A learning experience. A humbling beating at the hands of his betters. The first step or stumble on his way to greatness. That was what most experts thought this second round playoff series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons would be for Lebron James. Lebron had something different in mind.
Michael Jordan, to who Lebron is so often compared, also faced a stifling defense in Detroit jerseys. "The Bad Boys" not only beat Jordan, but humbled him. It took Jordan four trips to the playoffs to fight through Detroit. Many expected Lebron to do better, but who expected this possibility? With only three NBA seasons behind him, with his first playoff game less than a month in the history books, Lebron James and his Cavaliers are staring at the Conference Finals. And here's a little secret...they could win that, too.
How did this happen? Where did the Pistons go wrong? Or more appropriately where did the Cavs go right? A lot of things are playing into Cleveland's favor, and are setting up the possibility for an unbelievable start to King James Playoff Career.
1. Team Unity - the loss of Larry Hughes' brother Justin, has been a focal point for the camaraderie and loyalty of this team. The way the organization has handled Hughes' absence, and the touching picture of the team traveling to the funeral during the playoffs has been an example to other sports teams. Lebron's assertion during last night's post-game conference that "This is just basketball, it ain't life or death." Show his wisdom is behind on his years not only on the court but off. The strength of the team to pull through without the presence of Hughes' shows that the role players on this team know where they fit in and are always willing to contribute.
2. Outstanding bench play - Heading into the playoffs the Cavs were labeled "young" and "inexperienced" but players like Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Eric Snow have playoff experience and they are showing it. The combo of Anderson Varejao and Ilgauskas at the center position has allowed Cleveland to control the boards, and out Piston the Pistons. Flip Murray and Eric Snow, while outmatched by Billups and Hamilton from Detroit have not conceded defeat in the backcourt forcing the Piston guards to play a solid 48 minutes. Thus far, they have not been up to the task.
3. Underestimation - The Pistons this season have played with a chip on their shoulder and a swagger in their step. And no one in the Association deserved either more. The Pistons were pretty much the universal favorite to go all the way this year. They won two years ago and last year were just a few bounces away from a repeat. They have dominated the Eastern Conference for three seasons and only a couple of teams in the West posed any threat whatsoever. After the departure of Larry Brown and the entry of Flip Saunders, the Detroit offense (once on lifesupport) was now off to the races. If they didn't want to shut you down, they could now shoot the lights out. They looked unstoppable. But no one told that to Number 23. Actually I think a few too many people told that to the Pistons. They bought into their own hype, overlooked the Cavs and maybe (just maybe) cost themselves another trip to the Finals.
4. Leadership even without Experience - Lebron has not had an outstanding offensive performance in the series so far. He has taken bad shots at times and turned over the ball a few more times than Coach Mike Brown would like. He has however led his team from the first minute of Game 1. Lebron knew this was a seven game series. He knew there would be times for adjustments (on both sides of the court). He never got down, and because of it, his teammates started believing. Here is the difference between Kobe and Lebron. Kobe's teammates believe he can do it. Lebron's believe WE can do it. Nailbiting habits aside, Lebron has handled himself like a seasoned pro, and has instilled a lot of confidence in the journeyman players of Cleveland.
5. Excellent Coaching - Other than the presence of the Chosen one, this is Cleveland's greatest asset. Mike Brown has done a fabulous job on the bench during the series. He has constantly monitored and adjusted Cleveland's gameplan finding what works, never relying on one point of attack and generally out coaching Flip Saunders. One wonders what Larry Brown would have done with this series. I'm not for quick dumps of new coachs but Flip has failed at his first big test. Mike Brown, meanwhile, is due for a raise.
This is not to imply that the series is over. The Pistons could rediscover their fire. The Cavs could buy into THEIR hype. Lebron could get injured. Larry Hughes could come back into the lineup and break up the team's chemistry. But I doubt it. I believe Lebron and the Cavs will beat Detroit, but they've got their work cut out for them. And they must get the job done at home. Here's what it will take to give the Cavs a shot at Shaq Diesel and D-Wade.
1. Stick to the Gameplan - The tendency is going to be towards a high powered game at home. The Q (Quicken Loans Arena) has never seen a game like this, and the fans are going to bring the house down. It would be easy for Cleveland to get into a run and gun game with all that excitement, but the Pistons will outshoot them if they do. The Cavaliers need to dance with the one that brought them. Defense. Contest every shot. Grab every loose ball, and don't let this opportunity slip by.
2. Dominate the Wallace's - The package of Varejao, Ilgauskas, Gooden, and Marshall can and have dominated the Piston big men. They are bigger, stronger and faster inside. They have to continue to act like it.
3. Play Hughes (if at all) Off the Bench - If Larry Hughes' returns to the series, he shouldn't interfere with the current rotation. His emotions after his brother's funeral might help him, bringing him his first major offensive output of the playoffs, but that needs to come off the bench. Let the starters that have done so well in the past three games continue and work Larry back into rotation slowly.