Saturday, June 02, 2007

On the brink of history

Some observations and thoughts as the Cavaliers head toward the most important game in franchise history Saturday night:

1. It's not so much the Pistons that scare me anymore. It's the Cavs.

This series would already be over if not for the Cavs' inability to make some clutch shots in Games 1 and 2. At worst, the Cavs and Pistons have essentially battled to a draw in the fourth quarter. At best, well ... LeBron's Game 5 was kind of good.

My point is, at no point have the Pistons definitively outplayed the Cavs, even when they were setting the pace in the first half of Game 5. So I don't think the Pistons are in the driver's seat in this series, certainly not now.

The only way the Cavs surrender the driver's seat is to throw a bowl of cold oatmeal on their NBA Finals chances with the type of sleepwalking performance they have been known to deliver every now and again. We all remember Game 5 against the Nets, when somebody forgot to tell them an NBA playoff series ends when a team wins four games, not three.

The threat of Mr. Hyde Cavs showing up when the games mean the most is why most Cavs fans keep their stress balls in a prominent place next to the couch and keep Mylanta on tap at the wet bar.

Of course, if the Cavs turn in that type of performance Saturday, they aren't ready to make the leap to the Finals, so we can all do ourselves the favor of putting our high hopes on ice should there be a Game 7.

2. The lack of Ben Wallace is absolutely killing the Pistons right now.

Do you remember when Kenny Lofton edged up into his 30s during his second go-around with the Tribe? Do you remember that as his phenomenal athleticism waned, it started to reveal the fundamental flaws in his game?

The loss of Ben Wallace last summer is having a similar effect on the Pistons now.

It took going up against a superlative offensive player like LeBron to finally make Detroit pay for letting Wallace leave, but paying they are. Wallace made the Pistons look good on defense even when they weren't playing all that well on defense. Last year, if LeBron blew past Tayshaun Prince or Rip Hamilton or whoever was guarding him, all Wallace had to do was slide off his man, shuffle into LeBron's path and provide Detroit with one heck of a last line of defense for the basket.

With Thursday's historic outburst as Exhibit A, if LeBron now beats his man, you can basically put the deuce on the board.

There has been an outcry among Detroit fans and media since Game 5 to hack the living daylights out of LeBron and put him at the line. Given LeBron's spotty foul shooting, it would seem like a good plan. The trouble for Detroit is, LeBron is so big and strong, you can foul him with everything you got, just karate chop him over the arms as he's driving to the basket, and there is still a greater than 50-percent chance he's going to carry your karate chop to the rim and still put the ball in the hole for a three-point play.

Last year, Wallace was probably the only Piston defender with the strength, quickness and technique to actually prevent LeBron from reaching the basket. This year, when LeBron gets a head of steam going, Piston players have two choices: Stay out of the way, or end up on a poster.

When you're looking for reasons as to why the Cavs are one win away from the NBA Finals, start there.

3. The mere fact that Larry Hughes is on the court has been a psychological lift.

I know everyone loves to rip Hughes for his poor shooting, including a miss of a seven-foot gimme that might have won Game 2. Much of it is deserved, especially when he starts hoisting 20-foot bricks and costing his team possessions.

But in his own very real way, Hughes has contributed to the Cavs' comeback.

No team likes to feel like they are facing a vaunted opponent shorthanded, and that was what we thought was going to happen when Hughes injured his foot in Game 3. The feeling around Cleveland was "Here we go again, Hughes can't stay healthy."

But Hughes sucked it up, took a cortisone shot, and has been in the starting lineup for Games 4 and 5. It keeps the always-dangerous Daniel Gibson coming off the bench as a chance-of-pace player, and means Chauncey Billups has to prepare to face Hughes, Gibson or Eric Snow, three distinctly different players.

You might not like seeing Hughes on the floor, but it's always better to go into battle with all hands on deck.

4. Flip's castle of sand is melting into the sea.

When the fans and media in Southeast Michigan aren't raising a high chorus of "Foul LeBron," they are glaring with great suspicion at Flip Saunders.

When the Pistons win, it's because of the players and the defensive template Larry Brown set up in his last years of coaching relevance. When the Pistons lose, the bullseye goes straight onto the suit jacket of Saunders, a Cleveland guy who is quickly becoming known as the Marty Schottenheimer of the NBA.

He can get you to the doorstep, but he can't get you into the dance, or so the reputation is becoming.

Right now, Piston fans see Saunders as the guy who only got Kevin Garnett out of the first round once, despite the fact that much of the blame should fall onto Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale, who has never surrounded Garnett with enough talent in the ultra-competitive West.

If the Cavs close out this series, Saunders will have lost to Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in consecutive years with the Finals on the line. For a fan base that has come to expect their team to churn out Finals berths with regularity, the posh Pistons job might soon turn into a crucible.

But, hey, if Saunders gets sacked, he is an offensive-minded coach, he is from Cleveland, and maybe it isn't too far-fetched to see him having a stint as Mike Brown's top assistant with the Cavs. I'm sure there are a few things Saunders could teach Brown about running an offense.

5. 'Sheed shut his mouth. How about you, Chauncey?

Hear that? That's the sweet sound of silence coming from Rasheed Wallace's locker. No guarantees of victory. No "even the Sun shines on a dog's ass" comments.

Wallace begrudgingly respects the Cavs now, at least enough to not want to give them bulletin board material. Now, he saves all his whining for the refs, but the refs expect that.

But then there's Chauncey Billups, who apparently is having his own little pout-fest over the Pistons' recent downward turn of fortune. Prior to Game 5, he made a comment to ESPN, noting that while LeBron is having a good series, it still isn't anything close to what he had to endure facing Dwyane Wade in last year's conference finals.

LeBron, of course, dropped 48 points on Billups and his teammates that night.

For an encore, Billups will openly wonder if LeBron wears a size extra-small athletic supporter. LeBron will respond by dropping 55 points directly on Billups' head.

On behalf of Cleveland fans everywhere, thanks Chauncey! Keep the pouty comments coming. Your mouth is our best friend.

1 comment:

Zach said...

Let's party!!!!!