Monday, May 22, 2006

Low-wattage ending

The Cavaliers scored 61 measly points in their season-ending, Game 7 loss to the Pistons Sunday. It's an NBA record for the lowest offensive output in a playoff Game 7.
In retrospect, you can attribute it to one of two things:
A) The Pistons' suffocating defense.
B) The fact that said defense was allowed to rest on LeBron James because no other Cleveland player was able to do anything offensively.
Sunday's game was everything we feared heading into this series. It was LeBron or bust. The rest of the team could have been cardboard cutouts, and you wouldn't have noticed the difference very much.
In a nutshell, the Cavs were allowed to use LeBron as a crutch, and it was their second-half undoing. Tell the Pistons they only need to stop one player, and that player will be lucky if he can inhale, let alone score. That includes a great player like LeBron.
Detroit guard Lindsey Hunter was frank about it after the game.
"We looked up and saw (LeBron) was the only player in double figures," he said in The Plain Dealer this morning. "We were like 'OK, somebody else has to do something.'"
The Pistons knew they couldn't let LeBron beat them. They double- and triple-teamed him. They trapped him with a combination of big (Ben Wallace) and small (Hunter) players. They stuffed his lanes to the basket. They forced him into poor outside looks constantly.
They dared Larry Hughes, Flip Murray, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, anybody else to beat them. No one could answer the bell.
How bad was the disparity between LeBron and his teammates Sunday? LeBron made just 11 baskets the entire game, but it was still two more field goals than the entire rest of the team combined.
When all your teammates can muster is nine makes on 41 attempts, that's a sure recipe for a 61-point effort. In the second half, when the Pistons smelled blood and moved in for the kill, the Cavs managed just five field goals and 23 points.
It wasn't indicative of LeBron's supporting cast throughout the series. The national media would have you believe LeBron is surrounded by a bunch of drooling, lurching, Quasi Modo invalids. But the whole reason the Cavs were able to stretch the series to seven games was because LeBron's teammates --Anderson Varejao, Donyell Marshall and Murray in particular -- stepped up.
Sunday was a matter of the Pistons proving, once again, that the distance between Game 5 and Game 7 is the distance between galaxies. Perhaps the Pistons saved their best for last. Perhaps the Cavs finally succumbed to stage jitters after blowing their best chance to close the series out in Game 6.
After the game, Cleveland coach Mike Brown said the Cavs hadn't arrived yet among the league's elite. We would know when the Cavs arrived, he said, when they are playing in May and June, every year.
We'll also know the Cavs have arrived when they can put forth the same team effort in Games 1 through 7 of a playoff series. We'll know they have arrived when they can close out the Pistons when they have the chance, when players step up alongside LeBron with the season on the line.

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