When LeBron James shot two air balls on a single possession in the first quarter, it was a sign of things to come. Richard Hamilton scored 21 points, and the Detroit Pistons held...

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When LeBron James shot two air balls on a single possession in the first quarter, it was a sign of things to come.


Richard Hamilton scored 21 points, and the Detroit Pistons held Cleveland to a six-point third quarter and almost held James scoreless in the second half in an 81-69 win last night.


James finished with a season-low 11 points on 4-of-21 shooting, eight rebounds and seven assists.


“I missed a lot of shots that I’m normally going to make, but they were playing really tough defense against me,” said James, who scored a career-low four points last year as a rookie. “Every time I came off a screen, they doubled me.”


After making a fadeaway jumper over Ben Wallace at the end of the first half, James didn’t score again until there was 2:12 left in the game.


James scored a career-high 43 points the last time he faced the Pistons, a 92-76 win on Nov. 28 in Cleveland.


What was the key to slowing down the 19-year-old phenom this time?


“He got whatever he wanted in the last game,” Rasheed Wallace said. “Not this time.”


Chauncey Billups scored 16, Rasheed Wallace had 13 and Ben Wallace added 10 points and 15 rebounds for the Pistons.


Cleveland’s Drew Gooden scored 18 points, Jeff McInnis had 14 and Zydrunas Ilgauskas finished with 12 after an eight-point first quarter.


The Central Division-leading Cavaliers are 9-1 at home, but just 5-8 on the road.


The Pistons erased a 10-point halftime deficit during the third quarter, with Lindsey Hunter’s two free throws with 4:09 left giving them the lead for the first time since the opening minutes of the game.


Detroit outscored the Cavaliers 21-6 in the third to take a five-point lead and it led by double digits for much of the final quarter. The six-point quarter matched a season low in the NBA this season.


“We lost our poise,” Cleveland coach Paul Silas said. “We had everything going for us, but we didn’t do a good job with it. Even when they made their run and we were only five or six points behind, we were worried about the officials and things going wrong.”


As usual, the Pistons dug a hole early, but for the second consecutive game, they came back for a win.


They started the second quarter with a deficit — 23-19 — for the 16th time in 22 games and were behind 41-31 at halftime.


“We continue to make it tough on ourselves in the first half by playing so relaxed,” Ben Wallace said. “In the second half, we have to play perfect.”