It's the Battle of Lake Erie, and a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference semifinals won by Detroit in seven games. Now one step closer, LeBron James & Co. believes it has the experience to get over the hump and bring Cleveland its first-ever Finals appearance.
The Cavs certainly have shown some mental toughness in these playoffs, sweeping the Wizards in the first round and then winning two games on the road in New Jersey to win that series, 4-2. The Cavs did it with their usual formula of stout defense, tenacious rebounding and just enough scoring. Perhaps most important, James' supporting cast stepped up, with Larry Hughes (pictured), Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden and 7-foot-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas each contributing in significant ways.
Against the Pistons, however, the Cavs are about to face a much sterner test. Detroit is making its fifth straight appearance in the Eastern finals, and it's core of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Antonio McDyess are all big-time players and proven commodities. They feature balanced scoring, size at four positions, a solid team defense and one of the game's best two-way point guards in Billups to run the show. Detroit also has an ace perimeter stopper in Prince -- as well as a sticky 3-2 matchup zone defense -- to slow LeBron if he gets going. Coming off a tough six-game series with the Bulls, which followed a four-game sweep of the Magic in the first round, the Pistons should be sharper than ever.
Cleveland relies on its defense and board work to beat most foes, but the Pistons have a good defense of their own and enough length inside to match the Cavs. Meanwhile, the Pistons have a much better offense. Detroit also appears to be on a mission, with Billups a soon-to-be free agent and veterans McDyess and Webber seeking their first NBA rings. Along with homecourt advantage, it should be enough for the Pistons to hold off the Cavs once again and notch their third NBA Finals berth in four seasons.
LeBron James vs. Tayshaun Prince It's the King vs. the Prince, and it should be a battle-royal in the Palace (and at the Q). James has been living up to the hype again in these playoffs, averaging nearly 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while leading the Cavs to the conference finals in just his fourth season. Against the Pistons he averaged 27 points (on 44.9 percent shooting) during the regular season, including a season-high 41-point effort on March 7 when Cleveland won at Detroit for the first time in three years. But James will be up against one of the NBA's better defensive small forwards in the long-armed Prince, who did a good job containing Chicago's Luol Deng in the last series.
Though nowhere near as potent offensively as James, Prince can do damage from the low post and from beyond the three-point arc. He averaged 13 points (on 52.4 percent shooting) against Cleveland during the season series. Prince won't win this matchup, but if he can just help keep James from taking over it will be enough for Detroit.
Cavs: Anderson Varejao The 6-foot-10 reserve forward with the Sideshow Bob dreadlocks has been the Cavs' energizer for the past two seasons. He got Detroit's attention last year with his hustle and board work, helping the Cavs build a 3-2 series lead before falling short. With Cleveland likely to struggle against the Pistons' defense, Varejao's ability to hit the offensive boards and get extra possessions could be crucial.
Pistons: Jason Maxiell The 6-foot-7 reserve forward emerged as a productive bench player in his second NBA season, averaging five points (on 50 percent shooting), three rebounds and a block in just 14 minutes per game. More important, he brings a youthful energy and toughness that often seems to wake up the Pistons when they're slumbering. He could be a key factor here as a counterpoint to Varejao.
Pistons in six
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