Craig Sager: LeBron James, Cavs have easiest road to NBA Finals
3:21 | NBA
Craig Sager: LeBron James, Cavs have easiest road to NBA Finals
Saturday April 23rd, 2016

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Stan Van Gundy’s young, brash Pistons have pounded on LeBron James and pushed the Cavaliers at times, but they’ll be heading into the off-season soon because they’ve been their own worst enemies down the stretch.

Missed free throws. Blown defensive assignments. Costly turnovers. All the late-game hallmarks of an inexperienced team were on display again when Detroit fell to Cleveland, 101–91, on Friday, sending the Cavaliers to a commanding 3–0 series lead.

For the third time in as many games, the Pistons hung around in the early stages, only to crumble in the game’s closing minutes. Rarely do the first-half/second-half splits so completely paint the story of a team’s performance: Through three games, Detroit has outscored Cleveland 164–162 (+2) in the first halves, only to be outscored 152–118 (-34) in the second halves and 77–63 (-14) in the fourth quarters.

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Game 3 saw Cleveland close on a 9–1 run, holding Detroit without a field goal for the game’s final 3:55. After carrying the Pistons for most of the night, Reggie Jackson (13 points on 5-for-16 shooting and 12 assists) struggled with his touch and his balance, missing each of his two shots and slipping to the ground on a drive during the decisive stretch.

“What went wrong in the last four minutes was we didn’t make very good plays,” Van Gundy said curtly. “We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”

Jackson and the Pistons played the final minutes without All-Star center Andre Drummond (17 points and seven rebounds), whose horrific free-throw shooting figured prominently at the worst possible time. With a little more than six minutes remaining and Detroit trailing by four, Cleveland intentionally fouled Drummond, who hit just 35.5% of his free throws during the regular season and entered Game 3 just 5 for 18 in the playoffs.

The polarizing “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy worked to perfection, as Drummond proceeded to miss both shots, prompting Van Gundy to pull him from the game in favor of Aron Baynes, his far less dynamic second-string center.

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“You can’t do anything with [Drummond],” Van Gundy lamented, as he explained the decision to leave Drummond on the sidelines during the deciding minutes. “He can’t run to set a screen. He can’t do anything [because] those are just opportunities to foul him. We’re behind. We can’t go down and play for zero points.”

While Drummond sat, Cleveland’s Kevin Love hit the offensive glass for a put-back, Baynes missed the only shot he attempted and Detroit’s offense mustered just five points in the final six minutes.

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“We have one of our cornerstones on our bench in tough stretches,” Jackson said. “It’s been tough on him. He’s trying to remain confident, of course.”

Drummond, who finished 1 for 6 from the stripe, could only mutter when a reporter asked him if he felt “helpless” watching from the sidelines as the game slipped away.

“Helpless? I’m not sure about helpless,” he said. “I don’t know about that one. It’s a little frustrating. Helpless? Bad choice of words.”

Maybe it was wounded pride that left Drummond so touchy, or maybe he was still in denial. Either way, his Pistons are on the brink of being swept out of the playoffs on Sunday by a Cavaliers squad that played its best basketball late.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

While James posted his typically dominant numbers (20 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists) despite a rough shooting night (just 8 for 24 from the floor), it was Kyrie Irving (26 points, four assists) who sealed Detroit’s fate with a catch-and-shoot corner three in the game’s final minute.

With a five-point lead and just 45 seconds remaining, Cleveland inbounded the ball from the baseline with just 0.7 seconds on the shot clock. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue drew up a play that called for James to screen for Irving and then cut through the paint toward the inbounder, Matthew Dellavedova, while Irving cleared to the weak-side corner.

The play worked perfectly: James set the screen on Tobias Harris, a 23-year-old forward playing in his first playoff series and not known for his defensive ability, and Irving found himself with a good 10 feet of room to receive the pass and launch the shot. After the triple swished through, James celebrated with a hearty chest bump and a gleeful scream.

“[Dellavedova] had two reads on that play,” Lue said, referring to James and Irving. “He made a great read and Kyrie made a great shot.”

Irving’s three sums up this series as well as any other single play: Cleveland knew what it wanted to do and calmly executed its plan, Detroit was caught off guard and unable to handle its business and Drummond was stuck in the role of spectator.

“A veteran team like [Cleveland] has been in this situation,” Drummond said. “When it comes down to crunch time, they’re going to make the right plays.”

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