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Cleveland Didn't Lose On The Final Possession

My phone rang last night, right after Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown ripped off his tie and began kicking and screaming, "Unbelievable! Unbelievable!"

My boy David had just one question: "Isn't LeBron a star?"

"Supposed to be," I told him.

David didn't need to say much more. I knew exactly what he was getting at. How could LeBron James - the future of the league, the would-be King, the global icon - not get a foul called for him on his final drive against Richard Hamilton? After watching the replays, it appeared that Hamilton slapped James about three times on the drive and forced James to take an off-balanced, over-the-shoulder, one-handed hook shot that clanged off the back of the rim.

Was he fouled? Probably. Was that why Cleveland lost, 79-76, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals? No.

That's why I have to respect that Brown took the high road after the game. When asked after the game about LeBron's last drive - which resulted in an uncharaterstically emotional eruption from the usually mild-mannered coach - Brown said, "We're a no excuse team."

Now, Brown has been criticized for not defending James with a tongue-lashing of the officiating, but again, such an outburst would've placed the blame in the wrong direction. The officials were possibly a factor in the final outcome - although I think they made it abundantly clear that they were going to let the players play when Rasheed Wallace nearly shoved Anderson Varejao into the front row before buring the game-winning jumper (of course, that was an obvious flop by the Brazilian Carrot Top).

James took the criticism to heart for passing to Donyell Marshall at the end of Game 1 and decided that the game would be decided in his hands alone. But while James had the right mindset, he didn't have the execution.

James didn't make an truly aggressive drive to the basket and since he wasn't completely clobbered on the play, the officials were probably correct in leaving that a no-call at that stage of the game. You can't expect to be bailed out in the clutch. This is the playoffs, not Gilbert Arenas against Golden State last March. And, given James's shaky free throw shooting in the fourth quarter these playoffs, did he really want to have to win the game on the foul line?

The real reason the Cavaliers aren't going home tied at 1-1 is because they fell asleep in the third quarter. The aggression that they used to build a 12-point lead was replaced by a fear of losing. That might work at home. But on the road, you have to go for the kill. If your opponent is down, keep it down, stomp on its throat. They played safely, trying to establish Zydrunas Ilguaskas in the low post and playing possession basketball, and let the Pistons get back into the game.

The thing with Detroit is that if a team keeps rolling with the same force, the Pistons have no problem ceding defeat. The Chicago Bulls had to learn that lesson in the conference semifinals after blowing that 19-point lead in Game 3 when they got passive. The next two games, the Bulls never turned the temperature off broil and came away with victories.

The Cavaliers trying to cruise to the finish was a baffling approach given how James jumped on the Pistons in the first half. He attacked the rim, had a pretty impressive reverse dunk, and scored 14 points. Then, he stopped. I know the Pistons' defense had a lot to do with that. But he took the first shot of the third quarter and was ghost until the final period.

Let me say it again: the Cavaliers cannot win if James doesn't have a domimant offensive performance. It is not a coincidence that Cleveland's only victory over Detroit this season came when James scored 41 points. And, it also is no coincidence that Cleveland is 8-0 this postseason when James scores more than 20 points and 0-4 when he doesn't.

But I will not place the blame on James this time. He can only do so much when his teammates are nowhere to be found. The major concern in this series is that Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden have gone into hiding, which is making it increasingly more difficult for James to do his damage.

Hughes was 2-for-9 for four points last night and missed potentially game-winning jumper from six feet after rebounding James's miss. In this series, Hughes has taken 22 shots - and scored just 17 points. That's not good. Gooden has taken 10 shots and scored 10 points. That's not enough.

That's why James is 14-for-33 (42.4 percent) from the floor this series. If James's teammates won't help, then the Pistons know they can throw the kitchen sink, the refrigerator and the oven at him because nobody else is going to make them pay.

The Cavaliers should be kicking themselves for not having a 2-0 lead in this series, given how unimpressive the Pistons have been. Chauncey Billups has 12 turnovers and 13 field goal attempts in the first two games. Tayshaun Prince has gone 1-for-19 (at least Hughes is good for something on the defensive end) from the floor.

And, has anyone noticed that neither team has scored 80 points yet? What gives? With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant headed to the Western Conference, maybe the league needs to get rid of this whole conference thing altogether. At least teams in the West try to score. This is brutal.

By Michael Lee  |  May 25, 2007; 11:25 AM ET
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