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Published: Thursday, 4/13/2006

LeBron, just like Mike, finds Pistons in the way

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The similarities are eerily similar, too real to ignore.

On the same court, against the same team, but in another time, the great Michael Jordan was anything but against his personal nemesis, the Detroit Pistons - aka, the Bad Boys.

The Bad Boys had Jordan's number, frustrating him and his Chicago Bulls with wave after wave of defenders. The Pistons beat Jordan mentally and physically and on the scoreboard.

Jordan was always a supremely talented player, but his greatness wasn't defined until he figured out how to beat the Pistons and their personalized set of Jordan Rules.

There's a new No. 23 challenging the Pistons, who are no longer the Bad Boys but remain a force to be reckoned with.

The names and faces have changed, but try telling that to LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who was chased and harassed at the Palace last night by Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and a host of others the same way Jordan was stymied by Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and John Salley more than a decade ago.

Jordan finally figured it out, that the Pistons put on their uniform shorts one leg at a time.

He let the game come to him. He used his mind, and his legs. He incorporated his teammates into the gameplan and learned the importance of trust. He became a legend and a champion.

James is a legitimate MVP candidate in his third NBA season. He is on pace to become just the second player in league history since Jordan to average at least 31.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He's also second in the league with six triple-doubles.

James is up to the challenge. One day the Pistons won't trample James and his Cavaliers the way they did in last night's 96-73 blowout victory.

It was Detroit's third win in four games against the Cavaliers this season. The Cavs lost those games by an average of 15.7 points.

Against the Pistons, James, who so often plays like Superman, can't find a phone booth where he can change his clothes.

Playing like a mere mortal against the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, he's averaging 25 points on 37-of-82 shooting from the field.

Seemingly invincible at 6-8 and 240 pounds, James, who's second in the league in minutes per game, departed the court with an ankle injury near the end of the third quarter.

He didn't return, and it was probably a good thing. The last thing the Cavaliers need is for their meal ticket to be sidelined for an extended period of time this close to the playoffs.

James needs to focus on his first trip to the postseason. He needs to be at his best.

He needs to make sure his back is strong enough to carry his not-ready-for-prime-time teammates.

Most of all, James needs to figure out a way to get the Cavs past the first round of the playoffs and into a likely second-round encounter against the Pistons.

Wouldn't that be something?

Detroit, the best team in the NBA, against the Chosen One?

The Pistons' experience and playoff savvy against the Cavaliers' raw talent and untapped potential?

"We know we can't play this way and beat a team like the Pistons in the playoffs," James said after last night's loss. "You learn from this and move on."

James sounds like he's ready for his advanced course in Playoffs 101 against the Pistons. Time will tell if he's a quick study.



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