CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers’ next task is to immediately forget all about one of the most memorable performances in NBA history.
It won’t be easy after watching LeBron James score 48 points, including Cleveland’s last 25 and 29 of its last 30, in a 109-107 double-overtime victory Thursday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
But forget about it the Cavaliers must, because they still have work left to do as they attempt to close out the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight at 8:30 at Quicken Loans Arena.
“This is definitely a big win,” an exhausted James said after Game 5. “It’s one of the biggest wins in Cavaliers franchise history. For me and my teammates, it’s definitely the biggest win.
“But we have a goal. We can’t dwell on this when we have another game (tonight). We have to do our best to try and win that ballgame and get where we wanted to be all year.”
That would be the NBA Finals, a place no other Cavaliers team has ever gone. If Cleveland gets there with a win tonight — the San Antonio Spurs await the winner of this series — chances are good No. 23 will have led the way.
“He does this for us often,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said of James’ Game 5 performance during a conference call Friday afternoon. “He wins ballgames in dramatic fashion a lot for us. Yes, we’re still in awe of the performance. We all feel fortunate to know him. We don’t ever underestimate what he can do out there. Seeing his tremendous drive (in Game 5) and knowing he’s our leader, we all enjoy watching that unfold in front of our eyes.
“But we don’t expect him to carry us like that every night. We have other guys who can step up and have stepped up. When no one else can, that’s when he steps up and carries the load.”
History indicates James will have to carry the load again if the Cavs are going to win tonight. Cleveland is 11-0 in the 2007 playoffs when he scores more than 20 points and 0-4 when he doesn’t.
The Pistons, of course, are aware of that statistic as well. Angry at themselves for their numerous mental lapses on the defensive end in Game 5, they will probably immediately double-team James every time he touches the ball tonight.
That means the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder probably won’t get off 33 shots and attempt 14 free throws like he did Thursday, so guys like Sasha Pavlovic, who was 2-of-10 from the field in Game 5, Drew Gooden (3-of-10), Daniel Gibson (2-of-7) and Donyell Marshall (0-of-1) are going to have to knock down open jumpers when James finds them.
“They’re going to jump him right away with two guys and stay on him until he passes the ball,” Brown said. “They’re going to make somebody else try to beat them.”
If James’ teammates are up to the task — and if he continues to stay aggressive offensively regardless of how the Pistons play him — the Cavs could earn their first trip to the NBA Finals in the 37-year history of the franchise. They could also do what 55 other teams have failed to do and become just the third club in NBA history to win a conference final series after losing the first two games (1971 Baltimore Bullets, 1993 Chicago Bulls).
It won’t be easy, especially against a battle-tested Detroit team that has been to the conference finals five straight years and is 18-0 lifetime in playoff series when it’s won the first two games.
The Pistons, in fact, are in the exact same position they were in a year ago against the Cavs in the conference semifinals. They won the first two games at home, then lost three straight.
“It’s not going to be any different than it was when we were down last year,” said veteran Detroit guard Lindsey Hunter, whose team squeaked out a win in Game 6 at The Q in 2006, then blew out the Cavs at The Palace in Game 7. “It’s always difficult when you’re down. You just have to come out playing. There’s nothing else to say about it.”
Closing out a playoff series is equally difficult, but that’s what the Cavs hope to do tonight, thus avoiding a winner-take-all game back in Auburn Hills on Monday night.
“We know what Detroit’s going to do and they know what we’re going to do,” Brown said. “The most aggressive team (tonight) is going to win.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or email@example.com.
WHO: Cleveland vs. Detroit
WHAT: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals (Cleveland leads the best-of-seven series, 3-2)
WHERE: The Q
TV/RADIO: TNT; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM
Cavaliers forward LeBron James shoots over the defense of Pistons guard Richard Hamilton during the Cavs’ 109-107 double-overtime victory in Game 5 on Thursday.