All the king's men

Dan Wetzel

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – They spent three days analyzing, criticizing and damn near euthanizing LeBron James for passing the ball Monday on a last seconds, last shot, game on the line possession.

And now they probably will spend three more days doing the same to the referees for not calling a foul when James didn't pass but shot and then collided with Richard Hamilton in almost the same situation Thursday.

Thursday, just like Monday, the Cleveland Cavaliers wound up losing to the Detroit Pistons by three points, 79-76.

"Groundhog Day," said Detroit coach Flip Saunders. "Same game."

Hey, it's easy for him to joke. If you are Cleveland, you want to commit hara-kari, which is almost what Cavs coach Mike Brown did arguing about the non-call to earn a technical in the final seconds and James did when barking at the officials – "That's (expletive) up, man," he said.

"Me and the ref had a good conversation," James said later.

OK, so maybe Cleveland can laugh; a little gallows humor to soften the blow of a frustrating start to their first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 15 years.

But James wasn't smiling when he said it because deep down he has to know who really is to blame for Cleveland coming oh so close only to fly back across Lake Erie down 2-0.

Let's start with three Cavaliers starters named Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes. Thursday in the critical second half they combined to score a grand total of zero points.

Hughes, for his part, even missed an 8-footer with 3.8 seconds left. It was a ridiculously good look because half the Pistons team photo had collapsed, of course, on James. It was fairly similar – only closer – to the miss Donyell Marshall had on the wide-open Game 1 would-be winner.

Then there is Sasha Pavlovic, who on the Cavs' penultimate possession – 32.2 seconds left, Cleveland clinging to a one-point lead – was the recipient of a James drive and dish. Pavlovic was all alone for a simple jumper that could have all but iced the game, only to seemingly panic his way into a bizarre, awkward travel.

"We had to try to at least get the ball up at the rim," James said of the play, which is about the closest you'll ever come to hearing him criticize a teammate. "We can't have a turnover."

They also couldn't have what happened on the ensuing defensive possession. Anderson Varejao, who at least plays hard all the time, decided to try to draw a foul on Rasheed Wallace with a ridiculous, fool-no-one flop. As Varejao watched while sprawled out on his back, Wallace knocked down the game-winning 17-footer.

"All that flopping," mocked Wallace, "they need to make that a technical foul. That's not defense."

Hey, rip the refs, lambaste LeBron, whatever. The reason Detroit won these two games is because no one from Cleveland other than their 22-year-old King is ready for prime time. Against a team as grizzled and confident as Detroit, that gets exposed in a hurry.

And no matter how many Nike commercials he's in, LeBron hasn't earned that veteran superstar status – a la the "Jordan Rules" – to get every call, every time. Was he fouled? Sure. But he's on the road against a championship club.

"Probably, probably," Wallace said when asked if he thought circumstance played a part in the non-call. "It was just a playoff call. It could have gone either away."

Which means in the lonely moments of the game James either can pass to gagging teammates or try to shoot through contact and a double- or triple-team. Either way, he's just hoping for the best.

As much as the non-call on James' hurt, Cleveland did have two more shots to win the game and missed. Plus, just two minutes prior, it got a quite favorable goaltending call, proof that these things usually even out.

The fact Cleveland was in these games is a testament to James' genius, Brown's defensive schemes and a Cavs team that plays loose in the early going. Unfortunately for them in crunch time, you can tell which group is in the conference finals for the first time and which is in it for fifth consecutive year.

"It's just resilience," Wallace said. "Veterans, guys that don't want to lose."

The question for the Cavs is where do they go from here? This series isn't over, especially if home cooking builds some fourth-quarter fortitude.

But perhaps this is just part of the growing pains of building a champion – these Pistons were swept by the New Jersey Nets in their first conference finals (2003) only to come back the next season and win the NBA title.

Or maybe these guys just aren't good enough. You wouldn't blame James for throwing a brick through his oversized plasma when he watches Carlos Boozer, who bailed on Cleveland to become a star in Utah. If Boozer still is a Cavalier, they lead this series 2-0.

Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry has pushed the salary cap to acquire this supporting cast, which can't make Cavs fans too comfortable. Essentially this is your team for the foreseeable future and, certainly, for these playoffs.

Which means while LeBron and the refs can continue to get all the conversation and consternation, neither is the reason why two golden opportunities slipped away here this week. And unless someone develops some stones before Sunday's Game 3, it's going to be Groundhog Day all over again.