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Gone But Not Forgotten
May 29, 2006
There was no Motown Meltdown, but by taking Detroit to the brink, the Cavaliers exposed flaws in the Pistons, who bore witness that the Second Coming (LeBron) has arrived
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May 29, 2006

Gone But Not Forgotten

There was no Motown Meltdown, but by taking Detroit to the brink, the Cavaliers exposed flaws in the Pistons, who bore witness that the Second Coming (LeBron) has arrived

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There is something undeniably appealing in the way certain athletes summon nonchalance when the clock is short and the pressure high. Yet there is a tissue-thin difference between cool and complacent, between confidence and hubris. We saw it three years ago with the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, who remained certain they could not be beaten by the Spurs in the Western Conference finals up to the very moment they were. The same fate almost befell this year's Pistons, whose lofty self-regard nearly led to their demise. Their 4-3 series win over Cleveland in the Eastern semis required fortuitous bounces, some late adjustments from suddenly beleaguered coach Flip Saunders (who seemed to remember in the nick of time that he was permitted to make adjustments) and a climactic half of lockdown D epitomized by Cleveland's Larry Hughes calling a timeout with 10 seconds on the shot clock, simply because he had no one to pass the ball to.

Now the Pistons face the Heat, having lost their air of invincibility in the wake of another remarkable playoff performance from LeBron James, who once again took a crowbar to the traditional learning curve and bent it into a 45-degree vector. Pistons players were thankful that number 23's teammates disappeared in Game 7, shooting 9 for 41. As one scout following the playoffs says, "I keep telling people, 'Enjoy beating LeBron now, while you still can.'"

Given their rediscovered sense of urgency, the Pistons enter the East finals as the favorite, but the Cavs did expose their soft spots. Ben Wallace didn't just miss free throws; he went 0 for 7 in Game 5. The short bench-essentially forward Antonio McDyess and guard Lindsey Hunter-wasn't merely a shortcoming; it became a liability when Rasheed Wallace hurt his ankle in Game 4. These were the Pistons with their guard down. It was like walking in on Oprah before she's done her makeup, an icon unfamiliar and unprepared.

Pat Riley and the Heat were watching-the Pistons, that is, not Oprah-and taking notes, for there were valuable lessons in this series that Miami can apply in the coming fortnight.

?Take away the arc. The Pistons rely on the long ball. Close to half (42%) of Chauncey Billups's shots this season were threes, and Rasheed Wallace took nearly 200 more trifectas than a year ago. Noting this, the Cavs, with the exception of center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, switched all picks on the perimeter to deny step-back threes. "Most teams don't switch on that because they're worried about a 'small' guarding Rasheed," explained Cavs assistant Michael Malone. "But when they hit threes is when they really get off." Normally a team can exploit these switches in two ways: They can flatten out and the guard can drive on a forward or center, or they can "roll" their screen-setting big man into the post for a mismatch. But when the Pistons tried to do the latter against the Cavs, Mike Brown had his weakside big release and switch onto Rasheed immediately, with frequent success.

?They rely disproportionately on Rasheed. The Pistons are 12-0 in the playoffs when the more ornery of the Wallaces scores 20 or more. Saunders calls Wallace "the MVP of the team," while Billups says, "he's definitely our most talented player." Not only does the team feed off 'Sheed emotionally-as strange as that may sound, considering his volatility-but he also keys their game on both ends with his ability to score from the perimeter and his help-side defense.

?They're vulnerable if spaced. When James was double-teamed, Cleveland's guards were able to get to the basket. The Cavs instructed James to keep his dribble and retreat when he got doubled-using him as "bait" their coaches said-to pull Detroit defenders farther from the basket. James would then make a quick pass to the off-guard, who immediately drove to the lane. "The easy shot is to settle for a long jump shot," said Malone. "But what you need to do is attack those closeouts and get to the rim." Miami's wingmen are better shooters than what the Cavs have, so Riley has a tough choice: drive the lane or launch threes. (One guess on how Antoine Walker will "solve" this dilemma.)

But let's not forget that the Heat has problems of its own. Perimeter defense is perhaps their greatest weakness, making them especially susceptible to Rasheed. Jason Williams isn't strong enough to guard Billups off the pick- and-roll or in the post, so Riley will have to play Gary Payton most-if not all-of the fourth quarter. Walker is also a defensive liability, so expect to see a lot of James Posey on Tayshaun Prince, Detroit's most consistent offensive threat in the Cavs series. And if Detroit packs it in against Dwyane Wade, as they did occasionally against James, he will be forced to rely on his at-times-suspect outside stroke.

If the Eastern semis dispelled some of the popular myths about the Pistons, they only enhanced the lore of LeBron. He made even casual observers of the sport watch in the same way they once watched Bo Jackson and Tiger Woods, with the expectation that they might see something they had never seen before. He made you afraid not to watch. That omnipresent Nike campaign was manipulative, but it was brilliant. So what exactly did we witness? In 13 playoff games James averaged 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He had two triple doubles, sank two game-winners and adapted his game admirably. Washington played him straight up, so he attacked the basket. Detroit doubled, so he consistently found the open man. "I think this is the smartest basketball he's played," Cavs' forward Doneyell Marshall said of James before Game 7. "He's not pressing the issue. We're always saying to him, 'It's your time.' But it seems that the more we say that, the more he passes the ball. So now we just let him do his thing and let him take over when he's ready to take over."

Hubie Brown, the Hall of Fame coach-slash-announcer, was also impressed. "This guy has eyes as good as anyone who's ever been a passer up front," Brown says. "I always thought Rick Barry and Larry Bird were the two best up front out of the double team. This kid is better. You put his name in a sentence with only two guys, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan."

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