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Monday, March 06, 2006

LeBron James and the Cavaliers Deliver a Perfect Birthday Present for Coach Brown

Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown received the best possible present for his birthday: a 91-72 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron James led the way for the Cavs with 37 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Anderson Varejao contributed a season-high 13 rebounds off the bench and starting power forward Drew Gooden had a double double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Ben Gordon had a team-high 17 points for the Bulls, but shot only 8-22 from the field.

The game was very much a tale of two halves. In the first half Cleveland looked sluggish, allowing the Bulls to shoot 55.9% from the field en route to a 42-40 halftime lead. James was only 3-9 from the field in the first stanza for 10 points, although he did have a team-high four assists. In the second half the Cavs outscored the Bulls 51-30, holding Chicago to 12-35 shooting from the field. James scored 27 points on 12-19 shooting, including 16 points in the fourth quarter when the Cavs blew the game open. James has received criticism for not finishing games strongly but that was definitely not a problem on Sunday.

The Cavs beat the Bulls in far more dramatic fashion on Thursday, with Flip Murray hitting the game winning three pointer in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. The Cavs squandered a 25 point lead in that game. Coach Brown mentioned in his pre-game standup on Sunday that he had looked at the film of that game with his team and pointed out some breakdowns, so I asked him what specifically went wrong when the Cavs lost the lead. He replied, "Our transition defense was a little suspect during that time. They hit a couple 3s in transition. Also, our pick and roll defense--Kirk Hinrich got hot and knocked down shots. More importantly, they were getting stops. They weren't getting stops early in the ball game. They were getting stops during that period and that fueled the crowd and fueled them. The momentum really helped them on that end of the floor offensively." I followed up by asking if the Bulls were getting more stops because of something that they were doing or if Cleveland's offensive execution was to blame. Brown answered, "Our offensive execution hasn't been great all year. I'll take the blame for that. But it's something that we need to continue to work on."

An additional problem for the Cavs in Thursday's game was that Flip Murray had just joined the team and did not yet know all of the offensive sets. Although Murray hit the game winner on Thursday and only had three points on Sunday, after Sunday's game Brown credited Murray's increasing comfort with the offense as a factor in the Cavs being more efficient as a unit at that end of the court.

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Notes From Courtside:

ESPN commentator Tim Legler appeared on Outside the Lines on Sunday morning to discuss the topic of the vanishing White American player in the NBA. I spoke with Legler about this subject before the Cavs-Bulls game and he made some additional points that he did not get a chance to mention during the OTL broadcast. Legler said that it is difficult for White players to break out of the preconceived roles that are assigned to them--usually being a spot-up shooter. During his college career and when he led the CBA in scoring, Legler posted up, drove to the basket and employed a variety of shots but when he played in the NBA he did not get a chance to showcase those elements of his game. Legler also mentioned a double standard that exists at the defensive end of the court--if a White player stops a superstar scorer on several possessions but gets burned once, all that is remembered is the time that he got beat. Legler said that if a White player had been burned the way Allen Iverson crossed up Washington's Antonio Daniels the other day that he would never live it down. Legler concluded that White American players are told from a young age that they cannot compete with Black athletes but that White players from Europe and South America do not buy into such thinking; Legler said that this is a big change, because when he played in France in the early 1990s most European players at that time would have never dreamed that they would be good enough to play in the NBA. The success of Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and others has changed that.

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Before the game, I asked Chicago Bulls' radio analyst Bill Wennington, who played on three Bulls' championship teams, for his take on the recent Rasheed Wallace flagrant foul against Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the aftermath (or lack thereof). Wennington said that he had not seen the play in question, but that there are a variety of ways to respond to that kind of situation. He said that when he played he would never do something that would result in getting thrown out of a game but that there are ways to deliver an elbow or a hard foul to clearly send the message to the opponent that he is not going to get away with cheap shots. I asked Wennington how the championship Bulls would have responded to a similar situation and he replied, "A good team will stand up for all the players and help each other out. Obviously, the rules have changed now as far as retaliation and coming onto the floor or being the third guy involved in an argument or a fight or a skirmish on the floor, but players should back each other up. Not just that, but if a guard gets two or three layups in a row, someone has to step up and knock him down. That's what really happens with teams when they are ready to take that next step." I asked Wennington if the Cavs display that kind of intensity and he said, "They do it at times. LeBron is a great leader and a great scorer but I think that overall everyone is going to have to step up. I know from watching Michael--and watching Scottie that one year--he can't do it by himself. The rest of the team has to do their job. Your leader can lead and be the guy and do all the right things all the time but he is going to need help."

Wennington's quote about "that one year" of course refers to the surprising 1993-94 Chicago Bulls team that won 55 games without Michael Jordan. Wennington said that he means no disrespect to Jordan but that he has said on more than one occasion that Scottie Pippen was his favorite teammate of all-time, calling him a "stand-up" guy who was a great player and a great leader.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:07 AM

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