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Thursday, May 31, 2007
20 reasons to heart Cavs-Pistons


My editors asked me to tackle the 20 most fascinating subplots from the Cavs-Pistons series as we head into Thursday night's crucial Game 5. Frankly, I wasn't sure if this was possible … but screw it, let's give it a whirl.

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18. The bizarre face LeBron makes after sinking a big basket -- when he squints his eyes, juts his chin out and tries to look as intense as possible. It always looks like he's finishing up an audition for Vivid Video. I can't get enough of it.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Five years ago, Bill Simmons sucked it up and kept a running diary of the
2002 National Spelling Bee.

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16. It's been strangely entertaining to watch the Cavs run the same play 225-250 times over the first four games. I'm not sure what this play is called, but here's a possible name: "Toss the ball to LeBron 25 feet from the basket on the left side and have Ilgauskas limp over and half-heartedly set a high screen, leading to a double-team because Z obviously isn't a threat to score from 25 feet, then LeBron either: (A) throws a baseball pass across the court to a wide-open teammate who bricks a 3-pointer, or (B) stutter-steps and forces a fall-away 22-footer with a hand in his face." I haven't seen such a lack of imagination from a coach since K.C. Jones posted up Larry Bird on the right block against Detroit 473 consecutive times in the '88 Eastern Conference finals.

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13. This sequence killed me: At the end of Game 4, when the Pistons were trailing by four in the final seconds, they showed LeBron and Mike Brown screaming at Drew Gooden during a timeout that Rasheed was going to shoot a 3 and that Gooden shouldn't leave his feet. LeBron kept screaming and screaming at him, and you could see him pantomiming the whole "stand straight like a statue" routine -- and by the end of it, Gooden looked totally ticked off, like a teenager who'd just been screamed at by his parents for 20 minutes because he left the front door unlocked. So what happened? Detroit runs the pop-out play for Sheed, Gooden goes flying at him, jumps as high as he can and takes a giant swipe at the shot as it was released! You have to love the NBA sometimes.

(By the way, in case you think I imagined this, here's confirmation from Junior in Harrisburg, Pa.: "Reading LeBron's lips, it was clear he was saying, 'Just don't leave your f'ing feet!' For some reason, Gooden was arguing with this theory, despite the fact that a 3 and a foul was the only possible way for the Pistons to tie the game. Sure enough, as Rasheed Wallace launched his desperation 3, Gooden flew at him swinging his right arm like he was trying to spike a freaking volleyball. This is just one of a million examples why LeBron will never win a championship with this team.")

THE ULTIMATE KOBE TRADE

Here's a five-way deal that could rejuvenate my beloved Celtics, make the Lakers a contender, make the Bulls favorites in the East, save basketball in Seattle and shake up Indiana:

Celtics get: Seattle's No. 2 pick, Vlad Radmanovic, Kwame Brown, Maurice Evans, Chicago's No. 9 pick

Lakers get: Ray Allen, Jermaine O'Neal, Paul Pierce, Jamaal Tinsley, Ryan Gomes

Seattle gets: Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni (sign and trade starting at $6.2 million), Andrew Bynum, Ty Thomas, Adrian Griffin, Boston's No. 5 pick, L.A.'s No. 19 pick

Indiana gets: Lamar Odom, Nick Collison, Victor Khryapa, Earl Watson, Boston's No. 32 pick

Chicago gets: Kobe, Tony Allen

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11. Scot Pollard making a late run at Sarunas Jasikevicius' title for "Best reactions on the bench by someone's who's not playing." He's taken a different route than Sarunas -- no fist pumping, no Cobra Kai imitations and no histrionics, but more of a grinning/nodding/slow-motion routine -- almost the way a stoner roommate would react if somebody showed up at 3 a.m. at his house with a pack of rolling papers, two jugs of Gatorade, a bag of Doritos, some Sour Patch Kids and the "Planet Earth" DVD set.

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9. You have to like any series that leads to the following conversation between me and my buddy House on Tuesday afternoon before Game 4. Here's the edited/sanitized version:

Me: "Hey, if gambling were legal, I'd bang the Cavs tonight. Since Hughes is out, that means Daniel Gibson might actually play -- that's good for the Cavs I think."

House: "Why, you think the Cavs should be playing the only true point guard on their roster? Really? You think so, Doctor?"

Me: "Yeah, I love how it took Brown two-thirds of the season to play Pavlovic and Gibson, then he buried Gibson after he got hurt."

House: "Why, you think the Cavs should be playing the fourth and fifth best guys on their team more often when they're both shooting 40 percent from 3 and LeBron gets everyone open 3s? Really? You think so, Doctor? Is that your expert analysis? You'd rather see Gibson out there than Eric Snow?"

(Important note: After 10 years of watching "Boogie Nights," House is slowly becoming The Colonel. We'll know the transformation is complete when he shows up for an awards dinner with a 14-year-old girl.)

CAVS-PISTONS PREDICTION

Cavs in six.

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7. You know the phrase "matching wits?" I was trying to think of a word that would mean the opposite of "matching wits" and finally decided on "canceling wits." Anyway, it's been fun watching Brown and Flip Saunders canceling wits in this series. Flip had the edge for a little while before falling apart in Game 4. Now we're in a dead heat. Literally. It's a DEAD heat. In fact, there's never been a playoff series when the announcers have muttered aloud more times, "Wow, this is weird, I'm not sure why they're doing this" or "I'm sure there's a reason for this, I just can't think of it right now" or even, "I'm not sure why they'd want to play right into their hands like this."

But here were my five favorite boners/bizarre coaching decisions of this series so far:

(A) In Game 1, Cleveland trailing by two with the ball, coming out of a timeout with 36 seconds left … and somehow not getting a two-for-one out of it when the Cavs have the most unstoppable guy in the league going to the basket. I loved this.

(B) The Cavs having superior athletic talent and a major speed advantage, but walking the ball up every possession so Ilgauskas can remain on the court … and the Pistons not taking advantage of Z's glacier-like defense by going small and making him guard the likes of Sheed, Antonio McDyess or even Jason Maxiell. It's the rare case of both coaches willfully going for a disadvantage at the same time. I've never seen it before and, honestly, I'm just glad that it happened in my lifetime.

(C) Brown throwing Eric Snow out there in the final 35 seconds of Game 4, up by three with the ball, so they could play four-on-five on the biggest possession of the game. Fortunately, they were able to run a play called "22 Heave," in which LeBron stutter-steps from 22 feet with two guys on him, jumps backward and launches a terrible shot as the shot clock is winding down.

(Note: Please don't confuse this with "23 Heave," in which LeBron stutter-steps from 23 feet with two guys on him, jumps backward and launches a terrible shot as the shot clock is winding down.)

(D) Flip making the executive decision: "I'm not gonna make LeBron work on defense -- whoever he's guarding, we won't run plays for that person. We don't want LeBron to get in foul trouble or get tired. Also, I know Rip Hamilton thrives when he's coming off screens, but you know what? That's kind of a crutch. Let's give him the ball 20 feet from the basket and get out of his way, he'll be much more effective this way."

(E) The Cavs calling a set play at the end of Game 1 that involved LeBron passing up a game-tying layup or dunk so he could kick it out to Donyell Marshall for a game-winning 3 … which would have been great if Marshall didn't stink.

(Note: Does anyone else love the thought of Cleveland's coaching staff sitting in a room and somebody saying, "Hey, wanna make any halftime adjustments?" and Brown responding, "Nahhhhhhh … I think we're good. You guys want to play pinochle for 10 minutes?" I swear this happened before Game 4. Nobody can convince me otherwise.)

6. C-Webb threatening to transform himself into the most tragic "washed-up former star who's perfectly willing to humiliate himself for a ring" since Mitch Richmond weaseled his way into a ring with the 2001 Lakers. He's right on the brink. Maybe he's had a couple of effective playoff games (usually at home), but still … this isn't like Walton on the '86 Celts or McAdoo on the '82 Lakers, when a former great adjusted to a supporting role and became a legitimate asset for a good team. He's been up and down at best. We forget this sometimes, but C-Webb was one of the top 10 power forwards ever, and arguably could have won the 2001 MVP. Now he's gimping around in the conference finals like John Salley at the end of "Eddie."

5. The half-decent chance that LeBron could inspire another Marv Albert call like the one after Bron YouTube'd Rasheed. To the rimmmmmmmmmmm! Ohhhhhhhh! Yesssssss! And … the foul!!!!!!!!!!!!!

4. I thoroughly enjoyed this e-mail from Rob in Kailua, Hawaii: "I've been noticing that during the Detroit-Cleveland series Gooden and Rasheed get into arguments or little scuffles at least 2-3 times a game. Is there a history there? My theory is that Gooden's little patch of hair on his neck used to be the little patch of hair missing from Rasheed's head. Drew must have won some epic battle and now wears that patch as a medal of honor. That's the only logical explanation for such a ridiculous hairdo right?"

3. Announcers and studio guys steadfastly continuing to call Chauncey Billups "Mr. Big Shot," quite possibly the most undeserved sports nickname of this century. Here's a quick recap of Chauncey's career:

1997-2001: Bounces around from Boston to Toronto to Denver to Orlando to Minnesota.

2002: Plays well enough for the T-Wolves (0-3 in the '02 playoffs) that Detroit gives him a $30 million contract.

2003: Leads a Pistons team that eventually gets swept in the 2003 Eastern finals by New Jersey … and gets destroyed by Jason Kidd in the process. Billups shot 11 for 40 in the series; Kidd averaged 23.5 points, 7.5 assists and 10 rebounds per game. To be fair, Billups was playing with a sprained ankle. Just pointing out that the "Mr. Big Shot" nickname hadn't kicked in yet.

2004: Shoots 39 percent in the regular season, gets hot in the playoffs, leads the Pistons to the title, makes some big shots along the way, and somehow picks up the name "Mr. Big Shot."

2005: Leads the Pistons to the Finals, makes some big shots along the way, then pulls a relative no-show in Game 7 (13 points, 3 for 8 from the field, no big shots).

2006: Heading into the playoffs, with the Pistons peaking as a 64-win team, I wrote that Billups was "one more killer spring away from moving into the pantheon of Big Game Guards, along with Sam Jones, Jerry West, Dennis Johnson and Walt Frazier. Out of anyone in the playoffs other than Kobe, he's the one who can make the biggest leap historically. Well, unless Artest charges into the stands again."

Didn't happen. During the last three games of the Eastern semis against Cleveland -- which the Pistons nearly blew -- Billups shot 13 for 34. In the six-game loss to Miami in the Eastern finals, he shot 39 percent and 3 for 14 in the deciding game. So much for the pantheon of Big Game Guards.

2007: Struggled in the Chicago series (39 percent shooting), then completely flopped in the first four games of the Cavs series (22-for-57 shooting, 32 turnovers, some killer mistakes at the end of Games 3 and 4), to the point that people are now openly wondering how much money he's costing himself this summer.

So here's my question: With all due respect to Billups -- who's been a valuable player, a gamer and a winner over the past few years -- can we really keep calling a 41 percent career shooter who slapped together one great playoffs and nine-tenths of another great playoffs "Mr. Big Shot"? Isn't that a little insulting to Robert Horry? I vote that we call him "Chauncey" or "Billups" unless he completely redeems himself over these next few weeks. This meeting is adjourned.

2. Doug Collins' hair.

(The Sports Gal summed it up best: "Wouldn't it have been easier just to buy a speedboat or a Porsche?")

1. LeBron's ongoing, Skywalker-esque struggle between positioning himself as the self-proclaimed "Global Icon" and actually earning that title on the basketball court. Allow me to make the following points:

(A) He's the greatest young player since Magic Johnson. It's impossible what he's doing right now -- he can throw up a 26-7-7 every night in the playoffs on cruise control. This needs to be mentioned constantly. I would never argue otherwise.

(B) His all-encompassing domination of Game 3 put him on another level as a basketball player -- for the first time, he shifted into MJ/Bird/Magic "there's no f'ing way I'm letting us lose this game" mode and unleashed all of his considerable talents in a big game at the same time. In Games 3 and 4 he was clearly in fifth gear for every minute of both games. Which is where he needs to be. All the time.

(C) Hence, the problem: The best young player in the league has gears already. Great players shouldn't have gears. When Barkley and Magic complain about LeBron on TNT, it's not because they're jealous, it's because other great players take it personally when they feel like someone isn't tapping into their considerable potential.

To be fair, LeBron is only 22 and has already dealt with more hype/pressure/responsibilities/publicity/expectations than any under-22 guy in the history of this league. Unlike someone like Wade (who has a permanent chip on his shoulder after the 2003 draft) or Kobe (who's singularly possessed), everyone's been telling LeBron how great he is since he was 15. He's been the savior in Cleveland since he was 18. He's been considered an elite superstar since he was 19. When you think about it, he's never really had to earn anything. It's like watching a ballyhooed young tennis player (think Andy Roddick or Andre Agassi) enjoying the fruits of his labor even though the labor hasn't been done yet. You know what happens to those guys? Half the time, they self-destruct. That's why it's so dangerous that LeBron is playing with a stick-shift already.

Along those same lines, here's a fascinating observation from Brian Windhorst, who's spent the last couple of years covering LeBron:

"Sometimes when you talk to LeBron before games you can tell he's charged; it happened a handful of times this season. The best I can remember was before the game in L.A. when he killed the Lakers. I have also written and told many people when they ask me about what LeBron is truly like that he can be moody. In Game 3 [of the Detroit series], he was in the mood to kick tail. It was the mood Michael Jordan permanently existed in."

That's the issue. Right there. Every true basketball fan doesn't want LeBron floating in and out of that mood. We want him to permanently exist there. That's why so many basketball fans find themselves abnormally frustrated by him (including myself); when you see someone with a chance to be great, you hope they take that gift seriously and care only about that gift. It's selfish of us to think that way -- after all, who are we to tell someone how to carry himself on a daily basis? -- but that's the price of the player/fan relationship. LeBron gets the spoils (fame, money, adulation), we get the right to cheer him and bitch about him and discuss him until we're blue in the face.

The fact remains, No. 23 happens to be the only interesting thing about this painfully disjointed Pistons-Cavs series. The coaches stink, the players aren't that good, the styles don't mesh … maybe the intensity has been there, but you could say the same about a WNBA game, for cripes sake. Like many others, I'm looking forward to Game 5 solely because of LeBron. Like many others, I want him to shift into fifth gear, hush the crowd, rip Detroit's heart out and make the Vivid Video face after everything's said and done. Like many others, I will be disappointed if this doesn't happen.

And hey, maybe it's scary for the NBA's future that we're collectively hoping the best young player in three decades finds the right mood for a must-win game, but as my stepfather would say, "I guess it's better than a poke in the eye with a stick."