I don’t know if the Cleveland Cavaliers, top to bottom, is a better team than the Detroit Pistons. They are, at this point however, hungrier.
They’re working harder on each possession, making more hustle plays, and forcing many of Detroit’s finest into an uncharacteristically poor series. After the Cavs’ 91-87 winin Game 4, noone can consider Detroit’s lackluster showing merely a product of coincidence. Just like I don’t think they can consider this series the snoozer many people thought it could have been.
The final score, the series’ highest total offensive output thus far, is actually a red herring for where the credit needs to go. Cleveland did do an excellent job running their offense and hitting big shots, but defense continues to be Cleveland’s bread and butter. Defensive efficiency becomes even more paramount when one sees how poorly Cleveland did rebounding the ball off the offensive glass. This is one of Cleveland’s strongest areas normally (their lowest offensive rebound total in the regular season was 6), and they only pulled 3 offensive boards down tonight.
Fewer second chance points meant that Cleveland had to do even better back on defense. The Cavs shot only 44.1% from the floor, so it’s not as if their usual opportunities for offensive rebounds weren’t there because they, as a team, were putting every shot in the bucket. They just weren’t getting those rebounds as they typically do and had to rely on their defense to pick up the slack. Which the defense did. Detroit shot only 41.3% from the floor and 3-of-17 from behind the arc. Put this alongside Billups’ puzzling stat line (more on that in a bit), and it’s obvious that Cleveland’s defense is due a good helping of props.
Of particular note is Coach Mike Brown’s defensive move in the fourth quarter. With about 7 minutes left in the game, LeBron James switched from guarding Tayshaun Prince to Billups. This allowed rookie Daniel Gibson to move over to guarding Prince. it was hardly a favorable match up for Gibson, and Prince got his for the first time this series including some points in the fourth quarter at Gibson’s expense. But Billups was essentially taken out of the game once James drew him defensively.
Billups struggles are worth expounding on a bit, since Cleveland is doing things to him I don’t think any other team has managed to do in some time throughout the course of a series. He handed out only 2 assists, poor enough on its own for a point guard of his repute. He also turned the ball over 5 times, now putting him at 21 turnovers to 16 assists in the series.
Billups should well be having one of his better postseasons. When you’re playing for your next NBA contract, your performance generally goes up. Ask Jerome James about that principle of competitive sports. Billups appears to be doing just the opposite though.
Coach Brown’s defensive adjustment should not be taken as a criticism of Daniel Gibson, mind you. The rookie from Texas did an excellent job playing second fiddle to LeBron James tonight, stepping in marvelously to replace Larry Hughes who was limited with a partial tear in the plantar fascia of his left foot. Gibson scored 21 points and established his reputation as an adequate defender.
Cleveland, whatever the outcome of this year’s playoff run, badly needs a point guard to help run the offense around LeBron James. Whether or not Gibson is the long term answer to this quandary is uncertain, as he did have 4 turnovers and no doubt needs to work on his ball handling. But he, along with Drew Gooden and his 19 points, gave LeBron the support he needed to make tonight a success for the Cavs. He can at least say he’s stepped up big time in an NBA playoff game.
Speaking of LeBron, he rose marvelously to the occasion once again. He played, like his teammates, an absolutely atrocious third quarter but made up for it with 13 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter. He hit yet another clutch jumper as time was running low to help close the door on Detroit. Then he hit two free throws with less than 5 seconds to play to finish that particular job.
Game 5 is back in Detroit Thursday, and if Cleveland didn’t get the Pistons’ attention with Game 3, they have it now. For four games straight the Cavs have hung tough with Detroit, winning two with the same big plays in the fourth that Detroit used to get over the hump in Games 1 and 2. The series is a best of three now, and Detroit does get the first and potentially last game on their own home floor. Cleveland will have to win one in Detroit at some point. But they are absolutely capable of doing it, especially if they continue to frustrate Detroit defensively the way they have so far.