02 April, 2009


Obviously being a basketball fan in Britain isn't awfully convenient in a lot of ways, but here's one thing I'm thankful for: with no geographical reason to form allegiances, nothing holds me back from watching the most significant games. Faced with a close matchup, especially in the approaching post-season, I can always take a third path and root for history. It was hard not to perceive some significance watching the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons, who met last night in Cleveland. The Cavs presently own the best record in the league and were going for a franchise-record 13th win, while the once-great Pistons are limping into the playoffs and desperately hunting for .500 parity. It was a highly watchable contest which ultimately highlighted the Cavaliers' excellence and underlined the MVP credentials of their star LeBron James, who might just be having a historically great season.

They call him King James for a reason. The Pistons got off to a fast start but by the end of the first half Cleveland had clawed back to 41-44. LeBron followed up a defensive stop with a drive and successful layup, plus a foul, which he converted from the line to make it 44 apiece at the half. A decent first-half Detroit effort all but erased.

It's commonly said that great teams and players define themselves in the clutch and as the clock runs down. So contrast LeBron's heroics at the death of the 2nd quarter with Rasheed Wallace's antics at the end of the third. As the Pistons prepared to take the last shot of the period, 'Sheed picked up a 16th technical for the season, which carries a one-game ban (at least he's still re-habbing his calf injury) and Joe Smith got a block ("he knocked the S and the P off Spalding") to preserve a 4-point Cleveland lead.

James & Co.'s class was even more evident late in the 4th. With 4:30 remaining and 67-69 down LeBron followed up a powerful dunk by flicking the ball from a Detroit hand to Mo Williams and on receiving it back delivering a spin move and really improbable basket-plus-one. LeBron had another extraordinary three point play with a couple of minutes on the clock, driving into the paint and laying in with contact from Wallace. The game was all but strangled. Anderson Varejao grabbed an offensive rebound shortly after to run the clock down on Detroit's hopes. The Cavaliers won out 79-73 (video recap).

Cleveland are the best team in the league right now. 36-1 at home, they seem assured of topping the league and enjoying that crucial home advantage in the playoffs, with the Lakers losing to Charlotte last night and falling 3 games back. Little doubt, either, that this is the best supporting cast LeBron has had. Mo Williams and Delonte West have formed a tenacious backcourt, with ample distance-shooting backup off the bench from 'Boobie' Gibson and Wally Sczerbiak. 'Wild Thing' Anderson Varejao adds extraordinary energy to the frontcourt while the experience of Smith and Ilgauskas will be a huge piece of the playoff push. Just imagine what this team could do if Ben Wallace returns locked in and ready to go.

However, these talented players are dwarfed by James. His 25 points and 12 rebounds were almost nothing special. Oftentimes his triple-doubles feel like nothing special. The statistics don't fully explain how he takes hold of a game, how he refuses to allow his team to lose at home. For all the squabbling over the MVP voting, you might think there was some kind of debate. It masks the fact that LeBron James' 08-09 season has showcased the sort of ability and achievement that are just waiting to be capped with a title. Forget the regular season MVP - a Finals MVP would place this season squarely in the history books. They call him King James for a reason.

It's no wonder that they're the Presidential pick to represent the East in the finals.

Meanwhile, this loss for the Pistons kept the race for 7th and 8th seeds in the East wide open, with Chicago also losing, and Charlotte's victory. Which actually wasn't that much of a surprise for Brett Hainline of Queen City Hoops, who outlined how results could look (Box 2) as the Bobcats gun for their first ever playoff appearance.

Overhauling Detroit wasn't mentioned, and I think they'll probably make it. Hamilton, Prince, Dice, Wallace and Iverson, even misfiring, really have too much talent, grit and experience not to. Iverson looked good off the bench and could really help them through this rough patch, although he's not happy with the role. Stuckey, Maxiell and Bynum are good young players that can provide important bursts. The Pistons won't be returning to the East finals this season, but if they make the playoffs, no-one should be taking them lightly.

No comments: