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Saturday, January 20, 2007

LeBron's First Triple Double of the Season is not Enough as the Cavs Fall to Denver

Marcus Camby led Denver with 26 points and 17 rebounds as the Nuggets built a 25 point second half lead, held off a late rally and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 110-99. Allen Iverson had 25 points and nine assists. LeBron James had his first triple double of the season--and the 10th of his career--but his 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds were not enough to prevent the Cavs from losing their third straight game on their Western Conference road trip. Cleveland is just 8-13 on the road and slipped into a tie with Washington for the best record in the Eastern Conference (23-16). Denver is treading water at 19-17, hoping to make a move up in the standings when league scoring leader Carmelo Anthony returns from his 15 game suspension.

Although the Cavs have the best record in the East and are one game ahead of their pace from last season, they are experiencing two of the NBA's unpleasant realities: (1) after last year's playoff run they have a target on their backs and can no longer sneak up on anyone; (2) they are expected to do well and their performances--as a team and as individual players--will be closely scrutinized. Granted, the Cavs did not look good for most of the Denver game, nor did they play well in their previous two losses but if you listened to ESPN's Bill Walton and Jon Barry you'd think that the Cavs are having as bad a season as, say, the L.A. Clippers (anybody still think that they are the best team in L.A.?). Here are some of Walton and Barry's bon mots from throughout the Denver game:

* The Cavs are "lackluster." (Barry)
* "Where's the spunk, where's the leadership?" (Walton)
* The Cavs "look absolutely demoralized." (Walton)
* The Cavs play "like there is no direction out there." (Barry)
* This Cleveland team "is in shambles." (Barry)

Guys, this is one game. Even the 1996 Bulls team that went 72-10 got blown out once or twice in the course of the season. Mike Tirico tried to be a voice of reason, asking, "Don't (teams) go through stretches like this during a season?" Walton replied that it is LeBron James' responsibility to prevent that from happening. That sounds great, but James ended up with a triple double and his team still lost; one man cannot do everything on a basketball court--otherwise, Jordan would have won about 12 titles and Kobe's Lakers would not have missed the playoffs two years ago. I do think that the Cavs need to focus better, particularly on the road and particularly against lesser teams, but I don't agree with the many commentators who seem to think that the sky is falling on top of the Cavs.

If the Cavs were truly "lackluster" and devoid of "leadership" then they would not have trimmed Denver's 80-55 lead to 103-98 with 3:15 left in the fourth quarter. Cleveland battled back on the road to turn a rout into a very winnable game. Moments before that, James' right ankle was twisted grotesquely when he dove for a loose ball and his leg got pinned underneath J.R. Smith's leg, but James missed only eight seconds on the game clock before he returned to action. "Lackluster" teams surrender to pressure but playoff caliber teams keep fighting--even on nights when their shots are not falling. Two years ago, Cleveland would have probably lost this game by 20 or 30.

That does not mean that all is well in Cleveland, though. Coach Mike Brown is trying to mold his team into a defensive-minded squad, so he cannot be happy that the Cavs trailed 64-45 at halftime. Denver shot .506 from the field for the game while the Cavs shot just .422; Brown no doubt would like to see those numbers reversed.

Early last season, Cavs Assistant Coach Hank Egan told me that it takes one entire season plus part of the next season to completely install a defensive philosophy and to get a team to be able to execute it. The Cavs' first round win over Washington and second round scare of Detroit in the 2006 playoffs may have made it seem that they had progressed a little further than they really had in terms of being able to implement the coaching staff's philosophies consistently under pressure; the blowout loss on the road to Detroit in game seven is proof of that and the same thing is true of last year's young Lakers team. If the Cavs and the Lakers are able to avoid key injuries down the stretch, expect to see things "click" for both teams in the second half of this season and in the playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM



At Saturday, January 20, 2007 11:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron is not a great fit in the grind-it-out Mike Brown offense. And LBJ's defense in still lacklustre.
Rather, I should've said Mike Brown's offense is not a good fit for LeBron!

At Sunday, January 21, 2007 4:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

LeBron is talented enough and intelligent enough to do well in any system and his field goal percentage, scoring average and assist rate testify to that. The Cavs do not have the right personnel to be an uptempo team offensively and, more or less, that is by design: the GM, Danny Ferry, and the Coach, Mike Brown, are disciples of Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and are trying to turn the Cavs into San Antonio East. That means holding the other team to a low shooting percentage, not committing a lot of turnovers and executing the offense crisply to produce high percentage shots. Obviously, LeBron and Duncan have different skill sets, so the analogy does not fit completely, but the Cavs are modeling themselves after the Spurs, not the Suns.

LeBron's defense is not great but it has improved from when he came into the league. The coaching staff says that he is an intelligent player who only has to be told something once and that he has great court vision (which helps not only with his passing but also lets him anticipate what the other team will do on offense).

Coach Brown has repeatedly said--and I agree with him--that the Cavs' problems this year have been on defense, not on offense.


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