LEBLOWOUT, BUT…

The last time the Cavaliers came to the Palace, LeBron James scored their final 25 points, hit the winning lay-up with 2.2 seconds left in double overtime, and left the building with Detroit’s confidence tucked into his socks. Two nights later, the Pistons’ season ended in Cleveland, their playoffs were over, and a summer of “we can’t believe that just happened” was upon them.

Well, the Cavs were back at the Palace on Wednesday night, and I’m happy to say that not only did the Pistons win, 109-74, but LeBron was held scoreless in the second half. He didn’t actually play in the second half. But he didn’t score, either.

A finger injury sidelined LeBron after the first two quarters, and the next time we saw him he was wearing a turtleneck and a sports coat. Of course, he could drop 35 in a turtleneck and a sports coat. And nothing we saw of LeBron in a uniform convinced us that, come May, this guy won’t still be a major pain in the shins for Detroit.

Even if he is surrounded by the lost members of the Pips.

James began the game by posting up Tayshaun Prince, backing him in like Shaq, and jump-hooking Cleveland’s first points. He followed by playing point guard – point guard? – then guarding Chauncey Billups. He scored 15 points – more than a third of his team’s total – and drew three fouls on sub Jarvis Hayes so fast, Hayes was going to the bench before PA announcer Ken Calvert had finished “now entering the game for the Pistons …”

In other words, James is not only getting better, he’s getting older. And wiser. And more varied. The operative thinking on King James is that his team has gone backward. But maybe not as much as he has gone forward. James entered Wednesday averaging 37 points in his previous seven contests. The night before, he almost single-handedly stopped the Celtics’ three-headed monster in an overtime Cleveland victory.

“Right now he’s the MVP of the league,” Pistons coach Flip Saunders said.

So the Pistons know what they missed.

They also might wonder why James didn’t injure that finger the LAST time he was here.

A miscast of characters

The shame of Wednesday was that Detroit, always up for a fight, would have liked another fourth-quarter measuring stick against the King. The Pistons played like a group determined not to fall into the patterns of their last encounter. Remember, in their season-ending loss last June, Prince shot 1-for-10, Chauncey scored nine points, the offense was as flat as two-day-old Pepsi, and they lost by 16.

“I was looking forward to it, man,” Billups said of a fourth-quarter finish against James. “That’s what you like.”

The teams were pretty even going toward halftime, with Rip Hamilton doing most of the scoring, but with the other starters – Prince, Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess – putting their signatures on the night. It looked like a game that could go to the wire.

But once James was gone, the Pistons were playing against a team that could politely be renamed “Cap Relief.” The Cavs without LeBron are a tax write-off. They are the Belmonts. The Limelighters. The Union Gap. Sonny Bono.

“He’s a pretty important piece of our team,” coach Mike Brown said. This is a bit like saying eggs are an important part of an omelet. Without James in the second half, Cleveland shot 12-for-33 and had 11 turnovers in 24 minutes.

“Does it make you wonder, when you see the Cavs without LeBron, how you lost four straight to them last year?” I asked Saunders.

“That’s over with,” he said quickly.

Then he paused.

“The thing is,” he added, “they had him.”

Just wait until the playoffs

And they’ll have him again. You can’t write the Cavs off – despite their roster weaknesses – as long as James remains the force he is and is yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday. All you need is to go to YouTube and check out the last basket of that fateful Game 5 last May, when James soars past Prince, Jason Maxiell and an onlooking Hamilton to put in the winning basket. You wonder, if that moment had presented itself again Wednesday, how any Piston would have been able to do anything any differently.

“They’re a different team without LeBron,” Billups said (which is another way of saying the Vatican is a different place without the pope), “but, to be honest, it speaks to how great that young kid is.”

Billups and the rest of the Pistons have been waiting to get the bad Cleveland taste from their mouths since June. A victory over James and Company would have been better than a victory over just Company, but for now they will take it.

But mark these words. He may be surrounded by torchbearers, but James can light them up, he can light you up, and he can light himself up, and it is hard to imagine a healthy version not wreaking havoc in the playoffs.

The injured finger, as he left the building, was noticeably bandaged, and he could have held it up as a gesture. No, not that gesture. The one that means “Just wait. I’ll be with you soon.”

The Pistons – as they were Wednesday night – had better be ready.

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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