Cavaliers 104, Pistons 79
The Central Division championship banner was hung in an empty arena Sunday morning with no announcement and no celebration.
The NBA's top team continues to quietly cruise toward the playoffs and could get even more good news with the return of fan favorite Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The first day he is eligible to re-sign with Cleveland is Monday.
``He's a good friend of mine and a great teammate,'' LeBron James said. ``If that's the case of him coming back ... I'm excited.''
James had 15 points and seven assists and sat out the fourth quarter. Instead, Cleveland's role players were plenty powerful to handle the Pistons.
J.J. Hickson and Anthony Parker combined for 20 points in the decisive third quarter, Leon Powe doubled his previous season high with 16 points and the Cavaliers handled the Pistons in the second half. Hickson finished with 13 points and eight rebounds while Parker had 11 points, including nine in the third quarter.
Cleveland swept the season series from Detroit for the first time in 30 years. Counting last season's first-round sweep in the playoffs, the Cavaliers have won 11 straight in a series Detroit once dominated.
``We turned the corner when we beat them in the Eastern Conference finals (in 2007),'' James said. ``To sweep any team that used to dominate us in the past is not only a tribute to us getting better, but ownership, front office and the coaching staff all trying to get better.''
Jason Maxiell had 16 points for Detroit and Charlie Villanueva had 11 off the bench, but the Pistons were buried early and couldn't recover.
Cleveland outrebounded Detroit in the first half 23-11. The Cavaliers had 11 offensive rebounds in the half, equaling Detroit's total.
``They were the aggressors tonight,'' Detroit coach John Kuester said. ``The aggressive team is the team that's going to win basketball games.''
Cleveland held a double-digit lead most of the game, although the Pistons cut it to 55-47 on a basket by Jonas Jerebko with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Hickson and Parker took charge, combining to score 16 of Cleveland's next 19 points while Detroit went more than five minutes without a field goal.
By the time Anderson Varejao scored on a behind-the-back pass from Mo Williams with 1:23 left in the third, Cleveland had increased its lead to 76-57. The Cavaliers, who led by as much as 27, haven't lost to a team with a losing record since Nov. 18.
``It's a challenge. Sometimes you don't want to come in here, you see you're playing a team lesser than you and you have to pick up your energy,'' Powe said. ``You have to fight through these games mentally. These types of games prepare you later on for the playoffs.''
Powe knows about complacency late in a championship season. He was on Boston two years ago that had to push through the final meaningless few weeks of the regular season before winning an NBA championship. He can only hope the same will hold true with the Cavaliers (56-15).
``We had to fight through the same things,'' he said. ``Remember the process. It's one game at a time. Don't take no days off and no plays off.''
Just as Powe is finding his rhythm in Cleveland, his minutes might be getting trimmed again with Ilgauskas' return.
Ilgauskas was dealt to Washington at the trade deadline as part of a three-team deal that brought Antawn Jamison and Sebastian Telfair to Cleveland. Ilgauskas' contract was subsequently bought out and his 30-day moratorium for re-signing with Cleveland ends on Monday.
His agent, Herb Rudoy, said he will begin negotiations with Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry immediately. Ilgauskas is in Cleveland and could rejoin the team as early as Wednesday in New Orleans. His first home game would be Sunday against Sacramento.
Cleveland's rotation is already crowded, but without a true center, Ilgauskas should fit in right where he departed as the franchise leader in games played. Shortly after Ilgauskas was traded, Shaquille O'Neal's regular season ended with a severe thumb injury that required surgery.
That has left Cleveland without a true center while Hickson, Varejao and Powe fill the void.
``Z is a veteran,'' James said. ``His play will automatically guarantee him minutes because of how good he is, how tall he is and his shooting ability. Z doesn't have to worry about coming in and not having a role on this team.''
Notes: James was honored before the game for becoming the youngest player to reach 15,000 points in his career (25 years, 79 days). He surpassed Kobe Bryant (27 years, 136 days) on Friday. ... Darnell Jackson was recalled from the NBA Development League after spending one day with the Erie BayHawks. ... Detroit's Ben Wallace visited Cleveland's locker room after the game. The former Cav missed the game after injuring both knees in a loss Friday to the Pacers. ... Rodney Stuckey returned to Cleveland after collapsing on the court there during a timeout on March 5. Sunday was his second game back. Stuckey had four points and four assists.