June 25, 2016

Mostly clear

Rick Noland
The Gazette

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The LeBron James MVP caravan stopped at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday night, and by the time the Cavaliers had completed a 79-68 victory in Game 3, even Detroit Pis-tons fans had jumped on board.

James finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in leading the top-seeded Cavaliers to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven, first-round series.

Cleveland, which won on a night when starting guards Mo Williams and Delonte West combined for four points on 1-of-18 shooting, can wrap up the series in Game 4 Sunday at The Palace.

No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit, and many proud yet knowledgeable Pistons fans seemed to be conceding the series was over when they chanted “MVP” while James was shooting a free throw with three minutes to go.

They were joined by a significant amount of fans who made the trek from Cleveland, but James was still surprised by what was definitely a first at The Palace.

“No,” the 24-year-old said bluntly when asked if he ever expected to hear an MVP chant in Detroit. “But did I ever think I’d play the Pistons without Chauncey Billups (who was traded to Denver early this season)? I didn’t think that would happen, either. It happens.”

Joe Smith, who finished with 19 points and 10 re-bounds, was also vital for the Cavaliers. Smith has scored 13 points or more in a playoff game seven times in his 14-year career, with six coming against Detroit.

“I’ve been around awhile,” Smith said. “I understand what it takes to win at this level.”

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who hit a 3-pointer and led the fastbreak on two occasions in the first half, finished with 13 points, six rebounds and three blocks on a night when Cleveland’s defense more than made up for the offensive struggles of Williams (1-of-11, two points, seven assists, four turnovers) and West (0-of-7, two points, four turnovers).

If those two guards had shot the ball like they nor-mally do, there’s no telling how many assists James might have had, but the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder certainly would have recorded the fourth playoff triple-double of his career.

“I blame Mo Williams,” James joked. “Out of his 11 shots, four of them came from me and he didn’t make anything.”

Richard Hamilton led Detroit, which scored just 31 points in the second half, with 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting, eight rebounds and six assists, but Rodney Stuckey (12) was the only other Piston to score more than eight points. Tayshaun Prince, who had six points in the series coming in, had seven in the first 6:18 of the game, but didn’t score again.

“I can’t even lie: This is killing me,” said Hamilton, whose team advanced to at least the Eastern Confer-ence finals the previous six seasons. “Just the simple fact of how great we were, being down 0-3, being the eighth seed and watching them celebrate shot after shot, it’s hard. It’s a terrible situation.”

The Cavaliers, who had just two points in the first 8:19 of the third quarter, were far from perfect, but they played like champions when it mattered most.

Up seven at halftime, Cleveland missed 10 of its first 11 shots to start the third period, but Detroit managed only a 12-2 spurt, meaning its lead was just three points. The Cavaliers finished 3-of-18 from the field in the quarter and scored just nine points, but the game was tied at 53 because they allowed the Pistons only 16 points.

Cleveland, which was 1-of-15 from beyond the arc through three periods, then dominated the fourth quar-ter behind James — who had 11 points, three rebounds, four assists and two blocks — and Smith, who sparked a struggling offense with seven straight points.

“LeBron’s a big, strong man,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “His skills are off the charts. Once he de-cided to say, ‘I’m not getting any calls, I’m going to will this team to a win,’ our whole team changed.

“Just sitting there watching him flip that switch was very exciting to me.”

After Smith kept the Cavaliers in the game, James sparked a 13-0 run that put Cleveland up 76-60 with 4:27 to play. The spurt ended with an Ilgauskas 3-pointer off a James assist. Before that, James made a left-handed drive and converted a three-point play, fed a cutting Anderson Varejao for a layup and threw down a resounding dunk off a Williams lob.

James’ aggressiveness — he was 7-of-11 at the line — helped the Cavaliers finish 19-of-30 at the stripe com-pared to Detroit’s 10-of-12. Cleveland has now at-tempted 100 free throws in the series to the Pistons’ 40.

“That’s an area where they’ve dominated us this series,” Detroit coach Michael Curry said. “That’s why they’re up 3-0.”

As expected, the Pistons came out strong, jumping to an 8-0 lead before the care-less Cavaliers even hit the rim with a shot. Cleveland committed turnovers on three of its first four posses-sions — two by Williams and one by West — and Ilgauskas got his shot blocked on the other. Detroit cooled after that, however, and the Cava-liers found themselves in an 18-18 tie after one period.

James sat the first 5:16 of the second period, but Cleveland was down just two when he returned. With James doing a little bit of everything and the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas twice leading fastbreaks — he got one of the ugliest assists in NBA playoff history when he leaped and found a cutting James with 34.6 seconds left in the half — the Cavaliers went up as many as nine before settling for a 44-37 lead at intermission.

“It was a playoff game,” Brown said. “It was an ugly game. It was a sloppy game. I don’t think either team played its best basketball, but somehow, someway, we found a way.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rickn@ohio.net.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.