CLEVELAND - The Pass has taken on a life of its own.
LeBron James' split-second decision to give up the ball in the final seconds of Game 1 - instead of shooting - has become the latest heartbreak in this city's gloomy sports history.
James was again under scrutiny yesterday for his unselfish play - a strong pass from under the basket to Donyell Marshall, who missed a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner with 5.9 seconds left. The play sealed Cleveland's fate in a 79-76 loss to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference final opener.
After watching replays, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown concluded James did the right thing - setting up Marshall in his favorite spot with plenty of time to set his feet and get off a quality shot.
"Donyell could have had a cup of coffee - and a sandwich," Brown said.
On Cleveland's last possession, James drove the left side and had gotten a step in the foul lane on Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince a few feet from the rim. But instead of going up strong for a layup or dunk that would have tied it, James chose to whip his pass to Marshall, who made six 3-pointers in Cleveland's Game 6 series-clinching win at New Jersey.
Brown noted that James could have gotten off a shot, but the smarter play was the pass that he made.
"He had drawn three defenders and with LeBron being Le-
Bron, there's a chance he could have made the shot," Brown said. "But he got his teammate a clean, wide-open look. I thought he made a heck of a play. I'll live with Donyell shooting a wide-open 3 any day. That's won us a lot of games."
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Marshall's jumper bounced off the back of the rim, and the Pistons ran down the long rebound to preserve the win in a game they were outhustled and outplayed by the underdog Cavs, playing in their first conference final since 1992.
"I thought it was a great play," guard Chauncey Billups said, referring to James' pass. "It was horrible defense by us, but it was a great play."
That sentiment wasn't shared by all.
James, who didn't attempt a single free throw in 45 minutes, was chided by some critics who believe a superstar should never pass up the big shot. Kobe Bryant certainly wouldn't have, and Michael Jordan did only when out of options.
"I've got a problem with the best player on the floor not taking any of these shots down the stretch," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. "He passed it to [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas twice, he passed it to Larry Hughes and he passed it to Marshall. If I'm the best player on the court, I've got to get a shot. That's not a criticism, that's a fact."
But consider this: If Marshall's shot had dropped, James would have finished with a triple-double and been praised for not forcing the action. His unselfishness would be viewed as his strength - not a flaw.
Some of the Pistons who spent the entire game focused on stopping James with double and triple teams are now on his side.
"They want him to be the man so bad and want him to shoot every single time, and that's just unfair," Billups said. "The kid made a great, great play. If they would have made that shot, then they would have been talking about how wonderful the play was. I'm just glad they missed it."
Detroit coach Flip Saunders recalled that when he was with Minnesota he heard the same things about Kevin Garnett.
"I don't think you can fault the play that he made because we had a defensive breakdown, and we left Donyell," he said. "And if Donyell makes that shot, then everyone is saying that LeBron made the right basketball play."
A greater concern for Cleveland may be James' lack of assertiveness at times. He scored just four points in the first half of Game 1 and didn't drive as often as Brown would like.
It was only the second game this season James didn't get to the foul line. Brown, though, felt it wasn't all James' fault.
"There were times that we did attack the rim the right way, and they should have called a foul, but they didn't," he said. "That's how it goes."