT's Craig Sager.
Asked about the criticism, he said, "I know I made the right decision in that last game on Monday, so you come up with that same mindset today and try to get a win."
But actions speak louder than words, if I may coin a phrase. First Cavs possession: James takes an inbounds pass and drives the baseline for a layup. Third Cavs possession: James takes a pass at the free-throw line, drives the lane and is fouled going up for a layup. Fifth Cavs possession: James calls for the ball in the backcourt, takes a pass at the half-court line, stutter-steps and drives hard around Chauncey Billups, toward the basket, though he fumbles the ball and turns it over.
By the time James stood with Sager for that interview, he had 14 points, four assists and three rebounds. He'd taken five free throws, five more than he took in Game 1. Not coincidentally, the Cavaliers led the Pistons 50-38.
That's the end of the good part of the story for Cleveland. If you're good at math you can see the Cavaliers only scored 26 points in the second half on the way to losing and falling behind 2-0 in the series. James had five points in the half, which looks an awful lot like Monday's performance, when he scored 10 for the game.
But it wasn't the same at all. Gone was the passive Dirkmonster of Monday night. James took charge of his team and tried to lead it to victory. It didn't work, but that's because the Pistons clamped down on defense in the second half in a way that can only be called spectacular.
There were long stretches when the Cavaliers looked completely befuddled on offense. With Pistons defenders inside their shirts, the Cavs missed having a true point guard and Detroit quickly gobbled up most of Cleveland's lead with a 9-0 run starting about three minutes into the third quarter.
Still, the Cavs had a chance. They led by a penny and had the ball with 40 seconds left. James drove into the lane on Rasheed Wallace, but Wallace stayed with him, and Antonio McDyess stepped up to help. James dished to Sasha Pavlovic in the right corner -- exactly as he'd done Monday! Pavlovic jumped up for the shot, decided in midair to pass -- a cardinal basketball sin -- saw that he had nowhere to throw the ball, and ended up traveling.
It wasn't exactly the same, though. First of all, James really was double-teamed this time, as opposed to the supposed triple-team Monday, which consisted of a defender he'd beaten and two help defenders who weren't in position to help. This time, Wallace was in front of James, and when James jumped, McDyess jumped with him and might have blocked the shot had James tried it.
More important, passing there wouldn't have been a symptom of James' overall passive game, which was the real problem Monday, not whether that pass was the right or wrong decision in isolation. I think the pass to Marshall was a bad strategic decision, but a case can be made for it. I think the pass to Pavlovic was a good strategic decision, but a case can be made against it.
Thursday's pass didn't turn out any better than Monday's, but at least it wasn't part of a larger pattern of shrinking from the role of superstar. That's a good thing, even in a loss.
Wallace hit the go-ahead shot on a tough baseline jumper. The Cavs, down by one, let the clock run down, James dribbling until 12 seconds were left. Then he drove the lane on Richard Hamilton, spun and missed a leaning 10-footer. Hamilton fouled him, but James didn't get the call.
Wallace fumbled the rebound into Larry Hughes' hands, and he had a good look from about 12 feet, but also missed. Anderson Verejao's tip-in attempt missed too, and the Pistons got the rebound and closed out the game as Cavs coach Mike Brown had a justified conniption on the sideline.
An even more aggressive move, going straight to the bucket, might have worked out better for James, but the lane was clogged with Wallace, stepping up to help Hamilton, and Verejao, boxing Wallace out in anticipation of a rebound. James had nowhere to go, so he tried the awkward spin move.
The line scores say 79-76 Pistons and 79-76 Pistons, but that's where the similarities end. The Cavaliers can't beat the Pistons with James playing the way he did Monday. They might not be able to beat them with James playing the way he did Thursday, but at least they have a chance.
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Ernie Harwell picks up where he left off [PERMALINK]
Ernie Harwell sat in on the broadcast of the Detroit Tigers game against the Los Angeles Angels on Fox Sports Detroit Thursday afternoon. The longtime Tigers radio announcer, who retired after the 2002 season, will do the same Friday night as the Tigers play the Cleveland Indians.
If you've got the Extra Innings package, tune in. You won't be sorry. Those of you in range of FSN-Detroit don't need me to tell you that.
Here are the things I learned listening to Harwell just shoot the breeze with play-by-play man Mario Impemba for about four innings Thursday, all I had time for.
Harwell said, "The rule has always been in modern baseball, once it touches the glove the guy can touch the bag and come. In the early days, they would catch the ball, juggle it, run on in, you know. That was not too good for the baserunner."
A huge part of Harwell's charm is that he drops these tidbits into a conversation without coming off like a know-it-all or a blowhard. They fit in.
Impemba had asked him about radio re-creations after the two had been discussing how West Coast teams such as the Angels have to travel so much more during a season than teams from the Midwest or the East. The conversation came around to the pair's travel experiences as minor-league announcers, and Harwell pointed out that he hadn't traveled with the Crackers, instead using wire play-by-play reports to broadcast road games from the studio back home, the common practice of that time.
But the other observations all sprang organically from on-the-field action. And the effect is "Here's something you might not know that I think you'll find interesting," as opposed to "Look how much I know."
So how much does Harwell know? A lot, obviously. Late in his life someone asked Harry Caray if he felt like he was an expert on baseball, and he said, "I've been watching it every day for 50 years. I'd have to be a moron not to be an expert."
But are these stories -- you could juggle fly balls to keep guys from tagging? -- legit or just Grampa Simpson memories? You know: "My story begins in nineteen dickety two. We had to say dickety, because the Kaiser had stolen our word twenty."
I had no doubt about the answer to that but just for fun I decided to look into Harwell's switch-hitter comment. He said in the '20s and '30s there'd just be one or two guys around the league switch-hitting. So I looked at 1930.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, there were 15 switch-hitters who saw any playing time with one of the 16 major league teams that year, not counting switch-hitting pitchers. Only two of them, Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch of the St. Louis Cardinals and Lu Blue of the St. Louis Browns, played in as many as 100 games.
Contrast that with today's 16-team National League. Last year 55 switch-hitting position players got into games, and 20 of them played in 100 games or more, including stars such as Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Jimmy Rollins, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, Rafael Furcal and Ray Durham.
Also, Harwell's offhand memory was of that first night game at Briggs Stadium being played around June 10, explaining the late start because the days are so long at that time of year. It was played on June 15, 1948.
The Tigers beat the Philadelphia A's that night, 4-1. They were the last American League team to play night baseball at home. Look how much I know!
Another big part of Harwell's charm: He and Impemba were discussing the reason Harwell was in the booth in the first place, which is that regular color analyst Rod Allen is in Arizona attending his son's high school graduation. They agreed a high school graduation is one of those events a parent has to be there for. Impemba said, "He has a heck of a pinch-hitter."
Harwell said, "Well, I don't know about that."
See? He doesn't know it all.
Previous column: AC Milan wins the European Cup
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