Double time in Detroit
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
May 21, 2006
It was all double teams, double switches and double vision. And you know the old adage about defense and championships.
"That's why they keep winning," said LeBron James, who stunningly was snuffed out after halftime to the tune of just six points on 1-of-9 shooting, three rebounds and not a single assist. He had one 19-minute stretch where he had just one point.
In their 79-61 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, the Pistons nearly pitched a second-half shutout and a perfect performance – just five Cavs baskets and a horrible 19.2 percent from the floor – to move into the Eastern Conference finals, which begin here Tuesday against Miami.
Detroit's defense, almost always ferocious, was simply wicked. And it started with the job on James, the most gifted offensive player in the game, who had 21 points in the first half and looked capable of throwing the Cavs on his back and scoring 50 to spring the upset.
Detroit didn't want James even thinking of making a play without being doubled up. They certainly didn't want him getting a first step to the lane where his speed and strength make him unguardable. If James beat them with fallaway 25-footers (not out of the realm of possibility), then so be it. Actually, they guarded against that, too.
"They doubled me as soon as I got the ball," James said. "If I was in the half court. Or if I was in the full court. I saw a little bit of everything."
He paused for a moment and thought about all those outstretched arms, all those white jerseys, all those switches coming from all parts of the court but rarely two the same. He sighed a bit.
"I've seen just about every defense I could possibly see the rest of my career in this series," James said.
This was a testament to everything the Pistons hold dear, everything they believe can carry them to a second championship in three seasons. For all their newfound offense under coach Flip Saunders and all the All-Star selections they now earn, they still fancy themselves as a blue-collar, defense-first crew that keep whacking their sledgehammer at you until the concrete crumbles.
In this case it was the Throne of King James, whose deep playoff runs are coming soon, but not this time, not this year.
He undoubtedly was the best player in this series – "the best player probably in the league," Prince said – but Detroit threw seven consecutive games of high-pressure, energy-sapping defense at him and then, here in the late rounds, used all those body blows to knock him out.
"Great team defense on LeBron," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "LeBron logged a lot of minutes, and he just ran out of gas. I'm sure after playing 48 minutes in six straight games … try going against that team, that kind of pressure. It wears you down in the fourth quarter."
James disagreed with that talk – "no" he said curtly when asked if Brown was correct about fatigue – but whatever it was, the second-half numbers don't lie. Cleveland tied a slew of NBA playoff futility records in the second half.
"Nobody on his level gets his teammates involved like he does," said Prince, who was a two-way star for Detroit in finishing with 20 huge points and the knowledge of the brand of gum James was chewing. "He sees plays coming before they happen. That's why this series went seven games.
"He picked us apart in Games 3 through 5, [but] once we made some good adjustments we slowed him down just enough."
Just enough for the Pistons to pull away in a game where they, too, struggled offensively. Detroit shot just 42.6 percent, missed 14 free throws and let a dozen chances to blow open the game pass, but in the end it didn't matter.
The Pistons don't need to be great offensively to win. And the Cavaliers weren't beating anyone scoring just 61 points.
"In pressure situations you always do what you do best, and for us it's defend," Saunders said. "Tonight, we locked down."
It's not the kind of thing that gets you a shoe commercial. It isn't what brings in the national individual acclaim. It isn't flashy or always fun to watch.
But when games get tight, when series and seasons are on the line, defense is what Detroit does. The Pistons improved to 12-1 in series-clinching games since 2002, proof of a noose-tightening mentality.
Now here comes Shaq. Here comes Flash. Detroit did this to them last year.
"We're just going to do what we do," Wallace said.
The Heat have been warned.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Sunday, May 21, 2006 10:53 pm, EDT