- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — In a single half, the Detroit Pistons taught LeBron James everything he needs to know about defense in the playoffs — and finished off yet another series comeback.

While Detroit moves on to its fourth straight Eastern Conference finals, the 21-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers superstar is left to ponder his dizzying lesson.

“They trapped me, they went under screens, they went over screens,” said James, who was held to one second-half field goal yesterday in the Cavaliers’ 79-61 Game 7 loss to Detroit. “I’ve seen almost every defense that I could possibly see for the rest of my career in this series. That’s why they’re Eastern Conference champions, and that’s why they keep winning.”

Playing in his first postseason, James was sensational at times for Cleveland, pushing the favorites to win the NBA title to the brink of one of the most stunning upsets in league history. But he and the Cavaliers were helpless when it mattered most.

After leading by just two at halftime, the Pistons’ defense smothered James, allowing Detroit to pull away.

The Cavaliers led 3-2 in the second-round series and had a chance to eliminate the Pistons at home in Game 6, mostly because James has surpassed unprecedented hype.

“There’s nobody on his level that can get his teammates involved like he does,” said Tayshaun Prince, who led the Pistons with 20 points. “He sees the plays before they even happen, and no one else does that. That’s the reason this went seven games.”

Detroit coach Flip Saunders said when he went home to watch film during the series, he reminded himself that James could be a junior in college.

“That’s scary,” Saunders said.

What the Pistons can do on defense — when they choose to play with intensity in a closeout game — is probably just as frightening for opponents.

The Pistons held Cleveland to the lowest point total in any Game 7 in NBA history, the third-lowest total in any playoff game since 1955 and 23 points in the second half, which tied the fewest scored in a postseason half since the shot clock was introduced in 1954.

The Cavaliers made just 31 percent of their shots.

Take a look at low-scoring records in NBA history, Detroit frequently appears on almost every list.

“In a pressure situation, you do what you do best and for us. That’s defending,” Saunders said. “We locked down.”

In a rematch of last year’s conference finals, Detroit will play host to Miami tomorrow night in Game 1. The Heat have been resting since eliminating New Jersey on Tuesday.

“We can catch our breath for about eight hours,” Saunders said.

The Pistons are the first team to reach the conference finals in four straight years since the Chicago Bulls did it from 1990 to 1993.

Detroit, which never trailed yesterday, took command with a 19-6 run that started in the third quarter and ended with the Pistons ahead 67-52 midway through the fourth.

“Detroit showed why they are champions when they turned it up a notch,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said.

James carried the Cavaliers in the first half, scoring 21 points and outscoring the rest of his teammates, but Cleveland struggled to find open shots after halftime.

The Pistons held the Cavaliers to a franchise playoff-low 10 points in the third quarter, and James didn’t make a field goal in the second half until it was too late. His three-point play with 4:42 left in the game cut Cleveland’s deficit to 12 points.

James’ teammates failed to give him much support, with only reserve Larry Hughes scoring in double figures with 10 points.

Meanwhile, the Pistons had their usual balance on offense, with Prince’s 20 points followed by Richard Hamilton’s 15, Rasheed Wallace’s 13 and Chauncey Billups’ 12.

The previous 12 times the Pistons had a chance to win a series, dating to the 2003 playoffs with four of their current starters, they lost only once — last year in Game 7 at San Antonio, where they fell just short of repeating as champions.

Detroit’s current nucleus is 4-1 in Game 7s, with that lone setback last year motivating them to a league- and franchise-best 64 victories during the regular season.

Detroit started and closed the series strong. In between, the teams had one of the tightest matchups in NBA history.

The Pistons won Game 1 by 27 and the next game by six points. After the Cavaliers won Game 3, they took the next two by two points each and the Pistons avoided a playoff flop with a two-point victory at Cleveland on Friday night.

Boston and Philadelphia, in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals, were the only teams to have more than three straight games decided by two or fewer points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The Pistons went for a first-quarter knockout, scoring the first seven points and taking a 19-6 lead with 3:30 left in the period. Then Cleveland punched back. The Cavaliers — with Hughes playing for the first time since Game 2 — scored nine of the last 11 points in the quarter, pulling to 21-15.

Midway through the second quarter, James slammed an alley-oop lob that Hughes tossed from beyond the 3-point line and made a turnaround jumper to tie the game twice. The Pistons clung to a 40-38 lead at halftime.

James shot 10 of 15 in the first half, while his teammates combined for just 17 points and missed 19 of 24 shots. Hughes rejoined the Cavaliers for Game 6, three days after his 20-year-old brother’s funeral, but he didn’t play. In the first half, the shooting guard had three points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals.

James wasn’t outscored by the rest of the Cavaliers until Drew Gooden made two free throws in the middle of the third quarter to pull Cleveland to 46-45. Detroit responded by building its first comfortable cushion since the opening minutes, scoring 10 of the last 12 points of the third quarter to go ahead 58-48.

“They took it up to another level in the second half,” Cleveland’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “We got real stagnant on offense, and they showed us a level we hadn’t seen in these playoffs.”

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