WITH APPROXIMATELY$150 million in endorsements and a seemingly limitless future on the basketballcourt, the world is at LeBron James's fingertips. Alas, so are the Pistons--athis fingertips, in his face, nipping at his heels and sometimes, such as at theend of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference finals, raking his arm. For the22-year-old Cavaliers superstar, the first two games of this series had beenthe hoops equivalent of No Exit, Sartre's existentialist play in which the maincharacters try to escape from their own personal hell.
Now, at least, itwon't be Embarrassing Exit. On Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena inCleveland, James enjoyed his first whiff of freedom as his Cavs beat Detroit88--82 in Game 3 to cut their series deficit to 2--1 and give the franchise itsfirst win in a conference finals since 1992, back when James was aseven-year-old pro wrestling fan unfamiliar with the sad fortunes of Clevelandsports.
Even if thevictory does not turn around a series that was going the Pistons' way afteridentical 79--76 victories in Games 1 and 2 (Game 4 was scheduled for Tuesdayat the Q), it perhaps presented a template for future Cavaliers success. Jameswas routinely brilliant (32 points on just 21 shots; one assist and one reboundshy of a triple double), as he will have to be for Cleveland to be a perennialtitle contender. His catalog of big fourth-quarter makes included not only aroof-raising slam dunk over Rasheed Wallace and a shot-clock-beatingthree-pointer, but also a game-clinching 14-foot jumper with 16 secondsleft.
Then, too, Jameswas able to control the game without forcing the action. "We got into ouroffense early and attacked a lot quicker," James correctly observed."The Pistons are very good when you allow them to set up." Jameshimself is usually the biggest culprit in that respect, particularly when heinitiates the offense at the top of the key. He holds the ball too long beforefinally taking an out-of-rhythm perimeter shot or frantically driving to thehoop, knocking defenders out of his way like dominoes. He didn't do that onSunday.
Finally, James'steammates actually made some crucial shots instead of blowing wide-openopportunities. LeBron's supporting cast is not yet good enough to deserve anickname--don't even think about the James Gang, which is twice taken--but itdid show signs of life.
As for James,though only in his fourth season he seems to sense that the pressure is all onhim, that a city starved for a winner is looking to him and only him forredemption. If he ever needs reminding, he can stroll outside the arena andgaze up at the 11-story-tall Nike mural that stands sentry on the side of anearby building with a message that reads WE ARE ALL WITNESSES. That's notZydrunas Ilgauskas up there.
James and the Cavs learned to attack quickly rather than give the Pistons timeto set up on defense.