Eastern Conference finals, Game 1
Pistons 79, Cavaliers 76
Pistons lead series 1-0
If you're a Cavaliers fan, this is where you start to worry a little bit, because the Pistons played a lousy game by their standards and still managed to come away with a 79-76 win.
Detroit let the Cavs dictate the tempo of the game in the first half, jump out to a lead of as large as nine and head into the locker room up 41-35. All in all, the Pistons looked the part of an arrogant team that figured it had cleared their biggest hurdle to another NBA Finals berth when they beat Chicago.
The only thing that really saved the Pistons was Cleveland's typical zombie-like performance at the start of the second half. The Pistons scored the first seven points of the third quarter before Mike Brown called a timeout to re-discuss everything that he just discussed in the locker room.
Against New Jersey, the Cavs could come out flat at the start of the second half and still win the game. Against Detroit, even a three-minute snooze at any point in the second half could cost you the game. The Pistons are simply too good, and generally they get better as the game goes on.
If this is the worst game Detroit plays all series, it had better also have been the worst game Cleveland plays all series, otherwise we're going to be talking about the Cavs trying to avoid a sweep.
All in all, this is about how I expected a typical Cavs loss to play out in this series. The Cavs had numerous chances to tie or pull ahead late, but missed shots and and overall lack of offensive sharpness killed them and tilted the game in Detroit's favor.
The hot-button postgame topic was LeBron's decision to pass out of a forest of Piston defenders to a wide-open Donyell Marshall with the Cavs down by a basket and the fourth-quarter clock inside 10 seconds. Marshall's three would have put the Cavs up by one.
Trouble is, Marshall is now averaging about one meaningful basket per month, so Game 6 against the Nets should set him until sometime during the 2008-09 season.
Marshall clanged the three, Chauncey Billups grabbed the loose ball down floor, and only Sasha Pavlovic's foul prevented the clock from hitting zero.
LeBron's army of critics will jump all over this as yet another example of LeBron's spinelessness with the game on the line.
Since having a hero with a fatal flaw makes for good drama, we can make believe that LeBron drove inside with every intention of taking the game-tying shot, looked at the hoop, felt his blood run cold at the prospect of missing the shot or -- worse yet -- getting fouled and being sent to the line for pressure free-throws, and decided that if anyone should be the goat, it should be anyone but him.
So he passed it. And Marshall did what Marshall has normally done this year -- exhibit his rapidly-declining shooting touch.
Sure, there's something to the idea of not wanting LeBron on the free-throw stripe with the game on the line. But the same goes for the entire team, sans Zydrunas Ilgauskas. They aren't a good free-throw shooting team, and when you aren't a good free-throw shooting team, you think about missing shots under pressure.
LeBron didn't take the game-tying shot because LeBron isn't programmed like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Jordan redefined the characteristics a great player should have, among them a lust for shoving a dagger down the throats of 20,000 opposing fans with a killer shot. Ever since, a player's greatness has always been measured by his Jordan-ness.
But LeBron's default setting is "Make the proper basketball play." Like it or not, when the defense collapses on him, he will always look to make the pass to the open man. In this case, Marshall.
My question is, where is Brown's culpability in all this? Why wasn't Damon Jones, or even Pavlovic, in that corner to take LeBron's kickout? Game 6 against New Jersey notwithstanding, I never trust Marshall to make a three anymore. Who honestly does?
Yet there was the Cav who is quickly making Eric Snow look young and spry, ready to hoist another brick.
Along with the maturation of LeBron, Brown is going through his own maturation. He has to get a better feel for the number he should be calling in a given situation. With the game on the line, it should never come down to calling on Marshall to shoot a three-ball. Not anymore.
The good news is, the Cavs hung tough with the Pistons Monday night. They are capable of winning games in this series. But the breakdowns at the start and end of the second half showed the difference between the Cavs and the Pistons.
Up next: Game 2, Thursday, 8 p.m. at the Palace of Auburn Hills