Pistons stand in LeBron’s sights

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) – LeBron James has drawn many Michael Jordan comparisons, from their breathtaking talent to their No. 23 jerseys.

Another James-Jordan link will be added Sunday when the Cleveland Cavaliers face the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the NBA playoffs: Before Jordan became a champion, he was fodder for the Pistons in three straight postseasons.

Detroit eliminated Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals and in the conference finals the next two seasons.

Jordan finally got past the Pistons in his seventh NBA season, in 1991 – and one of the game’s greats went on to win his first of six titles as a 28-year-old guard.

After ending Jordan’s seasons, the Bad Boys won two titles in three trips to the NBA Finals.

The current Pistons are hoping to send the 21-year-old James, in his third season, home en route to their second championship in three consecutive appearances in the finals.

James said he doesn’t look at the Cavaliers’ matchup against the Pistons in terms of him taking the same path as Jordan.

“But Detroit will be a team that, in order to get to the promised land, we’ll have to beat because they’re going to be around a long time, especially for the first part of my career,” James said Saturday.

Joe Dumars has encountered both stars, first as leader of Detroit’s “Jordan Rules” defense as a shooting guard, now as the Pistons’ president of basketball operations.

“There are similarities the way things are set up now – but only for me,” Dumars said. “These guys don’t understand that parallel.”

Simply put, the Pistons don’t care because they have said since October they’re on a mission to win it all after coming one quarter short of repeating last year in Game 7 of the finals at San Antonio.

Detroit hosts Game 1 Sunday after a three-day break following a quick first-round series with Milwaukee. Cleveland had only Saturday off between winning at Washington in overtime of Game 6 and playing at The Palace.

“We have one day to prepare for them, and to go up there and try to get a win,” James said. “We feel good about our chances.”

The Pistons won three of four regular-season meetings with the Cavs. Things often got testy, especially in last month’s meeting when Cleveland center Anderson Varejao was ejected for taking down Rasheed Wallace.

That might motivate Wallace, a scary thought for the Cavs because the 6-foot-11 forward is virtually unstoppable when he wants to score from the 3-point line or down low.

James made two game-winning shots against the Wizards and averaged an NBA-high 35.7 points in the first round, helping the Cavs advance in the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

“What he’s doing right now is unparalleled for anybody at this stage of his career,” Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups said. “But right now, he’s going to play in a different series because we play defense. No disrespect to the Wizards, but there wasn’t defense played in that series.”

Cavs coach Mike Brown agreed: “The Pistons are going to be a different animal.”

James will be guarded primarily by Tayshaun Prince, who has a reputation for strong defense against basketball’s best perimeter players during the playoffs.

Prince came off the bench as a rookie in 2003 to shut down Tracy McGrady in the first round and slowed Allen Iverson in the second. Prince bottled up Kobe Bryant at times in the 2004 NBA Finals. Last year, the 6-foot-9 Prince made Dwyane Wade’s life miserable at times as the Pistons beat Miami in the conference finals.

“He’s seen it all, guarding all the top players – T-Mac, Kobe, everybody,” Billups said. “And now he’s getting another one in LeBron. It’s a tough challenge, but he won’t be by himself.”

Prince and Richard Hamilton will play James aggressively on the perimeter. If he gets past them, one of the Wallaces (Ben or Rasheed) or reserve Antonio McDyess will be ready to at least alter his shot.

Bill Laimbeer, the most notorious member of the Bad Boys, said the LeBron-Jordan-Pistons story line is clear.

“It’s a young, great player going against a veteran, formidable team in the playoffs,” said Laimbeer, a Pistons analyst and coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. “Over the course of time, LeBron will also have to figure out how to get past the Pistons. He’s not there yet – not this year.”

AP-ES-05-06-06 1757EDT

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