The only sure bet in life is that fools will always take the “sure” bet. After a solid win for the Cavaliers in Game 1 of their first round matchup with the Detroit Pistons, the Cavs followed that up with a thrashing of the Pistons for 3 quarters in Game 2 before making things interesting in the 4th quarter. Regardless of what happened in that 4th quarter, the result was a Cavaliers victory to seemingly give them a commanding death grip on this series.
Looks can be deceiving, though. The Cavaliers appear to be a sure bet to win this series at this point. Pistons fans are so sure of this that they have decided not to attend the game. The Pistons organization evidently believes this series is over as well, and have decided to email Cavaliers Season Ticket holders to invite them to purchase tickets for Games 3 and 4. All signs would seem to indicate that at this point, the series is over and the Pistons are just going through the motions waiting for the Cavaliers to put them out of their misery.
That mindset, however, is precisely what always makes Game 3’s so dangerous for road favorites. It’s not too difficult to relate this to the 2006 Playoffs when the Cavs and Pistons faced off in the 2nd round. The Pistons came out and destroyed the Cavaliers by 27 points in Game 1, and then held on to take care of business in a much tighter Game 2. At that point, everyone seemed to believe that the 2-0 lead for the Pistons was too much for the Cavaliers to overcome. The Pistons probably believed it, too. Instead, the Cavaliers came out with more focus and purpose in Game 3 and wound up stealing 3 straight from the Pistons to take a 3-2 series lead going back to Cleveland.
Sure, the Pistons ended up righting their sinking ship and won games 6 and 7 to advance to the Conference Finals, but there’s a lesson to be learned from that series, and that’s what makes the events of the 4th quarter in Game 2 such an unfortunate occurrence for the Cavaliers.
There’s no question that the talent gap in 2006 was probably smaller than it is this year. In 2006 the Pistons won 64 games, similar to Cleveland this year, but the Cavs won 50 games that year, compared to just 39 wins for the Pistons this year. For the Cavaliers to lose this series, it would take a larger upset and a larger lapse of focus this year than in 2006. But just because it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
This Pistons team is a team full of Champions. It’s a team with plenty of talent, heart, focus, and determination to do some damage yet. They may have been sleep walking through the first 7 quarters of this series, but in that 4th quarter Tuesday night the Detroit Pistons saw a glimpse of how to compete with the Cavaliers, and now they are heading home and their confidence will be higher than its ever been in this series. Make no mistake about it, this Game 3 is an important one for the Cavaliers.
I have always felt that Game 3’s were the most pivotal game in any series. More so than even Game 1, no game in a series can change the complexion of it than Game 3. In a 1-1 series, Game 3 can establish control for one team or the other. In a 2-0 series, though, Game 3 can decide whether its going to be a short, easy series for the leading team, or if it the series is suddenly going to become a dog fight. Even last season when the Boston Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks by 23 points in Game 1 and 19 points in Game 2, it was Game 3 that made it a series again. The Hawks won that game, built on their confidence, and before the Celtics knew what hit them, they were in a 7 game dogfight. Had Boston won Game 3, the series would have almost certainly been dramatically different.
We’ll learn a lot about the psyche and focus of the Cavaliers tonight in Detroit. What kind of series do the Cavaliers want this to be? The Cavaliers are 5 point favorites and you have to believe that if they play their game and don’t let the Pistons distract them from it that there’s no reason they shouldn’t win this game. But the playoffs are always about a lot more than what should or should not happen. That’s where the phrase “paper champions” comes from. The mental side of basketball is always present, but perhaps never is it more seriously tested than when a team goes on the road for a Game 3 when they are up 2-0 in the series. With a tough opponent in either Miami or Atlanta waiting in the wings in Round 2, the last thing the Cavaliers need to do is get caught up in a 6 or 7 game slugfest with a bitter divisional rival. It’s time for the Cavaliers to validate their NBA-best record and their status as an elite Championship contender. It’s time for them to step up and put away the Pistons now before this series gets out of control.