AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — So many things are the same as they were a year ago, but there are also some differences as the Cavaliers prepare to meet the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight at 8 o’clock at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
A year ago, the Cavaliers were dominated at The Palace in the first two games of the conference semifinals, came home and squeaked out a pair of victories, then went back to Auburn Hills and stunned the Pistons 86-84 in Game 5.
Cleveland, however, failed to close out the series in Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena, then got hammered in Game 7 back at The Palace.
Fast forward a year and the Cavaliers, who would have had home-court advantage against the Pistons had they won four more games in the regular season, once again lost the first two games of the series on the road, this time in the conference finals. Only this time, they were not only in both games, they could — and probably should — have won both games.
Once again, Cleveland returned home and won twice at The Q, this time looking like the better team in both affairs.
Put it all together and the Cavaliers won’t be taking the floor tonight with the care-free, nothing-to-lose, soak-up-the-experience attitude they took into Game 5 a year ago, when deep down they knew the Pistons were the better team.
This time around, the Cavaliers, who have been the better team for a large portion of the first four games of the series, will take the floor wanting to win, knowing they can win and expecting to win against a proud but aging Detroit team, which suddenly appears to be near the end of an era that has seen it reach the conference finals five straight years.
The Cavaliers won’t verbalize any of that too strongly, of course, for this is a serious team that has adopted the demeanor and philosophy of coach Mike Brown, who won’t ever say anything that might end up on a bulletin board in the opposing locker room.
Listen closely, however, and it’s clear the Cavaliers are no longer intimidated by the Pistons or the atmosphere inside The Palace.
“The confidence is there because we’ve been through this situation before with this (Detroit) team,” Brown said. “But we’re a little bit better than we were last year.”
The Cavaliers are not only an improved team, especially at the defensive end, they’re also more experienced, smarter and better prepared. Not only that, they have LeBron James on their side, which gives them a 6-foot-8, 240-pound superstar who can take over a game down the stretch the way no Detroit player can.
After scoring just 10 points in Game 1 and 19 in Game 2, James put up 32 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the Cavaliers’ Game 3 victory, then came back with 25 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in Game 4.
“That’s two games in a row where he’s taken us on his big, broad shoulders and said, ‘Come along for the ride,’” Brown said. “That’s two games in a row we went for the ride and he carried us home.”
Former NBA great Charles Barkley, now an analyst for TNT, is not real popular in Cleveland right now because he’s constantly criticizing the Cavaliers, but he’s right when he says James has to be great for his team to win.
Want proof? The Cavaliers are 10-0 in the playoffs when James scores more than 20 points and 0-4 when he doesn’t. They’ve also won two games against Detroit when he delivered in the clutch in the fourth quarter and lost two games when he did not.
“In the fourth quarter, the game is on the line,” James said. “I live for the fourth quarter. I love the fourth quarter. I told my teammates, ‘Get me to the fourth quarter and if it’s close, I’ll try my best to win the game.’”
James has had some help, of course. In Game 4, rookie Daniel “Boobie” Gibson was huge with a career-high 21 points, while Drew Gooden added 19 points, including a series of big jump shots when the Pistons doubled James.
Detroit, meanwhile, made crucial mistakes down the stretch, with point guard Chauncey Billups throwing the ball away on one possession and taking a running, off-balance 3-point attempt on another. Big Shot Billups, in fact, had five points on 1-of-7 shooting in the second half after pouring in 18 first-half points in Game 4.
“We were bad down the stretch,” Pistons shooting guard Richard Hamilton said. “The most important thing was we actually turned the ball over and didn’t get shots up. We’re a better team than that. We thrive on taking our time getting into what we want to get into.”
With James leading the way, it has been the Cavaliers who have thrived in that scenario the last two games, when they’ve basically beaten the team-oriented, professional Pistons at their own game.
“They did what we do,” Detroit small forward Tayshaun Prince said. “They kept the game close and in the fourth quarter, when we usually make our move, it was vice versa. They made (their move) at the right time.”
Brimming with confidence but realizing they still have a ton of work to do, the Cavaliers will now attempt to do the same thing they did a year ago in Game 5 at The Palace.
In that regard, the similarities are very much the same, but the expectations are now much different, much higher and, perhaps most important, much more realistic.
Noland may be reached at email@example.com or 330-721-4061.
WHO: Cleveland at Detroit
WHAT: Game 5 Eastern Conference finals
TIME: 8 o’clock
WHERE: The Palace at Auburn Hills (Mich.)
TV/RADIO: TNT; WTAM
1100-AM; WEOL 930-AM