The Cleveland Cavaliers lost the first two games of their series against the Detroit Pistons with same final score (79-76). And other than the score, those games had many things in common. Both times, LeBron James had the ball in his hands in the final seconds with the Cavs trailing by a point. Both times, James went to the rim. Both times, nothing good happened for the inexperienced Cavs. The Cavs had the lead with less than two minutes and they went 0-5 down the stretch in both games. Both times, they committed several turnovers and couldn’t stop Rasheed Wallace.
In Game 1, LeBron dribbled at the top of the key. He drove to the basket. He seemed to get by Pistons defender Tayshaun Prince for a layup. Then James kicked it out to Donyell Marshall for a wide-open three-pointer. Marshall missed the shot and James took most of the blame. They said a superstar wouldn’t have passed the ball in a game-tying or winning situation. I think James made the correct decision because Marshall is capable of hitting big shots and James had made that pass several times to teammates during his NBA career.
So what did James tried to do in Game 2? He dribbled at the top of the key. He made his move with the smaller Richard Hamilton guarding or hanging all, took some contact during the play and missed the shot. Game Over! Cavs lose 79-76.
Now the debate starts over again. Did he make the correct play in Game 2? He took a tough shot against a defense that knew he was going to shoot it in this situation and not defer to a teammate. Again he made the best play for the team. The Cavs lost and are in a 0-2 hole.
OK, let’s step away from the obvious and talk about the two players that will dictate how the rest of this series is played out and determined – Larry Hughes and Tayshaun Prince.
Let’s start with Prince. He is arguably Detroit’s best on-ball defender and that’s why he has been given the task to guard LeBron James, similar to what Dennis Rodman did in the late 80s and early 90s versus Michael Jordan. He’s making James work hard for every shot, but it’s taking a big toll on his offensive game. Prince was 1-11 in Game 1 and 0-8 in Game 2. The Pistons need Prince to score the basketball and make James also work on the defensive end. This is the main reason why the Pistons are struggling to score. He needs to find his stroke in Game 3 or it could get ugly in Cleveland.
As for Larry Hughes, he also has been given the assignment of slowing down the opponent’s most important player (Chauncey Billups). He has frustrated Billups during the series so far. Billups uncharacteristically had a total of 9 turnovers in two games and had trouble throughout the series in getting his shot off. He can’t bully Hughes in the low post. Granted, Billups has hit big shots in the fourth quarter in Game 1 and 2, but he’s not as dominant during the series as you would expect.
The problem for Cleveland is that all that work on defense is also taking a toll on Hughes’ offensive game. Remember he had a chance to tie the game after James’ missed shot in Game 2, but missed badly on an easy shot. He had played well during the playoffs and had become that second scorer the Cavs needed while taking over some of the ballhandling duties from James so he didn’t have to make every play for the team. But now Hughes is 6-22 from the field against Detroit. He hasn’t hit a three-pointer and has made some crucial turnovers in the fourth quarter. Not the sidekick LeBron wants in the Conference finals.
This series could be easily 1-1 or even 2-0 for the Cavs with one or even just two made shots in crunch time. Everybody wants to focus on James because he is the marquee name in this series, but the determining factor for both teams will be which player will step up to the challenge and make a huge difference on the offensive end. (Because if I see 79-76 again in Game 3, I’m tempted to lace them up again cause I know I can hit a wide-open jump shot. OK, I’m serious about the jumpshot. Not about lacing them up).