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Published: Monday, 5/22/2006

Once again, Detroit wins with defense

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - After all these years, after so many playoff battles and close calls, the Detroit Pistons did what came naturally in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Detroit's 79-61 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers yesterday at the

Palace was a by-product of defense in an engrossing back-and-forth series that sent the Pistons to their fourth straight conference finals and the one-dimensional Cavs careening into the offseason.

Detroit faces Miami in the Eastern Conference finals for the second year in a row.

Doing it with defense, Detroit held Cleveland to 30.8 percent shooting and limited James to five points on 1-of-9 shooting in the second half.

The popular expression "DEE-troit BASKET-ball" is actually another way of saying lowering the boom on defense. Too often in the series "detroit basketball" was played in lower case.

But then it got hairy for the Pistons, who for some unexplained reason didn't become serious about beating Cleveland until the final game.

"That's us. You all know my saying, 'If it ain't rough, it ain't right,' " guard Chauncey Billups said. "That's what we always subject ourselves to.''

There was nothing coach Flip Saunders could do, other than continue preaching defense while hoping his first post-season with the Pistons didn't go up in flames.

"In pressure situations, you always do what you do best, and for us, it's defend,'' said Saunders, who answered the critics who said he was being out-coached by Cleveland's Mike Brown.

James scored inside and outside in ringing up 21 first-half points. In the second half, however, his offense was rendered null and void.

Saunders' strategy featuring his entire starting lineup defending James, coupled with James' growing fatigue after averaging nearly 48 minutes in the series, negated any Cleveland comeback hopes as the Pistons pulled away, outscoring the visitors 39-23 after halftime.

"We tried to keep him out of the paint as much as we possibly could,'' said Tayshaun Prince, who led Detroit with 20 points.

Any mention of Cleveland's impressive playoff run, extending Detroit to seven games when the Cavaliers weren't expected to win more than one game, begins and ends with James.

He's deserving of all the hype.

Forget Steve Nash for league MVP. Put James on Phoenix with Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw, and the Suns contend for the title for years to come. Put Nash on Cleveland with Drew Gooden and Flip Murray, and the Cavs struggle to reach the playoffs, much less reach the conference semifinals.

James averaged 26.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.4 steals against Detroit. He led all players in the series in points and assists.

James also played the most minutes, and he made the most big plays. He had to be perfect every game; unfortunately, he came up short. His 27 points, eight rebounds, and two assists in 46 minutes and 45 seconds in Game 7 wasn't enough on a team with just one other player (Larry Hughes) in double figures.

"He showed why he's different from the other players in the league,'' Prince said. "No other player on this level gets his teammates involved the way he does. He sees plays before they happen. That's just instinct and God-given talent, and that's why this series went seven games."

The Pistons now pick up where they left off from a year ago, when they faced Miami for the right of way to the finals. James will be replaced by Miami's Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, but who's to say Miami's two heads are better than Cleveland's one?



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