The good news for the Cleveland Cavaliers is that they now have nothing but time on their hands as they sit back, relax, and wait to see whether Miami or Atlanta is coming to town next. The reason for this is that with their 99-78 dismantling of the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, the Cavaliers have completed their first round sweep of their division rivals.
It would be easy to sit here wax poetic about how great the Cavaliers are and how important it was for them to sweep their first round opponents. We could talk about how the Cavaliers are the first team in the NBA to advance to the 2nd round. While all those things are probably true, the bigger story in this series as far as I’m concerned was the ineptitude of the Detroit Pistons.
A once proud team full of champions with hearts of lions suddenly looked pedestrian and wholly disinterested in playing the game of basketball. And that’s the bad news for the Cavaliers. While everyone else is playing games filled with playoff intensity and thus kicking their game into the next gear, the Cavaliers merely had to go through the motions to send the Pistons home, which is evidently right where they wanted to be.
It would be a mistake to discount how well the Cavaliers did play in this series, but there’s no question that the Cavaliers faced the least resistance from any team in the playoffs by about 5 miles. It’s not hard to remember a time not that long ago when the Pistons played the Cavaliers tougher than just about anyone else in the NBA. Tayshaun Prince was a guy who would routinely find ways to get to the line, Rip Hamilton was always knocking down shot after shot, and Rasheed Wallace was instigating in any way possible to keep the Cavaliers off balance. LeBron James used to struggle to drive against the Pistons, as they were able to keep him off the FT line and forced him to shot a lot of outside jumpers.
Not this year. In the 2006 playoffs the Pistons held LeBron to a mere 7.86 FT/game. In the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals he got to the line just 9.66 times per game against the Pistons. Last season they held him 7.33 FT/game in the regular season. This season, that number jumped to 9.75, but it was still under 10 per game. In this playoff series, though, LeBron was able to get into the lane at will against the Pistons, and as a result he averaged an astounding 14.75 FT/game. Rasheed Wallace was a ghost on defense and he was even more transparent than that on offense, as Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace managed to turn Rasheed into a complete non factor.
The only players who seemed to care for the Pistons were Antonio McDyess, who was probably trying to make his decision to go back to the Pistons look like the right one, Will Bynum, and Rodney Stuckey. Pistons coach Michael Curry seemed to offer no real strategy for defending the Cavaliers either. In Game 1 he decided to just defend LeBron with one man, and LeBron responded with 38 points. In Game 2 he decided to have the Pistons double LeBron as soon as he touched it. LeBron responded by setting up Mo Williams, who answered with 21 points. After that, the Pistons seemed to just try anything, double teaming, playing zone, going big, going small, and standing there doing nothing but watch.
None of it seemed to matter, as the Cavaliers were able to show that this team is no longer just about LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Some had wondered with his limited playoff experience what kind of impact Mo Williams would have in the spotlight of the playoffs. Despite a couple off games, Mo showed that his confidence wouldn’t waver in the postseason and he went for 14.8 points and 5.5 assists in the series. Delonte West was an unsung hero in this series. His 11.5 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists are solid numbers, but it was his defense that made the difference in this series. He chased Rip Hamilton around all series long, and held him to just 13.3 points per game, well below his season average of 18.3 points. When Stuckey or Bynum seemed to get hot and start to hurt the Cavaliers, Mike Brown simply put Delonte on them and their production instantly slowed.
Beyond the backcourt, the Cavaliers frontcourt was even better. Ilgauskas was streaky at times, but still managed to put up 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. Anderson Varejao held Rasheed Wallace to just 6.5 points per game. And then there was Joe Beast. Beast was the MVP in Game 3 and was just huge for the Cavaliers all series long, finishing with 10.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a 26.8 PER for the round.
I don’t want to belittle how well the Cavaliers played, but there’s certainly room for some improvement, and the Cavaliers will still have to take their game up to the next level if they want to keep advancing. They can’t have quarters like the 3rd quarter in Game 3 or the 4th quarter in Game 2. Wally Szczerbiak or Daniel Gibson are going to have to step up and start finding ways to contribute at some point. Ilgauskas and Mo need to play more consistent. I wrote earlier in the series that I wanted the Cavaliers to take care of business and to finish off the Pistons as soon as possible, and I am very happy that they did so. What I’m not happy about, though, is that they didn’t really have a chance to get into playoff mode yet.
So now the Cavaliers will rest, and wait. Whoever wins the Miami-Atlanta series will come into the Q next round as the more battle tested team. Only time will tell whether the lack of resistance the Cavaliers faced in this round from the Pistons will hurt them at all. The one thing we know, however, is that the Cavaliers showed us all season long how resilient they are at bouncing back from any setbacks. So for now it’s not a point of concern, but more of something for us to keep an eye on as the Cavaliers move on. For now, we can join the Cavaliers in sitting back and enjoying the rest of the first round action as we wait for the next opponent.