CLEVELAND (AP)—Practice over, LeBron James palmed a basketball off the rack in his right hand, and with hardly any windup, fired it toward the hoop at the far end of Quicken Loans Arena.
Swish. Nothing but net from 92 feet.
Just like in his commercial.
“Wooo!” James hollered. “That’s it, I’m out.”
And back home, where James almost always makes the impossible look routine.
Coming off two heartbreaking losses in Detroit, James and his teammates hope they can repeat their performance of a year ago when they face the Pistons in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday night.
In last year’s semifinals, the Cavaliers were down 2-0 before winning three straight—Games 3 and 4 at home—to push the Pistons to the brink of elimination. Now, Cleveland’s players are banking on that experience to give them an edge.
“We’ve been here before,” James said. “That’s the best thing that could happen to us. We’ve been in this situation, so we know how to react to it. We should know what to do and how to capture Game 3.”
After going 30-11 at home during the regular season, and 4-1 at the Q so far during the playoffs, the Cavaliers feel good about their chances of slicing Detroit’s series lead in half.
“We’re confident that we can get it done, but it won’t be easy,” center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “But just because we’re at home we can’t think we don’t have to show up. If we do that, we can easily be down three before we know it.”
Despite dropping the series’ first two games, the Cavaliers insist the losses were confidence builders. They know they can go 48 minutes with the playoff ripened Pistons, who are appearing in their fifth consecutive conference final.
Games 1 and 2 were rough—elbows flew, bodies flopped and most of uncontested shots came during warmups. Like last May’s semifinals, Detroit’s intensity caught the Cavaliers by surprise at the outset. They weren’t ready for it, and the Pistons made them pay.
“We’re definitely prepared for it now,” Cavs forward Donyell Marshall said. “They hit us a couple times. They’re like the bullies. They’re going to keep messing with you until you hit back, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
Hitting a jump shot every now and then might help, too.
The Cavaliers had a chance to win both games in Detroit, but they twice went 0-for-5 from the field in the final minutes. Marshall missed a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner with 5.9 seconds left in Game 1, and Larry Hughes misfired from short range just before the horn in Game 2.
Detroit’s defense has been the difference. Whether sagging into the lane to cut off driving lanes or double teaming James, the Pistons have held the Cavaliers to 39 percent shooting overall. Cleveland has made just 7-of-29 3-pointers.
Those statistics will have to improve for Cleveland to have any chance. Although he says he must do more, James needs help. And so far he hasn’t gotten nearly enough from his teammates.
“We as a team have not done a good job of capitalizing on how much attention he gets,” said Ilgauskas, who had 22 points in Game 1 but just 3 in Game 2. “We could do a better job of getting better shots and stuff like that.”
The Pistons’ only offensive worry has been Tayshaun Prince, who is 1-of-19 from the field. On Saturday, Prince stayed for nearly an hour after practice doing shooting drills with assistant coach Igor Kokoskov. Prince, whose primary defensive assignment is James, feels there’s only one thing he needs to do differently in Game 3.
“Be myself,” he said. “I wasn’t myself the last couple of games. But the important thing about this team, when you don’t make shots and you are on the floor for a while, there’s other things you’ve got to do. That’s what I’ve tried to do, pick it up in other areas.”
James, too, wants to do more. Although he’s averaging 24 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.1 assists in the playoffs, he may have to put up bigger numbers. But the more he pushes the ball, the more he attacks the rim, the more he tries to please his home fans, the more he may be playing into the Pistons’ hands.
“That’s what we expect him to do (take over the offense),” Prince said. “That’s why we pay so much attention to him and that’s why Donyell Marshall and Daniel Gibson had so many good looks (in Game 2).
“But the situation is there for us to really crowd LeBron, know where he’s at and have two or three guys running at him. Our defense is predicated on him being aggressive.”
As far the Pistons are concerned, he can make as many 92-footers as he wants.