AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Whereas these Eastern Conference semifinals quickly have turned into The Education of LeBron James/The Maturation of the Cleveland Cavaliers, there is one thing King James can do that would be worth bearing witness and worth building upon for inevitable future playoff glory.
Play defense. We're talking nose-to-nose, baseline-to-baseline, no-frills, Henry Iba-style defense.
The Detroit Pistons took a 2-0 series lead Tuesday by holding off a late Cleveland charge for a 97-91 victory in which the outcome was never truly in doubt. That means the Cavs have to win four of the next five games to beat the mighty Pistons, and that just isn't going to happen. There is no shame in that.
Detroit is a ferocious opponent and better this season with its newfound offensive power than the last two Pistons teams that won and lost the NBA finals. Detroit's rep nationally still is the grind-it-out team that coach Larry Brown milked everything out of, but that was last year.
This team is explosive offensively – a collection of balanced scorers who play with admirable selflessness. And defensively, the Pistons still can make you gasp for air like David Blaine.
Simply put, the Cavaliers can't win if they need to score 100 or more points because Detroit, like any good team in the playoffs, isn't going to allow that.
"We feel defense is what wins games, and we've proven that over the last [three years]," Pistons guard Chauncey Billups said. "When things get tight [you] can't always depend on offense and we don't. That's what we make our living on and what we'll continue to make our living on."
That's how you advance in the playoffs. That's how you win championships. Detroit's leading scorer, Richard Hamilton, didn't have a basket in the first quarter Tuesday and the Pistons still led by 18. There was a reason.
Cleveland has been a poor defensive team, and while it is near sacrilege to pick on any part of King James' game, his defensive play (or lack thereof) is a big reason why. LeBron has all the size, speed and strength to be a great defender, but he hasn't displayed the willingness to become one. He sometimes coasts, sometimes fails to close out and sometimes loses focus.
Until he changes that, the Cavaliers still have a long way to go.
"I think they want to play defense," said James, when asked what made Detroit so difficult to score against. "They want to shut down opponents. That helps. It all comes down to wanting to play defense, wanting to shut opponents down."
James was his typically brilliant self on the offensive end, leading the fourth-quarter charge with unstoppable move after unstoppable move. He finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. He was everything you expect. But he needs to be better.
He needs to lead his team – which has a tendency to stand around and watch him – on the other end of the floor, too, with tenacity and concentration. In this series, James is averaging 26 points, but his main defensive assignment, Tayshaun Prince, is scoring 22 points per game after averaging 14.1 in the regular season.
"We've just got to be more mentally focused and keyed in on the defensive end," James said.
Defense isn't valued much in the NBA. Steve Nash plays less of it than almost anyone, and he has won two consecutive MVP awards. But winning MVPs and winning championships are two entirely different things.
"If we want to get to the point the Pistons are, the Spurs are, which I truly believe we can, we need to give effort for 48 minutes," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "The good teams give effort and concentration for as close to 48 minutes as possible."
So here's the challenge for James, and it is no longer about Detroit, which is too balanced, too big and too experienced to roll over and lose this series. It's not even about making this series look good by stealing a game or two. This is about setting a tone that goes into the offseason, next season and the postseason in 2007.
Slap the floor and get in the Pistons' grill. Sacrifice offense for defense and pretty plays for pressure defense. Start right in that defensive crouch and tear aggressively into Detroit.
"Defensively, we have to attack, attack, attack," Brown said.
Defensively, the Cavaliers need to look across the floor at how a team – a championship-caliber team – plays the game at both ends and then duplicate it. Right now.
"Our guys have the ability to lock down," Pistons coach Flip Saunders said.
Cleveland's crew does, too. The Cavaliers just have to want to. They just need their leader to want it, demand it and prioritize it. There's no better time than the present for LeBron to start doing that.