There is somethingundeniably appealing in the way certain athletes summon nonchalance when theclock is short and the pressure high. Yet there is a tissue-thin differencebetween cool and complacent, between confidence and hubris. We saw it threeyears ago with the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe, who remained certain they could notbe beaten by the Spurs in the Western Conference finals up to the very momentthey were. The same fate almost befell this year's Pistons, whose loftyself-regard nearly led to their demise. Their 4-3 series win over Cleveland inthe Eastern semis required fortuitous bounces, some late adjustments fromsuddenly beleaguered coach Flip Saunders (who seemed to remember in the nick oftime that he was permitted to make adjustments) and a climactic half oflockdown D epitomized by Cleveland's Larry Hughes calling a timeout with 10seconds on the shot clock, simply because he had no one to pass the ballto.
Now the Pistonsface the Heat, having lost their air of invincibility in the wake of anotherremarkable playoff performance from LeBron James, who once again took a crowbarto the traditional learning curve and bent it into a 45-degree vector. Pistonsplayers were thankful that number 23's teammates disappeared in Game 7,shooting 9 for 41. As one scout following the playoffs says, "I keeptelling people, 'Enjoy beating LeBron now, while you still can.'"
Given theirrediscovered sense of urgency, the Pistons enter the East finals as thefavorite, but the Cavs did expose their soft spots. Ben Wallace didn't justmiss free throws; he went 0 for 7 in Game 5. The short bench-essentiallyforward Antonio McDyess and guard Lindsey Hunter-wasn't merely a shortcoming;it became a liability when Rasheed Wallace hurt his ankle in Game 4. These werethe Pistons with their guard down. It was like walking in on Oprah before she'sdone her makeup, an icon unfamiliar and unprepared.
Pat Riley and theHeat were watching-the Pistons, that is, not Oprah-and taking notes, for therewere valuable lessons in this series that Miami can apply in the comingfortnight.
•Take away the arc.The Pistons rely on the long ball. Close to half (42%) of Chauncey Billups'sshots this season were threes, and Rasheed Wallace took nearly 200 moretrifectas than a year ago. Noting this, the Cavs, with the exception of centerZydrunas Ilgauskas, switched all picks on the perimeter to deny step-backthrees. "Most teams don't switch on that because they're worried about a'small' guarding Rasheed," explained Cavs assistant Michael Malone."But when they hit threes is when they really get off." Normally a teamcan exploit these switches in two ways: They can flatten out and the guard candrive on a forward or center, or they can "roll" their screen-settingbig man into the post for a mismatch. But when the Pistons tried to do thelatter against the Cavs, Mike Brown had his weakside big release and switchonto Rasheed immediately, with frequent success.
•They relydisproportionately on Rasheed. The Pistons are 12-0 in the playoffs when themore ornery of the Wallaces scores 20 or more. Saunders calls Wallace "theMVP of the team," while Billups says, "he's definitely our mosttalented player." Not only does the team feed off 'Sheed emotionally-asstrange as that may sound, considering his volatility-but he also keys theirgame on both ends with his ability to score from the perimeter and hishelp-side defense.
•They're vulnerableif spaced. When James was double-teamed, Cleveland's guards were able to get tothe basket. The Cavs instructed James to keep his dribble and retreat when hegot doubled-using him as "bait" their coaches said-to pull Detroitdefenders farther from the basket. James would then make a quick pass to theoff-guard, who immediately drove to the lane. "The easy shot is to settlefor a long jump shot," said Malone. "But what you need to do is attackthose closeouts and get to the rim." Miami's wingmen are better shootersthan what the Cavs have, so Riley has a tough choice: drive the lane or launchthrees. (One guess on how Antoine Walker will "solve" thisdilemma.)
But let's notforget that the Heat has problems of its own. Perimeter defense is perhapstheir greatest weakness, making them especially susceptible to Rasheed. JasonWilliams isn't strong enough to guard Billups off the pick- and-roll or in thepost, so Riley will have to play Gary Payton most-if not all-of the fourthquarter. Walker is also a defensive liability, so expect to see a lot of JamesPosey on Tayshaun Prince, Detroit's most consistent offensive threat in theCavs series. And if Detroit packs it in against Dwyane Wade, as they didoccasionally against James, he will be forced to rely on his at-times-suspectoutside stroke.
If the Easternsemis dispelled some of the popular myths about the Pistons, they only enhancedthe lore of LeBron. He made even casual observers of the sport watch in thesame way they once watched Bo Jackson and Tiger Woods, with the expectationthat they might see something they had never seen before. He made you afraidnot to watch. That omnipresent Nike campaign was manipulative, but it wasbrilliant. So what exactly did we witness? In 13 playoff games James averaged30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists. He had two triple doubles, sank twogame-winners and adapted his game admirably. Washington played him straight up,so he attacked the basket. Detroit doubled, so he consistently found the openman. "I think this is the smartest basketball he's played," Cavs'forward Doneyell Marshall said of James before Game 7. "He's not pressingthe issue. We're always saying to him, 'It's your time.' But it seems that themore we say that, the more he passes the ball. So now we just let him do histhing and let him take over when he's ready to take over."
Hubie Brown, theHall of Fame coach-slash-announcer, was also impressed. "This guy has eyesas good as anyone who's ever been a passer up front," Brown says. "Ialways thought Rick Barry and Larry Bird were the two best up front out of thedouble team. This kid is better. You put his name in a sentence with only twoguys, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan."
If there was adefining image of James against Detroit, it came in the third quarter of Game6. After the Pistons switched on a pick-and-roll, James was isolated at the topof the key against Rasheed Wallace. Wallace lowered himself into a defensivecrouch while frantically tapping the back of his ears, signaling his teammatesto tell him where he had help. It was a futile request because no one couldhave helped him at that moment. James bent forward and slashed to his right,past Wallace and in front of Billups, who was sliding over. Splitting the duo,he stepped into the lane and rose up and over Ben Wallace and Prince. Freeze itright there and you have it: James, airborne, flying into the maw of theDetroit defense, with four Pistons beneath him.
James could not doit alone, though, no matter how many precise passes he made, no matter how manyspectacular dunks he threw down. A city ready to stream out into the streets,ready to hug strangers, will have to wait another year. But James brought hope,both to Cleveland and to the NBA, which is always seeking to regain the gloryof the late '80s and early '90s. Undoubtedly, more people watched the Pistonsseries because of James (ABC's overnight rating for Game 7 was a 29% jump overlast year), and surely some of those fans gained an appreciation for Detroit'sselfless style of play and will follow them against Miami. Others-little boyscross-legged in front of the TV, jaded men who'd given up on the pro game-wereinstantly baptized as Cavs fans because of one pass, one dunk, on one Fridaynight. And so it grows.
As he headed out tohis courtside seat on Sunday, NBA commissioner David Stern was asked aboutJames's impact on the league. Ever the diplomat, Stern rifled through amultitude of reasons why the league is great and warned against looking for thenext Jordan. Stern said it all with a straight face, and one was almost temptedto believe him, to think that what we'd seen from James in these playoffswasn't momentous. Until, that is, he added one last thought. "That's mystory, at least," he said with a wry grin, "and I'm sticking toit."
For full coverage of the Eastern and Western Conferencefinals, plus the Playoff Blog and Fast Breaks, go to SI.com/nba.
Eric Snow (center) and Marshall helped make 'Sheed (36) eat his words--untilGame 7, when James (right) was smothered by Hamilton & Co.
Wallace and Hamilton will have to crank it up for a Miami team that goes notone, but two, superstars deep.