- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — LeBron James might have deferred to his teammates one too many times.

James drove and dished to Donyell Marshall, who missed a wide-open a 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left that allowed the Detroit Pistons to escape with a 79-76 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers last night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

“I go for the winning play,” James said. “The winning play when two guys come at you and a teammate is open is to give it up. It’s as simple as that.”

Chauncey Billups chased down the long rebound of Marshall’s miss from the corner, and he later made one of two free throws with 2.4 seconds left.

James was scoreless in the first quarter and finished with a playoff-low 10 points, on 5-for-15 shooting, 10 rebounds and fell just short of a triple-double with nine assists.

He took just three shots in the fourth quarter — making one — and defended the decision.

“You just have to take what’s there,” James said. “It’s not about taking a high volume of shots, it’s about trying to win the basketball game. We had an opportunity to win.”

Game 2 is Thursday night at the Palace before the series shifts to Cleveland.

Billups scored 10 of his 13 points in the final quarter, including a 3-pointer that gave the Pistons a 78-76 lead with 1:52 left.

Detroit’s Richard Hamilton scored 24 points and had seven assists, while Rasheed Wallace had 15 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks and Chris Webber added 10 points. Tayshaun Prince had eight points, a playoff career-high nine assists and chest-to-chest defense on James.

Prince was on James on the Cavaliers’ play that ended with Marshall’s shot.

“That’s a play we didn’t want to happen,” Hamilton said. “We wanted everybody to stay home but LeBron goes to the basket and draws so much attention. Donyell just missed.”

Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Cavaliers, taking advantage of James’ pass-first strategy. Larry Hughes and reserve Anderson Varejao each scored 13 points.

James, whose previous playoff low was 18 points, was outscored by five of his teammates until he made two straight shots toward the end of the third quarter.

“We’ve just got to be aggressive and know where he is at all times on the floor,” Hamilton said of James. “Our guys did a great job of helping out. If he makes the pass and they score we’ll live with it.”

The Cavaliers — in their first Eastern Conference final since 1992 — fell to 0-12 in Game 1s on the road.

For the fifth straight year, Detroit is among the NBA’s final four and its experience seemed to help.

The Pistons didn’t get discouraged when Cleveland got off to a good start and they made just enough shots and stops in the closing minutes to start the series with a victory.

The Cavaliers led by as many as nine points in the first half and didn’t trail in the game until Detroit started strong in the third quarter with a block and shot-clock violation on defense along with a 3-pointer and hook at the other end of the court.

The Pistons went on an 8-0 run to take a five-point lead and they led 56-55 entering the final quarter.

Detroit fell back behind in the fourth and didn’t lead until Billups made a three-point play and a 3-pointer for a 71-68 lead with midway through the quarter.

Just when it seemed that the Pistons had control, the Cavaliers showed plenty of resolve in the back-and-forth quarter.

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