Don't get me wrong. I want to see LeBron and the Cavs reach the Finals. It makes for better TV and a more interesting story. But if you're the Pistons, you obviously don't want to see that happen. So, after a night where LeBron was totally unstoppable, especially late in the game, what can you do? Well, obviously you can hope it doesn't happen again, or you can take some proactive steps to make sure it doesn't happen again.
And here's how the Pistons can do it.
Everyone remembers the good old days of Hack-a-Shaq late in close games. There's even been Hack-a-Ben-Wallace. And that's exactly what the Pistons need to do: Hack-a-LeBron. Albeit under slightly different circumstances. I don't advise bear hugging him after the Cavs get a rebound (and that also wouldn't work considering the NBA's 2 minutes and under off-ball foul rule), but if he begins making any drive to the basket with the ball, foul him immediately and hard (but not like Antonio McDyess did to Varejao) to prevent a continuation and send him to the line.
Now before you go nuts and say, "That's ridiculous! Shaq's one of the worst free throw shooters in NBA history! And Wallace IS the worst! There's no way a modified version of this would work on LeBron!" let's think rationally about this.
LeBron looks like a reasonably good free throw shooter on paper. After all, in the first round of the playoffs he shot 81% from the stripe. In the second round and the conference finals he's shooting right at 75% - which is about what his career average is. Looks ok, right?
Well, maybe. If you dig deeper into the stats - and I want to thank 82games.com here - LeBron has consistently had trouble shooting clutch free throws. Clutch free throws are defined by 82games.com as "under two minutes left in a game, neither team is ahead by more than 3 points." LeBron's accuracy plummets in these situations to 66%. If I'm the Pistons, I like my odds in sending a 66% free throw shooter to the line rather than letting him get a dunk.
And there have been a lot of "clutch time" moments in this series. The average margin of victory in these 5 games so far has been 3.6 points. And in 3 of those games, the margin of victory was by 3 points or less.
And there's definitely a precedent for LeBron missing clutch free throws in this series. In Game 5, LeBron missed two HUGE free throws with 1:52 remaining in regulation with the Cavs down by 1. In fact, he's fortunate he was able to push the game into OT. Otherwise, you wouldn't be hearing about how great LeBron is but what a choke he is at the stripe.
And let's say you don't buy the 2 minutes and under argument. Ok, then. Since we all know this has been an extremely tight series, let's see how LeBron has done at the free throw line in the last 3 minutes of games in the series. For Game 5, including regulation and both OTs, LeBron was 3 of 7 from the free throw line with 3 minutes or less remaining. For the entire series, LeBron is 6 for 11 from the free throw line with 3 minutes or less remaining. Not so good. If I'm the Pistons, fouling him late in games becomes more and more attractive.
There's also another reason for the Hack-a-LeBron strategy as well. Both Shaq and Wallace were never the primary ball handlers for their teams. So even if a coach decided he wanted to take them out and put in a better free throw shooter, it wouldn't necessarily drastically hurt the offensive flow of the team. Both Shaq and Wallace also had guys like Kobe and Billups and Rip Hamilton who could lead the offense and hit big shots with them on the bench. But LeBron is Cleveland's main ball handler and shooter in clutch moments. If he gets rattled by being constantly fouled and missing big free throws, not only do you hurt the Cavs offense by having LeBron actively looking to get rid of the ball, but you take away the Cavs biggest scoring weapon. If Eric Snow or Donyell Marshall hits the game winner, so be it. But I'd rather have Snow and Marshall taking the potential game winning shot than LeBron.
Besides, it's not like anything else worked in Game 5. The Pistons might as well give this strategy a try.
Bonus coverage: Game 6 preview [Full Court NBA]
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