deviates from the vanilla script he follows on and off the court. In
Cleveland's first-round series against the Washington Wizards, he was often the
target of hard fouls—reserve Darius Songaila was suspended for what turned out
to be the final game for hitting James in the face two nights earlier—and was
called overrated by guards DeShawn Stevenson and Gilbert Arenas. But like a
cagey trout who has seen it all before, James refused to snap at the bait.
After the Cavs' series-clinching Game 6 win, after Stevenson had been returned
to the NBA obscurity he so richly deserves and Arenas sent back to his blog,
James's post--Game 5 words resonated: "As long as I'm on the court, we have
a great chance to win." It didn't even come across as bragging; it was a
simple statement of fact.
off-the-charts maturity contrasts with that of the Celtics' Paul Pierce,
against whom he will be matched often in the Eastern semifinal that was
scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Boston. While James was restrained yet
disdainful toward his lesser first-round tormentors, Pierce lost it on a couple
of occasions. He was fined $25,000 for the "menacing gesture" he made
toward the Hawks bench in Game 3. (It still isn't clear whether the
three-fingered sign was gang-related or an expression of "blood, sweat and
tears," as Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge
claimed.) Then, after fouling out with 4:44 left in Game 6, Pierce was hit with
a technical for throwing his headband, a crucial mistake—in a game Atlanta
would win by three points—that one might have expected from the callow Hawks
rather than the 30-year-old Pierce.
the Celtics, they have the more responsible and mature Kevin Garnett. After
point guard Rajon Rondo was knocked to the floor on a hard third-quarter foul
by Atlanta forward Marvin Williams on Sunday, it was the Big Ticket who got to
Rondo (once he shook off the cobwebs) and said, "You did a great job. Keep
your head and make your free throws." Rondo did. Later in the quarter it
was Garnett who, after being called for a moving screen on center Zaza
Pachulia, resisted the temptation—as tempting as it was with a huge lead—to
engage Pachulia, who had confronted Garnett in Game 4.
Garnett has never
been considered anything but a steadfast leader. The difference is that James,
8 1/2 years his junior, is considered a leader and a prime-time postseason
performer. This series represents Garnett's chance to become the same.
Wild and Crazy
Pistons are playing well or badly, they are out there on their own, insular and
self-contained, impossible to deconstruct, the sole residents of Planet Piston.
Even coach Flip Saunders can't figure out his players or rein them in.
Sometimes they curse and scream at one another, and sometimes they curse and
scream at the refs. Yet at other times they effect a composure that's almost
eerie. During Game 6 of their first-round series against the 76ers in
Philadelphia, for example, forward Rasheed Wallace, Detroit's lightning rod and
most fiery personality, was getting ripped unmercifully by fans in the front
row for that strange gray spot in his hair. Sheed said nothing, didn't even so
much as glance at them.
It remains to be
seen what kind of attitude the Pistons will carry through the second round.
Boston went into the postseason as the clear favorite in the East with aging
Detroit perceived as not sufficiently motivated, probably not up to the task.
Now with the Celtics' taking seven to dispatch the Hawks and the Pistons'
winning their last four games (through Sunday) by an average of 17.0 points,
the tag of Eastern favorite falls once again upon the Bad Boys 2.0. Opponents
are saying the same things they said in '04, when the starters who remain in
Detroit's lineup—Billups, Wallace, guard Rip Hamilton and forward Tayshaun
Prince—were bullying their way to the championship. "Their defense wears on
you," says Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
During warmups an
hour before last Saturday night's Game 1 tip-off, as Orlando assistant coach
Patrick Ewing tossed entry passes into the Magic big men, he rarely took his
eyes off the Pistons' side of the floor. What's with these guys? Ewing's gaze
seemed to suggest.
Everyone else is
wondering the same thing.
Kobe's Final Act