CLEVELAND -- This isn't a complaint about the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's smaller than a complaint. Call it a quibble. And call it irrelevant, meaningless, silly -- unless it becomes so relevant that it means the end of the Cavaliers' season.
Because that could happen.
If the Cavaliers can't find a way to play without LeBron James.
The Cavaliers couldn't play without James on Saturday against Detroit, but that didn't matter because they played with him long enough to blow out the Pistons 102-84 in the first game of their first-round playoff series.
But the day could come that James is limited by fouls or injury, and if it comes in a meaningful game -- say, Game 6 or Game 7 of a series down the road -- the Cavaliers that I saw on Saturday are in big trouble.
Because they couldn't play without LeBron James.
Again, this isn't that big of a complaint, and it's definitely not a breaking news story. An NBA team suffers a drop-off without its best player? Shocking!
But the drop-off the Cavaliers suffered without James actually was shocking. Cleveland had the best record in the NBA this season, and Detroit had the worst record of the 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs. The Pistons lost more than they won (39-43), and they looked like a losing team on Saturday.
And still they were better than Cleveland when the Cavaliers had to play long stretches without James.
Twice Cavs coach Mike Brown took out James for a long rest, at the end of the first and third quarters, and both times the Pistons mounted such a charge that Brown nearly sprained his shoulder waving James back into the game.
If you're a Cleveland fan, that's a problem. It's not a problem in this series, because the Pistons are a shell of the franchise that has reached the last six Eastern Conference finals. That streak will end this season because the Pistons grew old overnight, and because they added Allen Iverson, who is a loser. Great talent. Losing player. Don't hate me for speaking the truth, Mr. Allen Iverson Apologist. He is what he is.
And Detroit is what it is -- overmatched. This series is such a blowout that the Atlanta Hawks scout who sat next to me ignored them. Literally. He took copious notes on the Cavaliers and nothing on the Pistons. He didn't want to waste his time writing about Detroit.
|It's not a shocker, but Anderson Varejao and the Cavs seem lost with LeBron on the bench. (Getty Images)|
Detroit can't make Cleveland pay for its LeBron ReLiance, but there's a team out there that can. I'm thinking about the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, or the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Both those teams also are reliant on a superstar, Orlando on Dwight Howard and the Lakers on Kobe Bryant, but the Cavaliers aren't even recognizable when James is off the floor. They weren't Saturday, anyway. Brown says that was an anomaly.
"For the most part, we're excited about our second unit," he said. "Our second unit has played well this season."
Not Saturday, and Brown knows it. On Saturday, he noted, the second unit "wasn't as physical" as it needed to be, had poor shot selection, and did a bad job defensively with versatile Pistons wing Tayshaun Prince.
The results were painful. Cleveland led 30-25 after the first quarter -- LeBron: 12 points, one rebound, one assist -- and pushed it to 33-25 after an immediate 3-pointer by Joe Smith. But then Detroit rallied, scoring on five straight possessions, to get within 37-36. Off the bench came James, who assisted on baskets on three of the Cavaliers' next five possessions, and scored on the other two. That was on offense. On defense, he was the one grabbing rebounds and sprinting to the other end.
By the time the half ended -- and it ended with James hitting a ridiculous running 40-footer at the buzzer -- the Cavs led 57-45. With James playing the entire third quarter, Cleveland maintained its double-figure lead and went into the fourth quarter ahead 78-65. James had 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He acted like he was done. He put on one shirt over his jersey, then a second shirt. He put on his warm-up pants. He sat down and kicked back.
And the Pistons rallied.
The lead was down to 80-72 when Brown called timeout and James removed the first shirt, then the second shirt, then the warm-up pants. Time to make the doughnuts ...
James immediately created an open 3-pointer for Williams. Then he scored a basket. Two free throws. Another basket. Soon it was 93-74, and James sat down for good with 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists and with the crowd of 20,562 was chanting, "M-V-P, M-V-P."
And they were right. Cleveland won 66 games this season, one of just 12 teams in NBA history to do that, and James is the reason. Mo Williams helped, and the supporting cast is nice enough. But James is Tiger Woods. The rest of his roster is Stewart Cink.
Of the first 11 teams to win 66 games, by the way, nine went on to claim the NBA title.
The Cavaliers should become the 10th.
But they better learn how to play -- just a little bit -- without James.