Playoff observations (cont.)
Cavaliers 102, Pistons 84
Detroit is using its geographic proximity to Cleveland to minimize the road rigors in this series, hopping its charter flight home after Saturday's loss rather than kill a lot of empty hours at the hotel or the Tower City Center food court. The trick now is persuading the Pistons to climb back onto the plane for the return flight and Tuesday's Game 2, as the next step toward their fishing hats and tee times.
It's one thing to nobly play the role of underdog in a 1-vs.-8 matchup, to take your lumps and to still cordially praise the guys -- most of all the guy, LeBron James -- who are taking what you came to consider a birthright (supremacy in the East or, at least, a spot in the conference finals). It's quite another to be humming along, making more than 60 percent of your shots midway through the second quarter, only to see the Cavaliers step on their defensive gas and snatch it all away, in ways that your team used to do.
With 5:41 left in the first half, the Pistons were within 41-38. Then clang, clang, clang -- seven missed shots and a turnover later, they trailed 50-39. Cleveland turned up its defensive intensity and put some air into the score, keeping it there until Will Bynum hit consecutive buckets to make it 80-72 with 8:48 left. From there -- alas, for Detroit -- it was a 22-12 push to the finish.
Near the end, Detroit's frustration was evident, as in Richard Hamilton tossing down Mo Williams right in front of ref Leon Wood. The Pistons wound up missing 10 of their 12 three-pointers and shot only 12 free throws to Cleveland's 27.
Jump-shooting teams have to cope with such nights, but we're talking about more than one game, more than one series. This is the end of the line for Detroit, at least in this incarnation, and by the time we see Bynum, Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell with any expectations again, Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and other vets will be gone or marginalized.
In four regular-season games against Detroit, LeBron averaged 25.7 points and made only 42 percent of his field-goal attempts, though the Cavaliers did go 3-1. He had no such problems in Game 1, hitting 13 of his 20 shots for 38 points and sitting down early with eight rebounds and seven assists. Of his seven misses, three were from beyond the arc -- and James hit the longest and most dramatic of those, a running fling from just across midcourt to beat the halftime buzzer and give the Cavs their biggest lead to that point.
Silver lining for the Pistons? Well, they averaged just 81.8 points on 41 percent shooting against Cleveland during the 2008-09 season. So they're making progress offensively.
Prince, if you go merely by his regular-season numbers, has been a steady performer for Detroit. But you can't say the same thing for his postseason showings. Prince broke through as a star allegedly born in the 2006 playoffs, when he averaged 16.4 points (after being the only Detroit starter who didn't get invited to the All-Star Game a few months earlier). But Prince's production dipped to 14.1 points in 2007 and 13.8 last spring. You could see him jogging rather half-heartedly a few times in Saturday's game, too.
Some might consider this to be the ultimate in scab-picking, but there might never again be such a perfect time: What if Detroit hadn't used the No. 2 pick in 2003 on Darko Milicic? What if, instead, president Joe Dumars had taken Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade? How different would the balance of power in the Eastern Conference be right now? Admittedly, the decision didn't hurt the Pistons early, with their championship in 2004 and all those trips to the conference finals. But watching James cavort and knowing that Wade and Anthony still are very much alive in these playoffs is a stinging reminder of what could have been.
Come to think of it, Chauncey Billups is still very much alive in these playoffs, compared to the guy he was traded for back in November.
Rockets 108, Trail Blazers 81
Welcome to the postseason, young Trail Blazers. Or would that be Fail Blazers? Portland, as a group, was sort of the anti-Derrick Rose on Saturday, reacting to its first playoff appearance since 2003 -- and first, period, for many of the guys on its current roster -- like deer in the proverbial headlights. Wait, make that Bambi in the path of Godzilla's fire breath. Try as he might, Blazers coach Nate McMillan couldn't dial up his players' intensity level for them. Finding the gear necessary to compete in the NBA's spring tournament is something most teams have to learn the hard way, especially one as tender in years (NBA's second-youngest club) and experience as Portland. The Blazers began their first-round series with just 35 games and 489 minutes of playoff experience on their roster, the least of any participant since the Los Angeles Clippers in 1997. Fourteen of those games and 232 of those minutes were on Steve Blake's and Joel Przybilla's resumes.
In it to win it? Not yet for the Blazers, who were in it simply to comprehend it Saturday. So they're probably not the '77 Portland crew, who won the NBA championship in the franchise's first trip to the playoffs.
With Shane Battier's three free throws to open the scoring in the second half, Houston pushed its lead to 65-44 -- the biggest margin to that point across all four of Saturday's Game 1 contests. By the end of the third quarter, the Rockets -- who reached 60 by halftime for the 13th time this season -- were up by 27 and they nudged that to 30 early in the fourth. And that was without much second-half exertion from Yao Ming, who was 9-of-9 in the first half with 24 points. Houston is 33-4 this season when Yao scores at least 20.
Maybe the unexpected success of road teams Saturday -- they won three of the four openers -- will inspire Utah, which drags the worst road record (15-26) among 2009 West playoff teams into Staples Center against the Lakers. Then again, Kobe Bryant was paying attention, too.
I hate it, really hate it, when big guys opt to flop rather than stand their ground, use their size and defend like, y'know, a man. (Yes, that still means you, Vlade.) But Yao got jobbed at the 7:07 mark of the second quarter when Rudy Fernandez drove smack into him and ref Tom Washington ruled it a blocking foul on the Houston big man. Moments later, Fernandez got the benefit of the doubt again, drawing a charge on Houston's Von Wafer. There was a lot of hitting-the-deck in general early in this one, despite playoff tradition less likely to reward the roundheels.
LaMarcus Aldridge was the Blazer least likely to sleep well, after bricking his postseason debut (3-of-12 for seven points, with three boards and no blocks). Credit Luis Scola for pestering the lanky Portland forward and allowing him no comfort near the basket. Coincidentally, Aldridge's struggles came at the end of a day in which Chicago's Tyrus Thomas, the guy for whom Aldridge was swapped on draft day 2006, shined. Based on Thomas' 16 points, including six in overtime on his improving mid-range jump shot, this was one of the few days since that draft that Bulls fans were happy about the trade.
If I'm McMillan, I'm getting Greg Oden onto the floor for more minutes in Game 2, if the big kid's cardiovascular system can handle it. Oden was gasping for air a few times, but he scored 15 points in his first 15 minutes and grabbed five rebounds. Then again, if I'm Rick Adelman, I'm tempted to do the same with Dikembe Mutombo, who made only nine appearances in the regular season yet -- a couple of months away from his (ahem) 43rd birthday -- had a Ponce de Leon nine rebounds, a steal and a couple of blocked shots in 18 minutes.
NBA Truth & Rumors