Despite Detroit's young players trying to rattle him, James and Cavs keep composure to take 2-0 series lead
POSTED: Apr 21, 2016 2:05 AM ET
Pistons vs. Cavaliers
LeBron James goes off for 27 points as the Cavaliers beat the Pistons in Game 2, 107-90.
CLEVELAND — LeBron James was impeccably attired, sitting calmly in a sleek charcoal suit, a white-collared shirt, no necktie and a pocket square properly poofed. His arms were at his side and he showed almost no emotion, leaving most of the yuks to the Cleveland Cavaliers' incorrigible little brother, J.R. Smith, seated just to his right.
The guy who fielded questions as if he were attending an arts symposium bore no resemblance to the terror who was agitated, animated and running hot throughout the Cavaliers' 107-90 Game 2 victory over Detroit Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
Just as James had shrugged off some of the noise coming Monday and Tuesday from the Pistons' headquarters up in Michigan -- where they had retreated for the two days between Games 1 and 2 in the Eastern Conference playoff series, rather than staying in Cleveland -- he would not give them the satisfaction of dominating his thoughts or comments afterward.
In between, though, James gave some of the yapping Detroit players, particularly rookie Stanley Johnson and forward Marcus Morris, some of the guff and grief they had vowed to throw at him. Johnson, in particular, had risen to pest level by talking boldly about how he planned to match up and counter with James, including declaring it "on" if the competition between his 19-year-old self and the Cavs' superstar reached a certain pitch.
James had scoffed at suggestions he was going to be drawn into an extracurricular clash with the talented but raw Detroit rookie. Nor did he intend to fire back at Stan Van Gundy, who'd been fined $25,000 for criticizing the Game 1 referees for allowing James' alleged offensive fouls.
"I'm not having an individual matchup with Stan or an individual matchup with Stanley or any other Stan they can possess," James said.
Dismissive in words, James actually was far more engaged in deeds. Besides the game-high 27 points he scored, including 14 in the second quarter, the Cavs forward had multiple run-ins with Johnson. There was a shoulder shiver he gave the 6-foot-7 opponent from Arizona when they crossed paths during a timeout in the first quarter. There were some exchanges at both ends after plays in which James got the better of Johnson.
There was a ferocious dunk in the second quarter, too, James going primal when he slammed down a pass from Matthew Dellavedova. He grabbed the rim, gyrated and emoted, the crew on Cleveland's bench raucously joining in.
James Throws It Down
LeBron James throws down the dunk with authority.
James didn't go easy on Morris, either, who had scored 20 points in Game 1. This time, the Pistons forward missed eight of his 10 shots, appeared to let that rattle him defensively and finished with 11 points. When James hit his first of two 3-pointers, he scrunched up his face and shook his head, bewildered why Morris hadn't bothered to contest his open shot more aggressively.
Later, with about six minutes left and Detroit long clocked out, things turned nasty. James had barreled down into the paint only to get hit by first Andre Drummond, the Detroit center, then Morris. One of the blows appeared to hurt, James grabbing at his ribs close to his left armpit.
He could be seen saying something to a referee and then to teammates on the bench. Lip readers were fairly certainly he went with "I'll [bleep] that [bleeper] up!"
Their whole team [jabbers], kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They're always saying something like they're playing basketball, like they're actually in the game.
– Detroit's Stanley Johnson
All of it demonstrated how determined James was to grab Game 2 by the throat and make up, if possible, for the confidence his Cavaliers breathed into the brash-now-veering-into-irritating No. 8 seed. It was pretty evident James set out to remind the Pistons just where they were playing, and against whom.
James wasn't about to give them the satisfaction of dwelling on the Detroit crew in his comments afterward. But Johnson and Morris weren't shy.
"I'm definitely in his head. That's for sure," Johnson said in the visitors dressing room late Wednesday. "I wish he would just talk when [the game] is 0-0, not when he's up 16."
Johnson unloaded not just on James but on his fellow Cavs, some of whom don't play all that much.
"He jabbers," Johnson said. "He moves his mouth sometimes. Their whole team does, kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They're always saying something like they're playing basketball, like they're actually in the game. There's only seven or eight players who play, I don't see why the other players are talking. They might as well just be in the stands, in my opinion."
And then somewhat cryptically, Johnson said of James: "He's going to have to strap his shoes in every night tight because I'm going to strap my shoes in every night tight."
Morris pushed back hard too, when someone suggested that James was threatening him with the "[bleep] that [bleeper] up!" remark. "I know for a fact he wasn't talking to me," Morris said. "You can quote me on that."
Even Van Gundy got a little cantankerous when a reporter sought a comment about Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue's lineup tweak, using James at the start of the second and fourth quarters with mostly subs. "LeBron's always a pretty good adjustment, yeah," Van Gundy said, sarcasm revving. "That's really smart coaching. It is. It's really smart coaching, putting LeBron on the floor. Give him a lot of credit for that adjustment, if that's what you want to call it."
I will make sure our guys understand that we're here to play basketball. Everything else is irrelevant.
– LeBron James
In emotions and rhetoric, this would seem to have the making of a long, contentious, potentially head-butting series. But in basketball, it's trending in the wrong direction. After a performance in Game 1 impressive beyond their tender years, the Pistons unraveled after halftime in this one. Instead of applying pressure with 15-of-29 shooting from the arc as they had Sunday, they fizzled to a 4-of-17 clip. And considering Cleveland was 20-for-38 from out there (tying the NBA record for 3-pointers made in a playoff game), Detroit got outscored by 48 points from 3-point range.
And no sooner had the Pistons scored seven unanswered points to start the third quarter, grabbing a 60-55 lead, than the Cavaliers fought back with a 16-2 run. Van Gundy burned through his timeouts fast but that didn't matter, because his team didn't need any late.
It would be encouraging to think the Pistons will find their spunk by Game 3 Friday at The Palace of Auburn Hills. At the moment, though, they seem a little yappy, more bark than bravado, mostly to puff up themselves.
Yet James was dismissing them almost entirely, like flicking a few pieces of lint off his fine threads. Asked about video showing his flare-up over the elbow blow he took and the prospect of the series turning dirty, the Cavs forward said: "There hasn't been one dirty play in this series. For me, I'm the last person who'll ever allow physical play to go to the other side -- I know how much I mean to my team and I understand what this is all about. And I will make sure our guys understand that we're here to play basketball. Everything else is irrelevant.
"We want to play physical. We want to get up into those guys, make it tough on 'em. But the game is played in between the four lines. Video here, video there, it means absolutely nothing. I took a shot. I'm OK, I'm still standing tall. I'll be ready on Friday."
Ready to extract his price all over again, perhaps, pushing the Pistons to the brink of elimination.
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