The Pistons may not have all the answers for LeBron James, but for the first game and a half of their second-round series against the Cavs, they certainly appeared to have most of them. After holding James scoreless in the final two quarters on Sunday, the Pistons held James to just seven points through the first 28 minutes on Tuesday.
And that's when the kid they call King turned it on: James scored 23 points in the final 20 minutes. The Cavs, who once faced a 22-point deficit, outscored the Pistons 31-19 in the fourth quarter. With 2:20 left in the game, Detroit was still up by 10, but with 1:13 left their lead had been cut to five.
Luckily for Detroit, that's when Rip Hamilton decided to make his first field goal of the night -- a driving layup and one put the Boys in Blue back up by seven.
A five-point deficit with 73 seconds left to play in nothing by NBA standards, but a seven-point deficit with 58 seconds left means the game is just about toast. And it was: LBJ and Hamilton traded a few more free throws in the final minute, and Drew Gooden added a meaningless dunk with two seconds left before the Pistons won, 97-91.
After being dominated for the first one and a half games, the Cavs showed some grit by making a game of things late on Tuesday, but that doesn't change the fact that this game was never really in danger. While some of the fans sitting at home were likely getting a little nervous, nursing a five-point lead with just over a minute to play was child's play for the men on the court.
Expect the Cavs to find the silver lining to the first two games, for their fans to talk more about the fact they made things interesting for a couple of minutes in the fourth quarter rather than the fact they were dominated for a game and a half.
With three and a half days rest before Game 3 is played at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, whatever amount of fatigue the Cavs had from their last series will officially become a complete non-factor. The Cavs scored just 16 points in the first quarter in each of their first two games, but at home in front of an energetic home crowd, they'll likely come out firing on all cylinders on Saturday. In fact, don't be surprised if the roles are reversed and it's the Pistons forced to play catch-up for much of the game -- ok, for much of the first half.
But don't think for a moment that the Cavs really sent any kind of message with their play down the stretch on Tuesday. They've still yet to prove that there's anyone else on this team aside from LeBron James worth worrying about: in four regular season games and two playoff games, the Cavaliers have never had another player not named James score more than 18 points against them, and only twice has someone scored even that much.
You see, even though James turned in a phenomenal game with 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, he's still just one player, and these Pistons are rarely, if ever, beat by one player. Drew Gooden managed 17 points and eight rebounds on Tuesday, but did he score anything when it mattered most? Larry Hughes was supposed to factor into this series, but so far he's combined for 16 points, shooting a miserable 8-24 from the field after two games. Flip Murray, called by some as the catalyst for Cleveland's late-season surge, has tallied just five points in two games.
Detroit, meanwhile, is getting help everywhere on the court. Rasheed Wallace shouldered the load on Tuesday, leading the team with 29 points off 10-17 shooting, including 5-8 from beyond the arc. Tayshaun Prince chipped in another 20, and Ben Wallace, on the night he accepted his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, broke double-figures with 10 points to go along with 15 rebounds and two steals. Hamilton's shot was off all night, but he never gave up and kept driving to the hole, and in return shot an amazing 15-18 from the free-throw line to finish with 17 points.
And while the bench didn't do much, it was mostly for lack of opportunity: Antonio McDyess (13 minutes), Mo Evans (five minutes) and Tony Delk (10 minutes) all finished with two points on 1-2 shooting, Why so few opportunities? Flip Saunders gambled at the start of the fourth by opening with his starters, hoping to put the game out of reach before turning to his bench.
Needless to say, the plan backfired: the starters got a little lazy, taking a few ill-advised shots early in the shot clock while allowing the Cavs to chip away at the other end. By the time the final buzzer sounded, four starters played at least 41 minutes, with the last (Hamilton) playing 39.
Hindsight is 20/20, but if it weren't for Saunders' tactical error, Detroit's lead probably wouldn't have fallen below double-digits. That was Cleveland's shot, and by the time they were within reach to take advantage, it was already too late.
My original prediction was Pistons in five, but this game has me thinking sweep more so than ever.