CAVS NOT

The clock was down to mere seconds, his team trailed by two, LeBron James had the ball and he drove to the hoop, which is a little like saying a bird flies to the nest or a cowboy rides to the sunset. But as he neared the rim, instead of rising to it, instead of shooting, he passed. He passed? Yes. He passed across the floor, to the far corner, to a wide-open teammate named Donyell Marshall. We say his name mostly because of what it is not.

It is not LeBron James.

Marshall took the shot, a long three-point attempt, it clanked high off the rim, and the game was decided – the Pistons won. A head-shaking evening ended with, well, what else? A headshake.

“You take what’s there,” James explained after the 79-76 Pistons victory. “If you feel it, you go for it. If not, you kick it to a teammate.”

Help me out here. This is LeBron, right? The superstar’s superstar? And those other guys he’s talking about – he’s not on the Olympic team, right? I mean, he was dishing to Donyell Marshall. The guy had one basket all night.

“We’re just glad he missed,” Rip Hamilton said afterward.

So was every Pistons fan at the Palace. Yes, Detroit took this series opener. Better put, they survived it. But the story of this game was the characters who shaped it – or didn’t. In his first performance of his first ever Eastern Conference finals, LeBron James was a traffic cop, a choreographer, a hardwood professor, and the guy who waves in planes on the tarmac.

He was not – not – LeBron James.

Here’s the scary news. He almost didn’t have to be.

Instead, with James scoring just 10 points and NEVER GOING TO THE FOUL LINE (more on that later), the rest of the Cavaliers – who rank behind Elvis’ Jordanaires in terms of anonymity – nearly beat the Pistons and stole home-court advantage in the very first game. The Pistons will, understandably, point to their defense on LeBron. They’ll say a win is a win. But for most of the night, the Pistons were a step slow, a step less aggressive and a few points behind on the scoreboard.

And here’s the amazing part: The damage was being done not by James, the powerful whirlwind of superstardom, but. by a balding, aging Lithuanian giant, and a frenetic, jittering Brazilian with a garden bush perched atop his head.

Who were those guys?

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the 31-year-old center, had 22 points on the night, and hit one open shot after another. Down the stretch, he scored eight straight points, and had an open shot that could have tied the game in the closing seconds. He also grabbed 13 rebounds, and rebounds will be a source of concern in this series, because Cleveland is good at it, and rebounding can determine a game. The Cavs are helped in that department by Brazil’s Anderson Varejao, whom Pistons fans remember from last year. He was annoying then. He is annoying now.

Those two guys contributed 35 points and 20 rebounds – and a contrast in hairstyles that could be labeled “before and after.” But it was James’ reliance on them – and the other Cavs – that was most surprising. Yes, the Pistons played great defense. But many times during the game, LeBron looked like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan when those superstars were intent on getting their teammates involved no matter what.

James dished away before even trying to drive the hole. He only took 15 shots on the night. He never went to the line, and while his coach questioned that, there weren’t many moments where he was knocked down or left screaming at the refs. More often than not, he gave the ball up himself. Honestly, do you think the refs are biased AGAINST LeBron James?

As for that final play, well, he – and most Cleveland fans – will be questioning whether he should have gone to the hole for the tie rather than dishing for a three-pointer. He is, after all, one of the best players in the league.

“That last play was for LeBron to decide,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown. “… If you get to the rim, go ahead and finish, if you feel the defense is gonna collapse you gotta go ahead and kick it.”

He kicked it.

It kicked him back.

But it’s a victory

Here is how strange a game this was for the Pistons. Chauncey Billups had an awful night; he finished with seven turnovers and just five assists. Chris Webber, whom the Pistons vowed to get more involved, began the game with a foul, quickly picked up another, sat until the second quarter, came in and picked up another. Tayshaun Prince made just one basket all night. Dale Davis was the highest scorer off the bench. Dale Davis?

The Pistons were outrebounded. They had more than twice as many turnovers as Cleveland. Yet they still won. They won because Hamilton was unstoppable (24 points, seven assists.) They won because Rasheed Wallace gave a warrior effort on defense. (He had seven blocks. Seven blocks? The entire Cavs team had three!)

They won because Prince was terrific with his assists, dishing nine times to teammates for easy hoops.

They won because when Billups had to be Billups, he was, hitting a huge three-pointer with just under two minutes left that turned out to be the last basket of the game.

They won because they know how to dig in when the game gets grimy, and the Cavs are still learning that.

And they won because they turned their entire attention to stopping LeBron – and they did. And that same approach almost cost them the game.

“We didn’t play our best,” Hamilton said in the postgame news conference. “… We didn’t play well at all. We still got a win. That’s great. I love that. I’ll live with that.”

But only because it was a win. Another night, LeBron will be LeBron. Another night a clank could be a swish. The Pistons draw first blood, but this was close, folks. And anyone who thought this series would be a gimme should have his head examined.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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