CROWN ‘EM? PISTONS’ SEASON ON LEBRINK ONCE AGAIN

By the end, both teams were slogging it out like two exhausted fighters on a hot summer night. The Pistons threw the ball into whoever raised an arm for it, and they watched that player back in, alone, the rest of them seeming to pray a shot would fall. On the other side, the Cleveland Cavaliers had evaporated to a one-man team. LeBron James was the only offense they had; they fed him the ball over and over and watched him go, the way a kid watches his dad dive off to work.

It was double overtime, close to midnight, and with the night on the line, the game on the line, likely the series on the line. It already had been a night of ghosts, a night of whistles – many that should never have been blown – a night of foul-outs and players sitting down frustrated.

But, in the end, it was a night that begged a simple question:

Who would stand up to win the thing?

You knew it would be one man.

But one against five?

Normally, that’s a no-brainer. But LeBron James is not normal. And at 22, he is likely on his way to an NBA Finals to prove it.

He made slam dunks. He made free throws. He made ridiculous three-pointers with the shot clock running down. He hung in midair and rattled the rim. He drove to the hoop despite the entire Detroit roster waiting for him. He had bounce when the rest of the players had sag. He defied gravity and logic and age and experience. He left the Pistons and their fans with their mouths open. Can one man beat five men? No way, right?

Way.

And this could end ugly. James scored the last 25 points for Cleveland, 29 of their last 30, and his final shot, a drive past three Pistons, slicing their famous defense to shreds, left whatever remains of the Pistons’ swagger in pieces on the Palace floor. You say this no matter who you root for: LeBron James, on Thursday night, gave one of the greatest performances in the history of the NBA playoffs.

One man beats five.

“This is a tough loss,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said after Game 5 in these Eastern Conference finals ended, 109-107. “It’s a great game for the winning team and a tough loss for the losing team.

“We have to regroup.”

But everyone knows this: If the Pistons don’t win this kind of game, they are not winning the series. These games are the mark of experience, calmness under pressure. You know, Pistons’ specialties? The Cavs had never been in a playoff double overtime. James had never been in a playoff double overtime.

But it was Chauncey Billups – Mr. Big Shot – who missed the final shot of the night, Rasheed Wallace who missed a shot before that, Rip Hamilton who missed a shot before that, and James who went dancing off at buzzer.

One man beats five?

“We played so hard tonight, I didn’t want it to slip away,” James told TNT after scoring 48 points in 51 minutes. “… I just wanted to step in there and make a big shot.”

A big shot? How about all of them?

One man beats five.

So much to second-guess

Now, Pistons fans this morning may question Saunders’ defensive schemes – and rightfully so. Why allow James to even handle the ball out top or drive the lane at all – especially in the overtimes when the rest of the Cavs could be filed under the heading “useless”? Why not force the ball out of James’ hands? Make someone else beat you?

These are hard, ugly questions the Pistons face this morning. But then, this game was ugly from the start.

For all intents and purposes, the night changed permanently with half a minute left in the first quarter. Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, the flopping Brazilian, ran down the lane and took a fast pass from James. Antonio McDyess came at him and they met in the midair, McDyess whacking an arm over his neck – a no-no in the NBA – and Varejao went crashing down.

Now this guy goes down if you blow your nose in the next room, so it’s impossible to tell if it was McDyess’ arm or Varejao’s convenient sense of balance that so crashed him to the floor. But crash he went. And in rushed the officials, and the other players, and James came leaping into the fray, and Jason Maxiell grabbed him, and a scrum ensued and the crowd rose, and all the NBA ghosts that come with the words “Palace of Auburn Hills” suddenly were swirling in the minds of viewers.

And clearly the minds of the officials.

“You got his head,” referee Bennett Salvatore told McDyess, as he led him off the court and out of the game, ejected for the flagrant-two foul violation. “You got his head.”

And the question for the Pistons became: Who had theirs?

For much of the night, it would be the men with the whistles. For much of the night, it would be the Cavs. But when it counted, it would be James. He did everything a superstar could do. And if the Pistons collectively couldn’t stop him in Detroit, do they expect to do it in Cleveland?

Do they expect to do it twice?

“Why did LeBron have his way tonight?” someone asked Wallace in the Pistons’ locker room.

He barked back: “He ain’t had his way. He made his shots.”

Is there a difference?

At the King’s command

“I give all the credit to my teammates,” James said.

Oh, please. All his teammates did was throw him the ball. Then again, he had promised them if the game was close down the stretch he would try to win it himself.

He did what he promised. The Pistons, meanwhile, have promised but not done. Game 5 was forever changed by the McDyess ejection. The Pistons are at their worst when they get tangled up in refereeing, and no matter how justified their anger might have been, they had been playing a well-oiled game, and their well-oiled game slid right off the tracks. Everything they had been smoothly achieving now clanked and cracked. Baskets came hard. Substitutions were rampant. Whistles were endless

And the Cavs climbed back in.

And they left with the victory.

It is true, the refs seized this game and it was a shame, but you could see this coming. The NBA is so image conscious, it will stomp on the potential of a confrontation the way you stomp on a match in a paper factory. Before the McDyess-Varejao collision, there had been nine fouls called.

In the quarter that followed, there were 17.

But in the end, the whistles evened out. And the Pistons likely have learned this lesson:

You can’t talk a ball into a hoop. You can’t scare a ball out of it. You can’t tell a ball that you are more experienced so it should listen to what you command. You can’t alter a ball’s course by saying, “Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing.”

There is the game you talk and there is the game you play, and the Pistons did not play well enough to win this game, they have not played well enough to win the last three, and they may not play well enough to win this series, no matter how much they think of themselves.

You can’t attitude your way to a title. That is one truth.

Here is another: Youth is ravenous. It knows no limit. The Pistons would do well to remember the days, not so long ago, when they were the hungry, young underdog, and everyone said they were too green to beat a seasoned, championship team like the L.A. Lakers.

Detroit won that series – and a title – in five games.

The Cavs may be that team now. James certainly is – and that alone may be enough. He made history Thursday night. No one had ever scored 29 of his team’s last 30 points in the NBA playoffs. And history doesn’t just repeat itself. It imposes its will. It pulls you down its drain. There is nothing new under the sun. And what’s happening to the Pistons, even as they insist they are the better team, is nothing new.

Down a man, down a game, down to Ohio, down to their last chance. The next two days, for the Pistons, will seem like an eternity. And the guy wearing No. 23 will be in all their dreams. One man beats five? Change dreams to nightmares.

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). www.freep.com/mitch.

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