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Commentary, news, analysis and reader-driven discussions focusing on this year's NBA playoffs.
1:41 a.m. ET, 6/01/07

A King For All Ages

Posted by Paul Forrester
LeBron James' Game 5 performance likely surpasses anything Michael Jordan ever did before winning his first championship.
Greg Shamus/Getty Images
It's difficult at times like these not to fall into cliché.

But how else does one accurately describe what LeBron James accomplished in defeating the Pistons 109-107 in double overtime in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals?

Jaw-dropping?

Twenty-five consecutive points, including every Cleveland point in both OTs attest to that.

Heart-pounding?

Could any fan not feel that as James seemingly hit every shot imaginable, from fearless drives to the rim to fadeaway three-pointers in front of the Detroit bench?

Legendary?

Scoring 48 points, grabbing nine rebounds, handing out seven assists and making two steals against one of the NBA's best defenses on its home floor may be the most memorable playoff performance since Michael Jordan dropped 63 on the Celtics in 1986.

No matter the words, James' Game 5 may be the sort of stuff that saves leagues. You can almost hear the advertisements now: "Can the best player in the world beat the best team in the world? The Finals ... Thursday at 9."

To complete that journey to meet the Spurs in San Antonio, though, LeBron will need a little more imagination from his coaching staff. After the game coach Mike Brown said he "could not believe [LeBron] scored 29 of the last 30 points," which might have a little more credence if he had called a play for someone other than James down the stretch. On the rare occasions someone such as Sasha Pavlovic did touch the ball, they reacted as if the ball was covered in grease. Don't get us wrong: The Cavs won't win this series with Pavlovic shooting the ball, but they will need him, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to at least handle the ball a little down the stretch if they hope to close out the Pistons, even in Cleveland.

And as they proved in a most uncharacteristically competent third quarter, LeBron's teammates are capable of carrying some of the weight. Outscoring the Pistons for the first time all series in the period, the Cavs notched 19 points by sticking to basics –- pounding the ball inside. Of the seven shots Cleveland converted in the third, five came in the paint. Not only was that enough to distance the Cavs from the 14.5-point third-quarter average they had forged in the first four games of the series, it was enough to carry LeBron through a 2-of-6 shooting period to his late-game turn as the hero.

Important as his teammates are, Game 5 was LeBron's turn to validate all of the expectations and all of the privileges heaped upon him at the young age of 22. From the cover of Sports Illustrated and nationally televised games as a high schooler, to the controversial Hummer he got before the 2003 draft, to the royal nickname, to the carte blanche he has within the Cavaliers' franchise, to the ho-hum first half of the current season, LeBron has generated almost as many critics as fans.

But how many 22-year-olds have ever taken their team this far with this much responsibility? Kobe? Nope. Garnett? Nope. Jordan? Heck, he was busy losing in the first round to the Bucks when he was 22.

LeBron has a chance to surpass them all. Yes, the Spurs may well give the King his royal comeuppance, should Cleveland reach the Finals; but for Cleveland even to be in this position in LeBron's fourth year was beyond the dreams of most in a city accustomed to disappointment. Should LeBron get just a suggestion of help Saturday night in Cleveland, the city –- and the league –- will drift off into la-la land with smiles on their faces.

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12:30 p.m. ET, 5/31/07

All About Offense Now

Posted by Kelly Dwyer
Rasheed Wallace's attention is at times divided between the referees and his coach's instructions.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
After watching the Pistons and Cavaliers battle through 11 postseason contests over the last two seasons, it's fairly easy to determine what each team needs to do to win Thursday night's Game 5.

And, with that in mind, it's just as easy to get frustrated with either team should it fail to meet those standards. These guys know what they need to do to take the series, so you can't blame observers (and fans of sound pro basketball) for throwing inanimate objects against the nearest wall when either squad ends a lazy 24-second possession with a fadeaway 22-footer.

The offense, for either team, is the key to this series. Consider this the alternate universe's answer to the Golden State/Phoenix conference final for which a whole heap of fans were begging. Both Cleveland and Detroit play lockdown defense in their sleep; either side knows how to help, move its feet, close out on the right players and back off of the poor shooters. The defensive instincts on either side are so well-honed that it seems a surprise when the weakside rotations aren't sound or on-ball fundamentals aren't practiced. It's the other side of the ball that matters.

As it would be with a Warriors/Suns matchup, whichever team executes best on its weakest end (defense with Warriors/Suns, offense with Cavs/Pistons) should win in a walk. Actually, not a walk, as Cleveland is up just four total points after the first four games of the series, but something that appears close to it considering the low possession count both these teams covet. Whichever team decides to work its tail off offensively and play to its strengths will pull out this series.

Detroit needs to listen to coach Flip Saunders and his half-court play-calling. The Pistons are not a one-on-one team. They struggle horribly when forced to improvise or try to take on any team (let alone the defensive-minded Cavs) in an isolation situation. The only chance the Pistons have ever had with the ball in their hands comes when they listen to their coach and execute his plays.

All throughout Games 1 and 2, the Pistons lost a chance at consecutive blowouts because certain players (namely, Rip Hamilton) decided to break plays and ruin spacing. And breaking a play doesn't always mean waving off teammates and looking for your own shot. In Hamilton's case, it meant not setting screens and heading to the right place (away from the ball, especially in Game 2) to create spacing needed for his teammates to score.

In Games 3 and 4, Rasheed Wallace walked away from a host of Saunders' huddles (even in a tight fourth quarter) as the coach diagrammed the next possession's play. On one occasion, Wallace was seen yelling at referee Danny Crawford well into a TV timeout, long after the previous play had ended, and with the rest of his team alternating glances at Saunders' clipboard and their purported emotional leader at half-court. This was after Wallace had seemingly cooled off and ventured into the huddle, only to walk away mid-diagram.

Pistons backers continually point to Wallace as the main reason behind the team's sustained excellence, but Detroit has also lost winnable series to end the 2005 and '06 postseasons, and nearly blew it against the Cavs in the conference semis last season. Unless they start to put the team first and individual slights second, the Pistons might not get a chance to play in the Finals against a cohesive Spurs team that is afraid to even clear its throat in one of coach Gregg Popovich's huddles.

(And, it should be noted, comparisons between Popovich and Saunders are out the window at this point. These are the conference finals, with teams left to fight with the head coach who led them there, and paying attention to the play call in a one-possession game is infinitely more important than making one last point with Crawford.)

Cleveland's offensive issues are even simpler: It needs to attack early in the shot clock, keep the dribble alive and/or the ball moving, and not give the Pistons a chance to focus on LeBron James. When James, especially, pushes the ball in transition or makes quick decisions in the half-court, the Cavs are exceedingly tough to beat. Even if the quick decision is the wrong one, James is at least attacking the basket; each missed shot could result in an offensive rebound for a team that excels in that area, and each extra pass with time left on the shot clock can't help but create an open man even against Detroit's stout defense. When LeBron pounds the ball while standing in one spot or holds the rock while surveying the defense, the Cavs don't have a chance.

At this point, with either team having figured out all there is to know about its opponent, the things that cannot be defended tend to shift the balance. For Detroit, it's Saunders' sense of spacing and offensive execution. The Cavs, meanwhile, are left to bank on James' individual brilliance and ability to put a defense on its heels. Those factors will go a long way to deciding whether this series turns into a ponderous stinker or approaches a conference finals to remember.
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1:14 a.m. ET, 5/31/07

Future Looks Bright For Jazz

Posted by Marty Burns

Utah needs a consistent perimeter shooter who can provide a third scoring option behind Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams.
Greg Nelson/SI
Despite their Game 5 blowout loss in San Antonio, the Utah Jazz have plenty of reason to be thrilled about their 2006-07 campaign. They won 50 games for the first time since the end of the Stockton-Malone Era. They had a great postseason run, defeating the Rockets and Warriors before falling to a more complete and experienced Spurs team. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer emerged as bona fide NBA stars.

Utah also showed a good deal of mental toughness during the playoffs, especially for such a young team. In the first round they overcame a 2-0 series deficit to defeat the Rockets, winning a Game 7 at Houston. In the next round they took care of a red-hot Warriors team that was riding a huge confidence wave after a historic upset over the Mavs.

The Jazz won several games in the fourth quarter during this postseason, sometimes after losing leads. Utah's comebacks weren't a surprise; they won a league-high 17 games during the season after trailing by 10 or more points. But to do it in the playoffs is a whole different story.

The question now is what can the Jazz do to take the next step?

Utah desperately needs a consistent perimeter shooter who can provide a third scoring option behind Boozer and Williams. Derek Fisher and Gordan Giricek did a nice job this season, but they aren't going to take the Jazz to the next level. Rookie Ronnie Brewer showed flashes of potential this season -- and even got a few minutes of burn in Wednesday's Game 5 garbage time -- but he's not ready yet to be a full-time starter.

Unfortunately, the Jazz have no room under the salary cap to go out and get a top-tier free agent. Plus, there aren't really any marquee shooting guards on the free agent market anyway. They have a first-round draft pick (No. 25), but it's too far down the board to get a player who could come in and start right away.

As for trades, the Jazz should be very careful. They could try to use Andrei Kirilenko, who struggled offensively most of the season, to acquire a front-line guy. But Kirilenko's defense and shot-blocking make him a valuable piece to the Jazz puzzle, and there is a good chance the 6-foot-9 Russian will be better offensively next season now that he has had time to adjust to Utah running the offense through Williams and Boozer.

The Jazz's best option might be to keep the core together and try to find a hidden gem at shooting guard for the mid-level exception (around $5.5 million) on the free-agent market. Jerry Stackhouse is a free agent and proven scorer who might have to settle for that kind of money, but he's not a good outside shooter. Matt Carroll of the Bobcats might be a more realistic option. The 6-6 former Notre Damer can really stroke it, and he's a pretty tough kid who would seem to fit right into Jerry Sloan's system.

Utah really doesn't need to make radical changes. The West looks to be relatively open next year at the top. The Spurs will be a year older. The Mavs and Suns might see changes in personnel. The Nuggets need a perimeter shooter. The Rockets will be starting over with a new coach.

The Jazz are a system team anyway. The longer their core stays together, the sharper they figure to be in terms of execution. This year's postseason proved the Jazz have the competitiveness and moxie to play with anyone. Now that they have the experience, they should be even more dangerous. With another year in Sloan's system -- and maybe the addition of a consistent perimeter shooter -- the Jazz could well take the next step and reach the Finals next season.
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12:48 a.m. ET, 5/30/07

Hey, LeBron, Lean On Us

Posted by Paul Forrester
The Cavs' supporting cast got a huge boost from Daniel Gibson's 21 points.
AP
So LeBron James does have four other teammates.

Good thing, otherwise his impressive 13-point, four-rebound effort in the fourth quarter of Cleveland's 91-87 Game 4 win in the Eastern Conference finals would have been as useless as the Cavs' third-quarter efforts throughout this series.

But with a lot more help than most expected him to receive, James was able to pull Cleveland even with the Pistons at 2-2 with a win built on the backs of his oft-derided supporting cast.

There was Daniel Gibson, scoring 21 points on a mere seven shots in providing Cleveland a more reliable scoring option than a hobbled Larry Hughes. Just as important, Gibson proved to be one of the few Cavs willing to take coach Mike Brown's plea to aggressively attack the basket to heart. You don't hit 12 of 12 from the free-throw stripe by bombing away from the perimeter. But you do by taking it into the teeth of a defense, even if it comes at the cost of a hard technical foul at the hands of Chris Webber.

There was Drew Gooden, getting out to a fast start with 10 points and three rebounds in the first quarter before coming back to life with eight minutes left after he received a technical foul for wrestling with Rasheed Wallace. The Cavs followed suit, ripping off a 12-2 run to turn a 75-71 deficit into an 83-77 lead they never gave up. There was Donyell Marshall, hitting a 3-pointer and converting a nifty behind-the-back pass from James to keep Cleveland from completely falling off the cliff during an otherwise dreadful 15-point third quarter.

There was even Eric Snow, who sat all night until being called on in the final two minutes, tracking down a loose ball rebound with less than 20 ticks left and hitting a free throw to keep the Pistons at bay.

And there was Brown's defense, which held the Pistons to 41.3 percent shooting from the field. That defense also flustered Chauncey Billups into turning the ball over five times to two assists and Rasheed into annoyance -– and a subpar performance -- most of the night.

If LeBron is able to build that kind of well-rounded construction crew on Thursday in Detroit, Cleveland has a good shot of repeating last year's Game 5 triumph. But the Cavs' lack of aggression for 12 minutes each night suggests a team that hopes more to squeak by than a team that knows it is superior. And while Detroit's rings and five straight conference finals appearances scream to that fact, the Pistons have yet to forge a lead bigger than five points in any game of this series. That suggests the gap isn't as great as most -– including the Pistons, themselves -- might have you believe, even if the difference is purely mental.

Whether the Cavs believe that will tell the tale of this series.

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