June 28, 2016

Partly sunny

LeBron was huge, stakes really weren’t

Rick Noland
The Gazette

Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace took Game 4 off. Wisely, the Cavaliers elected to wait until Monday to rest.

With Cleveland now awaiting the winner of the Miami-Atlanta series, let’s clear out the notebook from the Cavaliers’ impressive first-round sweep of the Pistons.

That’s LeBron

There is some debate as to whether this was the greatest playoff series of LeBron James’ already illustrious postseason career – pro basketball fans in Cleveland need something to talk about this week – but sweeping the Pistons was way too easy to classify it as such.

Don’t misunderstand. Other than making just 3-of-17 3-point attempts (.176), James was magnificent, dominant, sensational and more – at both ends of the court.

In averaging 32.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists, he joined Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson as the only players to post at least those numbers in a series. The 24-year-old also shot .506 from the field against a Pistons team that tried everything it could defensively.

However, truly great playoff performances happen when the stakes are high, when a series is close, when games can be won or lost on one possession, not when the closest game is decided by 11 points and the opponent is ready to go home.

It’s not James’ fault the Pistons offered so little resistance, but this was not a series – nor an individual performance – basketball fans will be talking about 20 years from now.
That’s foul

The Cavaliers made 97-of-124 free throw attempts in the series, which breaks down to going 24-of-31 per game. The perimeter-oriented Pistons were just 48-of-58 for the series, or about 12-of-15 per game. By himself, James was 47-of-59, meaning he matched Detroit’s entire team.

This disparity, it should be noted, was not due to poor officiating. The Cavaliers attacked the basket, while the Pistons took jump shot after jump shot.

“When you go into the paint, you know you’re going to get hit sometimes,” the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James said. “You just have to keep going in there.”

The Pistons rarely did. The 6-11 Wallace, who was scoreless in a Game 4 performance that had “quit” written all over it, didn’t attempt a free throw in the entire series. Fellow starting big man Antonio McDyess attempted just six, and even slashing shooting guard Richard Hamilton got to the line just 10 times in four games.

By contrast, James attempted 14 free throws in Game 1, 17 in Game 2, 11 in Game 3 and 17 in Game 4.
That’s defense

The average final score of the four games was 93.5 to 78. All were double-figure victories for the Cavaliers, who joined the 1980 Boston Celtics and 2004 Indiana Pacers as the only teams to sweep and win every game by at least 10 points.

Detroit’s 68 points in Game 3 were the fewest ever given up by the Cavaliers in a playoff game, while an 84-point effort in Game 1 represented the Pistons’ top offensive output.

Thanks to a tremendous effort by Cleveland’s Delonte West, who averaged 41 minutes a game, Hamilton shot just .356 from the field (21-of-59) and became visually frustrated as the series progressed.

Though he averaged a team-best 15.0 points, Pistons point guard Rodney Stuckey hit just .393 from the field (24-of-61) and was 0-of-8 on 3-point attempts. Wallace was 11-of-30 (.367) and Tayshaun Prince was 7-of-27 (.259) in a series in which they combined to average a whopping 10.3 points.

As a team, the Pistons shot just .409 from the field and were 12-of-49 from beyond the arc (.245).

All that is a credit to Cavaliers coach Mike Brown and his players, who realized they were playing a team with little inside offense and few penetrators outside of Hamilton, Will Bynum and the jump-shot-happy Stuckey.

“Our guys did a great job of staying locked in, of staying focused,” Brown said.
That’s a concern

We’re nitpicking now, but Cavaliers point guard Mo Williams sometimes looked like a guy who had played just five playoff games in his career prior to this series.

Williams wound up with respectable numbers – 14.8 points on .442 shooting, 5.5 assists – but he struggled in Game 1, when he was 5-of-14 from the field, and Game 3, when he was 1-of-11 and had just two points.

Williams also committed 11 turnovers in the four games — amazingly, James had just six while compiling 30 assists — and sometimes seemed tentative with the ball. The 26-year-old was 8-of-25 on 3-pointers (.320) and 5-of-9 at the line (.556) after shooting .436 and .912, respectively, during the regular season.

All those numbers, of course, can change in a heartbeat. Williams is a confident player who won’t stop shooting, but his ability to play through rough spots will be something to keep an eye on in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

That’s a wrap

The second question Brown was asked in his postgame press conference Sunday dealt with rest vs. rust.

Can a team have too much time off? Is it better to keep playing when you have momentum? Will the Cavaliers lose their edge?

No doubt, that psycho-babble will be discussed ad nauseum as the Cavaliers wait for the Miami-Atlanta series to end.

The truth is, we won’t know until the next series starts, and even then we won’t know for sure. If the Cavaliers struggle in Game 1, radio talk show hosts will say they were rusty, they lost their mental edge, when in fact they may have just played poorly. If the Cavaliers win, people will say the time off was rejuvenating and the Hawks or Heat were obviously tired, when in fact the rest period might not have had anything to do with either team’s performance.

Right now, we know this: The Pistons, who had advanced to at least the Eastern Conference finals for six straight seasons, have officially ended an era of greatness. The Cavaliers, who are now 70-16 for the season, are at the start of one.

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.