IF YOU CAN’T ATTACK, YOU CAN ALWAYS HACK

Look, if you don’t want to play, you don’t have to. But don’t start hacking Ben Wallace. In the second quarter? If that’s the best the Cleveland Cavaliers can come up with, maybe they should rethink this whole second-round thing.

True, they were already trailing by 20. And yes, they were clearly out of ideas. They had already used the 24-second violation, the five-second violation and the three-second violation. There’s not much left. Maybe pass interference.

But Hack-A-Ben? Yep. With two minutes left in the second quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the 7-foot-3 center, was clasping Wallace the way a wife clasps her husband before he leaves for war. The idea was to send Ben to the foul line, where lately he has seen more air than a bike tire.

This is desperation, of course, but desperation, by definition, usually comes near the end of things – not before halftime. What were they going to do in the third and fourth quarters? Hide the ball?

“I was shocked,” Chauncey Billups said. “When it first happened (Ben and I) were both pretty much like, ‘Wow, they showed their trump card, you know?’

“But when you’re a coach playing against a group like ours, a veteran group, and you’re down, you can get a little desperate.”

By the way, Wallace made one of two free throws. So the strategy didn’t work. Unless the idea was to unnerve him. I’m guessing that in all his life, Ben never dreamed he’d be love-hugged by someone named Zydrunas.

But then, we’re seeing a few strange things in this series.

Rip’s well-timed basket

For example, Hack-A-Ben was matched only by Smash-A-LeBron, which went on all night, the great King James sandwiched between two Pistons defenders, sometimes three.

The result? LeBron, no dummy, figured maybe his teammates should carry some of the load. Slowly, he began to disappear from the game, a 97-91 Pistons victory. He had just seven points at halftime. And he started the second half letting the lesser lights try to shine. Heck, for a few minutes, I thought he was pulling a Kobe.

“It wasn’t by plan,” Cavs coach Mike Brown lamented. “We just didn’t attack.”

In time, James started shooting again, and he helped get it close down the finish – pulling the Cavs within five points. Maybe LeBron, a curious young man, wanted to see how his teammates could fare against the Pistons by themselves.

Here’s the answer, kid: They can’t.

Here’s why. Without LeBron, Cleveland would have had 61 points. And while the Cavaliers were feeling good about their closing stretch, did they notice that Rip Hamilton, the Pistons’ leading scorer, didn’t have a basket all night – until the final 58 seconds, when his lay-up down the lane effectively iced the game?

Rip Hamilton, one basket?

Don’t count on that happening again.

A rotating cast of stars

Meanwhile, Rasheed Wallace was terrific. He made huge shots in the first half to pad the lead, and when things got tight, he grabbed tough rebounds and hit a three-pointer from Macomb County. He finished with 29 points and nine boards – and his rebounding is never talked about enough. “I’m just trying to beat Ben to the ball,” he joked afterward.

But that’s the thing. The Pistons come at you from so many angles. In Game 1, it was largely about Tayshaun Prince. In Game 2, Rasheed was everywhere. In Game 3, it’s liable to be Hamilton or Billups, who was also fairly quiet Tuesday.

The Pistons are like a Beatles album. Some are John’s songs. Some are Paul’s. Some are George’s. And some, not a lot, but some, are Ringo’s.

Which brings us back to the bass drum of the Pistons, Wallace and the Hack-A-Ben strategy.

“That was the Dunleavy play,” Rasheed sneered, referring to Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, who tried this strategy during the season. “It didn’t work then – and it didn’t work now.”

It was, however, the rare chance to see a 7-foot-3 Lithuanian slow dancing with Big Ben. That alone was worth the price of admission.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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