PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals; tied 3-3.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, getting one playoff win in Detroit was fairly shocking.
Getting two might be considered historic.
Facing the most important game of his career, LeBron James can add an impressive notch to his young but growing legacy if he can lead the Cavaliers to a Game 7 victory and deny the Pistons a fourth straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
As difficult as the task may seem, Cleveland already has proven capable of winning at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Despite being widely considered longshots to knock off the Pistons, owners of the league’s best record and plenty of playoff experience, the Cavaliers won their third straight game in the series with an 86-84 victory in Game 5 at Detroit.
It was only the fifth home loss all season for the Pistons, who avoided elimination on Friday with an 84-82 win at Cleveland.
“We can be down, but we’re never out,” Detroit’s Chauncey Billups said. “That’s our team.”
The Cavs are clearly James’ team despite his being just 21 years old. He led Cleveland to its first playoff berth in eight years and is averaging 31.1 points—nearly three times more than any teammate—while also leading the club in rebounds and assists.
James, who has scored 32 points in each of the last two games, was asked if this is the biggest challenge of his career.
“By far, of course. I think Game 7 is going to be electrifying,” he said. “Their crowd is going to be up for it. Their team is going to be up for it. We’ve won on their court before, and in order for us to move on we’re going to have to do it again. We’ve got to take the challenge.”
The Pistons are 6-0 at home all-time in series-deciding games. Half of those wins have come in Game 7s, including a conference semifinal victory over New Jersey in 2004, when Detroit came back from a 3-2 series deficit en route to winning the championship.
“It will be fun because this is what we’ve been waiting for all year, and this is why we wanted home-court advantage,” Detroit’s Richard Hamilton said. “I can’t wait to get to play in our building again because it’s going to be crazy in there.”
Before losing at San Antonio in Game 7 of last year’s NBA Finals, the Pistons won Game 7 at Miami in the conference finals. The Heat await the winner of this series.
Detroit’s 9-2 record in elimination games over the last four postseasons includes a 3-1 mark in Game 7s. Cleveland has only played in two Game 7’s in its history, but won both.
The Cavs defeated Boston in the second round in what turned out to be Larry Bird’s final game in 1992, and ousted Washington in 1976. Those also are the only two years Cleveland has reached the conference finals.
“We have to bring our ‘A’ game,” James said. “We can’t make too many mistakes on a Game 7, especially on the opponents’ court.”
Mistakes cost the inexperienced Cavs in Game 6. James committed seven turnovers, and Cleveland allowed Detroit to grab several key offensive rebounds and was beaten to loose balls in the final minutes.
Rasheed Wallace scored 24 points, Hamilton had 17 and Billups 15 for Detroit, which committed only 10 turnovers to send the series back to Detroit.
“The Palace is gonna be bananas, yo,” said Wallace, who can still make good on his guarantee the Pistons will win this series after his victory guarantee for Game 4 failed to happen.
Wallace’s play has been a deciding factor in the series. He was Detroit’s top scorer in Game 6, just as he was in Game 2 when he had 29 points. In between, Wallace averaged 9.3 points as the Pistons lost three straight.
“We know what it takes,” Detroit’s Ben Wallace said. “We’ve been together a while. We don’t panic.”
Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, the second-year backup center who scored in double figures in Games 1-4, has been held to six points in each of the last two contests, grabbing a total of just seven rebounds and fouling out in both.
The Cavaliers could get a lift from Larry Hughes, who did not play Friday but is back with the team after missing the previous three games following the death of his brother.
“You always hope Larry’s going to be a part of it. He’s a big part of our team,” James said. “In order for us to win we just have to keep playing like we’ve been playing. We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to win the last four ballgames, so we’ve got to bring high intensity.”
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Cavaliers - James, 31.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 6.2 apg. Pistons - Hamilton, 20.7 ppg; Ben Wallace, 11.2 rpg; Billups, 6.5 apg.