Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rasheed's big fat mouth.

After the Cleveland Cavaliers showed guts by taking game three of the Eastern Conference semi-finals following a thorough schooling in Detroit, Rasheed Wallace dismissed the effort as a last gasp by a much weaker team. The Cavs responded by beating the Piston's at their own game, winning ugly in a 74-72 slugfest that featured sloppy play by Lebron James and very little help from the rest of the starters. It wasn't pretty but it proved that the Cavs don't have to be perfect to beat Detroit.

I don't mind players being confident. Sometimes a little arrogance is refreshing in a world so often muddied by cliche-riddled platitudes and abundant false modesty. I respected Rasheed Wallace for stating what most of the sports world believed to be true: The Cavs got lucky at home and probably wouldn't smell another victory until next season. As much as I wanted to see Lebron and the guys serve up a big fat plate of steaming crow, deep down I doubted that the Cavs had much of a shot.

Mind you, it's not the absence of Larry Hughes that concerns me. Truth be told, Hughes is highly overrated. Flip Murray is a better guard, at this point, than Hughes and the Cavs are a better team with Hughes on the bench. Condolences to Larry and the Hughes family, but don't feel the need to hurry back on the team's account. You aren't needed. No, the problem facing the Cavs in this series is the fact that outside of Lebron James, the Cavs have no consistent scoring threat. The Pistons only carry one offensive liability and Ben Wallace brings so much to the team in the way of defense and rebounding there's no need to sweat his inconsistent point totals. The Pistons are a better team. Period.

But the better teams don't always win. There's something called heart. And luck. You can't measure either. The Pistons were lucky to be so accurate from three point range in the first two games. Sure, skill plays a huge part in it, but even under the best conditions a great three point shooter is only going to nail 60% of his shots. That average generally falls below 50% during the game and good long range shooters usually take satisfaction in something between 30% and 40%. Damon Jones has an NBA career because he is a little over 35% from three point land. The Pistons were hitting something like 80% of their three pointers in the first two games. That's luck.

The Cavs didn't play with much heart in those first two games. That's thanks in large part to Zydrunas Ilgauskas not stepping up and delivering the sort of performance you expect out of a 7'3" center. Between his "ole" defense and candy-ass offense, Z's proven that he's not the kind of guy the Cavs can rely on in big games. When Z fouls somebody they mange to finish the shot and end up with three points. How's that for soft? Clearly Z lacks heart and so does most of the team. Lebron showed some heart. He always does, but the rest of the team didn't seem to show up.

That changed in Cleveland. Mike Brown found some magic in Anderson Varejao and the lanky Brazilian has been delivering a gritty performance, blocking key shots, grabbing crucial rebounds and scoring some hard fought points. He's not going to set the world on fire, but his effort is consistent 100% everytime. The guy wants to win and has been Lebron's go to guy in this series. Mix in some strong spurts by Flip Murray and solid effort by Donyell Marshall and you have a team that can scrap.

The first win could have been a fluke. A long layover, rabid fans and the surprisingly soft manner in which the Cavs folded in the first two games might have caught the Pistons off guard. It's easy for a juggernaut to get distracted in a seven game series and a loss is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. That's why Rasheed's prediction that the Cavs were done after one win wasn't so outlandish. No problem.

But then the Cavs took game four and evened up the series. Not only that, but they made Rasheed look something like a punk in doing it. The big man with the big mouth didn't put up much of a fight and the Cavs took control of the game with stout defense, hard fouls and solid rebounding. They intercepted passes, blocked shots and made the Pistons work for every last point and when that final buzzer sounded they found themselves in a best of three dog fight with the best team in the NBA. Surely 'Sheed would have to show the Cavs a little respect, right?

Nope. 'Sheed didn't miss a beat. He went right back into diss mode making it clear that the Cavaliers have no chance to beat the Pistons. None at all. Except that the Cavs proved that they aren't a fluke. Winning one game with Lebron catching fire in the fourth quarter is NBA basketball...there's no sweeping a superstar, but following that up with a nasty defensive struggle that sends the Pistons back to Detroit facing a must win situation isn't luck. That's reality.

Rasheed spoke of sunshine and dogs' asses, but the fact is that right now the Cavaliers are as good as the Pistons. Not on paper, but on the court. Where it counts. The statistics in this series prove that. 2-2. Even Steven. This isn't some 41-41 team winning two throw away games after falling 3-0. This is a legitimate contender rising to the occasion and taking control of its destiny.

Can the Cavs pull it off? That's the burning question, isn't it? And that's the point. A week ago Everybody had the Pistons in the finals and the debate was whether or not they would be playing the Spurs or the Mavs. Now the Pistons might be the biggest question mark in the NBA playoffs. I'm not doubting the Cavs. I think they can win it. I really do. They need two wins and we have yet to see Lebron at his level best for 48 minutes in this series. Even though Z is soft, there's still a possibility he might wake up one day and remember where he left his manhood. Larry Hughes might return from his brother's funeral and have something to play for.

Psychologically the Piston's have to be in trouble. The schoolyard bully has finally had his nose bloodied and doesn't know what to do. They're ripe for a collapse and if the Cavaliers can walk into that cat box they call The Palace and show some spunk, this series could be over. If the Cavs go up 3-2, the Pistons won't show up for game six. Yeah, they'll talk a great game, but you don't score points with your lips. You can't block a shot with a pronoun. Rasheed proved that the other night. Blah, blah, blah. Talk all you want, Wallace, but the score board tells a different tale.

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