By BRIAN DULIK
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. â€” Whatever momentum the Cavaliers had earlier this season is long gone. So is any psychological edge they held over the Detroit Pistons.
Detroit abused archrival Cleveland for the better part of four quarters on Saturday night â€” both physically and mentally â€” in rolling to an 85-71 win at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The loss was the Cavaliersâ€™ third in a row and dropped them to 1-8 on the road since making their mega trade on Feb. 21. Despite those ugly facts, Cleveland (40-33) clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive year when New Jersey lost to Phoenix just minutes before the final buzzer sounded in Detroit.
â€œI canâ€™t think about the playoffs right now, weâ€™ve got nine games to get better,â€ said Cavaliers forward LeBron James, who played one of his worst games of the season with 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting, four rebounds, five assists and five turnovers. â€œAt this point of the year, you want to be getting better.
â€œOur team is based on consistency and trying to get momentum. Hopefully, we can get some going before itâ€™s too late.â€
The signs are not good on that happening, not after Cleveland was completely outplayed by the Pistons (52-21) on an evening when the Central Division champions didnâ€™t play perfect basketball.
Shooting guard Richard Hamilton led Detroit with a game-high 14 points, while point guard Chauncey Billups and bruiser Jason Maxiell added 13 apiece.
Hamiltonâ€™s defense, though, was bigger than his offensive numbers. He guarded James ferociously with his hands, torso and quick feet, daring the officials to call fouls against him. They did not, James got frustrated, none of his teammates helped out, and the Cavaliers dug a 47-25 hole in the second quarter.
â€œThey came out aggressive and we were passive a little bit,â€ Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. â€œWe didnâ€™t come out with the fire we needed tonight. It was a good old fashioned behind kicking.â€
The Pistons eventually built a 62-37 advantage midway through the third as Antonio McDyess (12 points, game-high 10 rebounds) and Tayshaun Prince (12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists) got in on the fun, setting the stage for extended garbage time for both clubs.
â€œIt was an effort game,â€ Billups said matter of factly. â€œThere arenâ€™t many meaningful games left because we canâ€™t move up or down (from second place in the Eastern Conference standings), but this one was because that is a team we could face down the road.â€
While Detroit is looking ahead, fourth-place sitter Cleveland has begun glancing over its shoulder, where the Washington Wizards are a mere 1Â½ games behind it. Finishing fourth equals home-court advantage in the opening round of the postseason, making it critical for the Cavaliers to maintain the spot.
â€œThe Pistons came out tonight and made a statement, and we werenâ€™t able to answer it,â€ said Cleveland forward Joe Smith, who had 10 points off the bench. â€œThey did a great job taking care of their home floor.â€
Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting for the Cavaliers, while Anderson Varejao had nine rebounds and Devin Brown collected 11 points. Clevelandâ€™s team shot 27-of-74 from the field (36.5 percent) and needed a last-minute 3-pointer by Sasha Pavlovic to avoid its lowest point total of the season.
Adding injury to insult, the Cavaliers got guard Daniel Gibson (1 point) back from a sprained left ankle, only to lose power forward Ben Wallace (6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocked shots) to another bout of back spasms.
â€œWe just shut Ben down for a week, so I donâ€™t know,â€ Brown said with a shrug. â€œI have no clue.â€
Brown wasnâ€™t alone, as the Cavaliers had no answer against essentially the same Pistons team they beat in the Eastern Conference finals just 11 months ago.
â€œIt was complete domination tonight,â€ James said. â€œThey dominated us defensively and they kept us under direst the whole game. We never got into a groove.â€
BOOBIE BACK: Daniel â€œBoobieâ€ Gibson has been all over local television of late, but not on the court for the Cavaliers. That changed Saturday as the popular guard returned to action for the first time since Feb. 20. Gibson had missed the previous 18 games with a sprained left ankle. â€œItâ€™s great to finally have him back,â€ forward LeBron James said. â€œHe can defend and he can spread the floor for us. Boobie takes a lot of pressure off our point guard in a lot of ways.â€ Though Gibson was medically cleared to play by the teamâ€™s doctors, coach Mike Brown said he was advised not to use him for more than 25 minutes in his first game. Those limitations were fine with the second-year pro, who was just happy to be back in uniform. â€œI miss playing the game, so Iâ€™m really looking forward to going out and helping my teammates,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™ll continue to bring energy and just play off the other guys, keep doing what I do best.â€ Being on the floor also gives Gibson a chance to avoid the ribbing of his teammates, who have reveled in mocking his performance in a McDonaldâ€™s TV commercial with mascot Moondog. Shooting guard Damon Jones has taken to calling him â€œSweet Tea,â€ in honor of the product he pitches in the 30-second spot, while Brown took time out of his pregame press conference to tease Gibson about his â€œcute face and pretty smile.â€ â€œI think Iâ€™m a pretty easy guy to get along with,â€ Gibson joked. â€œBut come on Coach, you know youâ€™ve got the best look around here. Iâ€™m just being myself.â€
FANTASTIC FRIDAY: Many Cavaliers players, including James, spent Friday at the NCAA Tournamentâ€™s Midwest Regional semifinals inside Ford Field. The star of the session was Davidson sophomore Stephen Curry, who scored 33 points in an upset victory over Wisconsin. Though Curry â€” the son of ex-Cleveland shooting guard Dell Curry â€” is listed at 6-foot-3, his actual height is a bit shorter. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter how tall he is because of what he can do,â€ said James, who had a front-row seat for the evening. â€œIf you can shoot the basketball, you can play in this league. And he can shoot the basketball.â€
HOOP SCOOPS: While James was at Ford Field, centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao had an even more interesting night. Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt ate dinner at the table next to them. â€œWe didnâ€™t know who he was, but we knew he had a number of bodyguards with him,â€ Ilgauskas said. â€¦ Pistons management continues to show the Cavaliers no respect on each of their visits, placing a sign with their old shattered-basket logo on their locker room door. Cleveland last used that insignia in 2002-2003, one year before James arrived. â€¦ The Pistons lead the NBA in home attendance at 22,076 fans per game, while the Cavaliers are third at 20,463. Chicago (21,983), Dallas (20,279) and Utah (19,907) are also in the top five.
Dulik may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-721-4059.