THE NAMES havechanged, but the dynamic of the Eastern Conference finals is every bit asintriguing as it was nearly two decades ago when another prodigious number 23was trying to take down the Detroit Pistons, then in the midst of a run thatincluded three straight trips to the Finals and back-to-back championships. Ittook Michael Jordan four straight postseason meetings before he learned how tobeat Detroit; the question today is whether LeBron James can acquire thatknowledge in half the time.
Make no mistakeabout James's importance to the Cleveland Cavaliers as they face the Pistons:His playoff debut last year ended in the conference semifinals when Detroitheld him to one field goal in the second half of Game 7, and in four gamesbetween the clubs this season the Cavs' only win came when James exploded for aseason-high 41 on March 7. Like the young Jordan, Air's heir must find a way todominate the series individually while elevating his teammates' play toovercome the Pistons' wealth of talent, court balance and, not least,experience. While Detroit is aiming to convert its fifth straight conferencefinals appearance into a second championship in that span, only three Cavaliershave played this deep into the postseason.
The Pistons, wholost to the Heat in the conference finals a year ago, are less vulnerable to anupset this season because of their more sophisticated approach to defense. As astrict man-to-man team last year, Detroit counted on Ben Wallace to defend therim and offset its deficiencies elsewhere. Since Wallace's departure toChicago, however, the Pistons have been refining a variety of zones, traps androtations that returned the team to the top six in the league defensively andnow threatens to make life more complicated for James. In Game 1 on Mondaynight the Cleveland star was held to 10 points (on 5-of-15 shooting) and didnot make a single trip to the foul line, resulting in a 79--76 win fortop-seeded Detroit. The good news for the Cavaliers, however, was that they hadchances to steal home court advantage because James (nine assists) establishedhis teammates in the offense.
Indeed, the mainlesson from the Jordan era is that one man can't do it alone. So James mustcontinue to lean on his team's overpowering front line of center ZydrunasIlgauskas, power forward Drew Gooden and sixth man Anderson Varej√£o, who ledthe league in charges taken with 78. That trio has to attack the offensiveboards, like guards and tackles exploding off the line, against Detroit'sinside rotation of center Chris Webber, power forward Rasheed Wallace and sixthman Antonio McDyess.
Cleveland alsomust improve its sluggish ball movement to create open jumpers that will spreadthe floor, and scoring point guard Larry Hughes has to have a big series asJames's second in command. "We need to attack first and slow things downlater," says Hughes, emphasizing the need to exploit as many easy-basketchances as possible. Otherwise the Pistons will dictate the outcome with anequal-opportunity offense that provides scoring from all five positions.Detroit can draw upon the perimeter mismatches created by Wallace, thehigh-post passing and low-post presence of midseason acquisition Webber and thebig-shot versatility of Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups,whose unflustered leadership in the final minutes of close games is second tonone.
More of abusinesslike approach will be needed from the Pistons, who should remember thatCleveland helped unravel their postseason last year by recovering from an 0--2deficit to reach a seventh game, signaling their demise in the next round. IfDetroit is serious about beating San Antonio or Utah in the NBA Finals, it mustcontinue to improve on the level of play it showed in dismantling the Bulls4--2 in the second round.
The .500 Netssucceeded in limiting James to 24.7 points per game and 42.3% shooting in theconference semis--and the Pistons are superior to New Jersey at both ends ofthe floor. Expect Detroit to win this series in six games. And for James andhis Cavs to receive another Jordanesque lesson on how to win achampionship.
James will need lots of help from his front line for the Cavaliers to stand achance.