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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Pistons shut down Cavs offense to take series

By The Associated Press

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 Sunday in the Cavs’ 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 NBA title favorites to the brink of elimination.

“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.”

The Cavs were down by only two at halftime; then Detroit simply smothered James in the second half and took command with a 19-6 run that started in the third quarter and ended with a 67-52 lead midway through the fourth. James and the upstart Cavaliers were rendered helpless when it mattered most.

Typical Pistons.

The Cavs led 3-2 in the second-round series and had a chance to eliminate the Pistons at home in Game 6 largely because James, who didn’t live up to the hype-he surpassed it. But what the Pistons can do on defense-when they choose to play with intensity, like in a closeout game-probably is just as frightening for opponents.

Detroit 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 a half-century ago.

The Cavs made just 31 percent of their shots and scored fewer points than any team has this postseason.

Take a look at low-scoring records in NBA history, and you’ll see Detroit frequently on almost every list.

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

In a rematch of last year’s conference finals, Detroit hosts Miami on Tuesday night in Game 1. The Heat have been resting since eliminating New Jersey last 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 1990-93. Detroit has remained among the NBA’s elite in recent years by clamping down on defense when necessary; that time arrived in the second half Sunday against a franchise in the second round for the first time since 1993.

James carried the Cavs in the first half, scoring 21 points and outscoring the rest of his teammates, but Cleveland struggled to find open spots after halftime. James finished with 27 points on 11-of-24 shooting.

The Pistons held the Cavs to a franchise playoff-low 10 points in the third quarter, and James didn’t make a field goal in the second half until his three-point play with 4:42 left in the game. By then, it was too late.

James’ teammates didn’t help much, with the only double-figures scorer being Larry Hughes, who scored 10 points in his first action since his 20-year-old brother’s funeral.

Meanwhile, the Pistons had their usual balance on offense, with Prince’s 20 points followed by Richard Hamilton (15), Rasheed Wallace (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 win a league- and franchise-best 64 victories during the regular season.

The Cavs are 2-1 in Game 7s, with the last decisive game coming in 1992 when James was a 7-year-old kid.

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 Cavs 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.

James shot 10-of-15 in the first half, while his teammates combined for just 17 points and missed 19 of 24 shots.

James wasn’t outscored by the rest of the Cavs 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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