By BRIAN WINDHORST
Akron Beacon Journal
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - There was no Miracle of Auburn Hills.
Just a debacle.
The Detroit Pistons punched the Cavaliers' offseason ticket Sunday with a 79-61 Game 7 win, an outcome that was foreseeable but not one that should be forgettable.
In a three-day span, wildly emotional as it was, the Cavaliers were taught two hard postseason lessons: close out a series when you get the chance, and when the pressure is at a climax, flaws always are exposed completely.
Sunday was a pretty good undressing as the Pistons denied the Cavaliers their hope of trying to keep the game close to let LeBron James win it in the end. The Pistons played excellent defense - as they always do in such situations.
The Cavaliers' defense matured wonderfully as the seven-month season aged, to the point they virtually shut down the mighty Pistons' offense for the last 5 1/2 games in the series.
The offense, on the other hand, degenerated toward fetal status by dinner time Sunday evening.
When the end comes in the NBA playoffs, it can be ugly.
But what happened to the Cavaliers reached the undesirable historic stage.
Cut off by the Pistons' refusal to let James play superhero, the Cavaliers were left to pick-and-roll themselves into offensive oblivion.
Detroit threw two defenders at James whenever he got the ball. The Pistons went under picks to keep him from thinking of driving. And they used his unselfishness against him. He had 27 points, which is solid, but just six in the second half - two quarters that will live in infamy.
Getting negligible help from his teammates save for a rusty, sick and drained Larry Hughes, and almost nothing in the form of offensive ingenuity from the bench, James became the star of a tragedy play.
The Cavaliers tied an NBA playoff futility record by scoring just 23 points in the second half on 5-of-19 shooting. The 61 points easily rewrites the NBA record for fewest in a Game 7; the New Jersey Nets managed 69 in 2004 against the Pistons.
"They doubled me as soon as I got the ball," James said. "I had to give the ball up and rely on my teammates."
On this day, his teammates were 9-of-41 shooting for 34 points. Take out Hughes, who had 10 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals despite fighting a virus, and the numbers were grisly.
That's how a game goes from being a bad-looking-but-competitive 46-45 with six minutes to play in the third quarter into a blowout. During the following 12-minute stretch, the Cavaliers went 1-of-13 from the floor and didn't take a shot inside, where they made just three baskets in the second half.
"They turned it up a notch and we have to give them credit," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "They had great team defense on LeBron."
On this day, it was team defense on James and not much from everyone else. It has been a growing issue for months, one the Pistons just exposed totally during their 4-3 series win. Surely the Cavaliers enjoyed a breakout season with 50 regular-season wins and their first playoff series win since 1993. They pushed the top-seeded Pistons to the limit.
Through it all, James' scoring average increased from last season and his assist average went down. The four free agents signed in the off-season - Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Zydrunas Ilgauskas - all saw their scoring averages dip from last season's marks with their various teams. Sunday, James had two assists, none after the first quarter, and that quartet was 5-of-24 shooting.
Despite all that, the Cavaliers were still in the game because of their defense. This game taught them, however, that good defense isn't enough. The Cavaliers averaged just 80 points a game in the series.
"What we'll learn best was to get LeBron going in these situations," Hughes said. "The other guys on the court have to make them play honest. We have to figure what makes the team run smoothly."
The Pistons worked their way through the Cavaliers' defensive challenge by getting the ball in the post to Tayshaun Prince, who had 20 points, and to Rasheed Wallace, who had 13. The Cavaliers didn't attempt many postups in the second half and didn't make a single shot off one after halftime.
Even considering they were underdogs, those failures will last into next season.
"You can take positives from anything, even if it doesn't look that good," James said. "We did a wonderful job in this series and the playoffs. We have no reason to hang our heads."