The Cleveland Cavaliers improved to 43-11–the best record in the Eastern Conference–with a 99-78 rout of the Detroit Pistons, who have now lost six games in a row and are in serious danger of not making the playoffs, a stunning collapse for a team that has appeared in the last six Eastern Conference Finals. Delonte West returned to action after missing five weeks because of a fractured right wrist and he scored a game-high (and season-high) 25 points, including 20 in the first half alone. Allen Iverson led Detroit with 14 points.
LeBron James added 20 points, nine assists and five rebounds in just 31 minutes as he once again enjoyed the luxury of sitting out the fourth quarter as the Cavs built a huge lead. On the heels of a season-high 55 point performance versus Milwaukee in which he scored 24 third quarter points, made eight straight shots, shot 16-29 from the field and connected on 8-11 from three point range, James came back to Earth a bit, shooting 6-13 from the field and 0-3 from behind the arc. Even after his remarkable shooting display against the Bucks, James is shooting .313 from three point range this season, making this the fourth straight year that his three point percentage has declined (though this year’s decline is minimal). James has improved his free throw shooting to a career-high .773 but his midrange jumper and three point shot are still erratic. His performance against Milwaukee must have sent a cold sweat down the spines of a lot of NBA players and coaches, though, because if he ever becomes a consistent midrange jump shooter and improves his three point stroke then, as my man Delvis Valentine would say, you can ring the bell and school is out: the only hope that defenders have now is to concede James the jump shot and try to keep him out of the paint but once James extinguishes that hope on a regular basis he will not only be clearly the best player in the league but he will essentially be unguardable. That Milwaukee game provided a glimpse of a possible future that must be absolutely terrifying to anyone who has to guard James and/or devise a game plan to stop him.
Tayshaun Prince opened the scoring with a nice postup move versus James but the Cavs soon took command with a 15-0 run midway through the first quarter. Remarkably, the Pistons never seriously threatened after that, a highly unusual occurrence considering that the 48 minute NBA game is more of a marathon than a sprint. Basically, the final 40 minutes of the game were what Marv Albert likes to call “extensive gar-bage time.”
Detroit played with no energy or effort at either end of the court. Coach Michael Curry lamented to ESPN’s Ric Bucher, “We look like we don’t know each other and we don’t like each other.” It is easy to try to pin the blame for Detroit’s problems on the trade that shipped out Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (who re-signed with the Pistons after a 30 day waiting period) to Denver for Iverson but Iverson is leading the Pistons in minutes, scoring, assists and steals; he is not playing poorly and is not the reason that the Pistons have become so inept. If any one move can be blamed, it is the decision to bench Richard Hamilton and install Rodney Stuckey as the starting point guard; despite a slow start during the month that McDyess was not with the team, the Pistons had a 23-17 record on January 19 and were still in contention for the fourth playoff seed. However, since that time–with Stuckey starting and Hamilton coming off of the bench–the Pistons have gone 4-10, including their current six game losing streak. The reality is that the Pistons have not replaced Billups with Iverson; they replaced Billups with Stuckey, shifted Iverson to Hamilton’s starting spot and turned Hamilton into a sixth man.
It is breathtaking to consider how quickly and completely the balance of power has shifted in the Eastern Conference. In 2006, the Pistons were coming off of an NBA Finals appearance, posted the best regular season record in the NBA and beat the Cavs in seven games in the East semis before falling to the Heat. In 2007, the Pistons had the best record in the East but lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Pistons posted the second best record in the East but could not get past the powerful Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, the Pistons rank seventh in the East and are just 1.5 games ahead of eighth seeded Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, during that same three year period the Celtics and Magic have improved from being sub-.500 teams to being a championship team and a strong playoff squad respectively, while the Cavs have ended a seven year playoff drought by making three straight postseason trips, with a fourth one clearly on the horizon this spring. Not too long ago, the Cavs were struggling to figure out how to beat the Pistons but now Detroit is nothing but an afterthought as the Cavs focus on being prepared for likely playoff showdowns with Boston and possibly Orlando.