PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; Game 1.
The Pistons and James’ Cleveland Cavaliers meet for the first time in the postseason when they open their East semifinal series at The Palace.
Detroit needed just five games to defeat Milwaukee and continue its pursuit of a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. The Pistons had little trouble dispatching the Bucks, as their four wins came by an average of 17 points, including a 122-93 series-clinching win Wednesday.
Richard Hamilton averaged 16.8 points in the first four games, but scored a playoff career-high 40 on Wednesday to help his team advance. The Pistons’ regular-season leading scorer said his team has one goal—winning its second championship in three years.
“We’re definitely on a mission, and that’s a lot different than last year,” said Hamilton, whose team lost 4-3 to San Antonio in the finals in 2005. “We have something to prove. We want to go out and get something, and the guys are focused to go out there and get it.”
While the Pistons were resting up for the second round, James was helping Cleveland earn its first trip to the semifinals in 13 years. The Cavaliers star is averaging an NBA playoff-best 35.7 points, and had 32 in Friday’s 114-113 overtime win over Washington in Game 6.
Damon Jones made his mere 14 seconds of playing time pay off when he hit a 17-foot baseline jumper with 4.8 seconds remaining to seal the series victory for Cleveland. The Cavs had three one-point wins in the series, with the last two coming in overtime, and won two road games for the first time in franchise history.
Getting a win at The Palace will likely be a much tougher feat, as the Cavaliers have recorded five wins there in their last 28 trips. Detroit was a league-best 37-4 at home during the regular season, winning by an average of 10.1 points, and is 21-5 in its last 26 postseason home games.
James, who had a triple-double and two game-winning shots in the first round, said his club is not intimidated.
“We are a confident team,” said James, who set at least 15 franchise records in the series, including 182 points through five games. “We know that we are about to face former world champs. We are going to bring the intensity we did in this series, and just try and go up there and get some wins.”
The Pistons did a good job of limiting James during four regular-season meetings, holding him to 25.0 points per game, six below his season average. The Eastern Conference’s best defensive team will try to do that again, with Tayshaun Prince likely drawing the matchup on James.
“What he’s doing right now is unparalleled for anybody at this stage of his career,” said Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, who had 17 points and eight assists in Game 5. “But right now, he’s going to play in a different series because we play defense. No disrespect to the Wizards, but there wasn’t defense played in that series.”
James will need help from his teammates, which he got in Game 5, if the Cavaliers hope to upset the Pistons. The help came from the bench Friday night, with Donyell Marshall scoring a season-high 28 points and Flip Murray adding 21 as Cleveland’s reserves outscored Washington’s 57-24.
Detroit relied on a balanced attack all season, and that has continued into the postseason with five Pistons averaging in double digits. Billups leads the way with 22.2 points per game in the playoffs, and Hamilton is at 21.4.
The Pistons have won Game 1 in nine straight semifinal series, going on to take all but one of those series.
The Cavs are making just their fourth semifinal appearance in 14 postseason trips and only made the conference finals in 1992, losing 4-2 to Chicago.
Game 2 is Tuesday at The Palace.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Cavaliers - James, 35.7 ppg and 5.7 apg; Gooden, 9.3 rpg. Pistons - Billups, 22.2 ppg and 6.6 apg; Ben Wallace, 10.2 rpg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Pistons, 3-1. The Cavaliers took the first game, but the Pistons won the final three by an average margin of 15.7 points. James averaged 25.0 points for Cleveland, while Rasheed Wallace led Detroit with 19.0 points.