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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cavs Down Plummeting Pacers, Clinch Playoff Berth

LeBron James led the Cavaliers in scoring (26 points), rebounding (seven) and assists (six) as Cleveland defeated Indiana 105-94 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday night. The victory clinched a playoff spot for the Cavaliers, marking the first time that the team has made postseason appearances in consecutive seasons since 1995-96. Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 23 points and three Cavaliers tied James with seven rebounds (Drew Gooden, Eric Snow and Anderson Varejao) as Cleveland outrebounded Indiana 43-33. Jermaine O'Neal led the Pacers with 32 points on 11-18 field goal shooting and 10-10 free throw accuracy but he had just five rebounds and one blocked shot. O'Neal was clearly hobbled by his troublesome left knee and he lacked his usual explosiveness around the rim. Still, even a limited O'Neal represented enough of a scoring threat that Cleveland chose to double team him in the second half. Of course, that decision also had something to do with the fact that O'Neal did not receive a lot of help from his teammates. Danny Granger (22 points, 10-17 field goal shooting) and Troy Murphy (16 points 6-12 field goal shooting) were solid but even including their contributions the Pacers other than O'Neal shot just 25-58 (.431) from the field.

The Pacers got off to a good start and led 14-8 at the 6:01 mark of the first quarter after O'Neal hit a jump shot--but barely three minutes later the Cavaliers were up 20-16 and never trailed again. The Cavaliers pushed their advantage to 14 points before settling for a 52-45 halftime lead. Cleveland again built a double digit lead in the third quarter but James picked up his fourth foul at the 5:08 mark and sat out the remainder of the period. O'Neal hit the resulting two free throws to cut the margin to 69-60 and by the time the fourth quarter began Cleveland was clinging to a 75-72 lead. James played the entire fourth quarter but shot just 2-6 from the field, while O'Neal went 3-3 and Murphy shot 4-7. O'Neal's jump hook with 8:13 left made the score 81-80 Cleveland but the Cavaliers slowly pulled away after that, sealing the deal by shooting 12-13 from the free throw line down the stretch.

The Pacers recently ended an 11 game losing streak but overall they have dropped 15 of their last 17 and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97. Their next two games--road contests against New Jersey on Wednesday and Orlando on Friday--are vitally important because the Pacers will be playing the teams that are right in front of them in the standings.

In his postgame standup, Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said, "We couldn't get a pivotal basket or stop or combination of the two... He (Jermaine O'Neal) has been a horse and a warrior. He's played through a lot and he had a mammoth game tonight...We're just one game out in the loss column. We have to keep our heads up and keep battling."

To a man, the Cavaliers took a very matter of fact approach in response to clinching a playoff spot. Their words and demeanor made it very clear that just qualifying for the playoffs is not a big deal; their goal is advance deep in the postseason and contend for a championship. Coach Mike Brown said simply, "We are a playoff team. We expect to be in the playoffs, but we are going to take things one day at a time, one game at a time, one shootaround at a time. We still have time to improve before the playoffs."

On Tuesday morning, James called a players only meeting. In his postgame remarks, he explained why he did that: "I just wanted to make sure everybody was mentally ready and on the same page as we prepared for this long road trip. I just want us to play great basketball. I want to win every opportunity we have. I can't live with us not playing hard. This is my team. I feel that I have the responsibility to make sure everyone knows where they are on the court...I applaud my teammates. There are going to be times when I might yell at them, but I want them to get better. I have no personal agenda. I just want to win basketball games."

Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game I spoke with a couple members of the Cleveland and Indiana organizations respectively. Granting them anonymity, I asked them to share their thoughts on this year's MVP race. Here are the key points that interview subject number one made:

* The MVP selection process is so "subjective" that he "does not give a crap" about it or really dwell on who will win. That being said, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are all worthy of winning the award this year because each of their teams would be much worse without their main guy. Tim Duncan also deserves to be mentioned in this group.

* The Suns play a style of defense that matches their personnel. They do not have a great paint presence as a team, so they want to not foul, give up twos as opposed to threes, keep the clock moving and run teams out of the gym. I then asked if this style can be effective in the postseason, especially considering that the Suns are just 2-6 against Dallas, San Antonio and Utah. Whether or not this style can win a title, the Suns have no choice but to play this way based on how their roster is put together; they don't have the personnel to be a grind it out, lock down defensive team. On the other hand, the Spurs are equally able to run or slow the game down. The Spurs rank near the bottom of the league in forcing turnovers and in offensive rebounding because their philosophy is to get back on defense and force the other team to shoot contested shots in a half court set; that is why the Spurs are number three in defensive field goal percentage and number one in scoring differential.

Interview subject number two answered immediately that Dirk Nowitzki should be this year's MVP "without question." He cited not only Dallas' record but Nowitzki's high level of play and how much it has contributed to that success. The remainder of his ballot would include, in no particular order, Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Arenas caught my attention because I certainly would not place him that highly; I mentioned his poor shot selection and shooting percentage. My interview subject agreed that those things are true but said that despite those things Arenas still often "comes out smelling like a rose" and leading his team to victory. As for Garnett, he said that even though "Minnesota is getting their head beat in" that you have to give props to KG because he is very productive.

I also spoke with a writer who has been an MVP voter in recent years; the NBA rotates voting duties among various local beat writers--many teams are covered by several beat writers from various outlets, so one year writer "A" may vote for MVP and writer "B" may vote for Coach of the Year and the next year the NBA may swap their assignments. I knew that the voting panels comprised local beat writers and national writers but never had heard that each panel can change this way from year to year. Anyway, this writer told me that if he is an MVP voter this year he would vote for Nowitzki. He added that Nash and Bryant also deserve consideration, but that he would not place either one ahead of Nowitzki. Duncan and James would round out his ballot but he is not sure in which order.

I've made my views on this subject pretty clear but it was interesting to me to hear the perspective of two league insiders and one beat writer who may actually cast a vote this year--and, no, before anyone asks, I did not lobby for Bryant, either with the potential voter or with my first two subjects. I simply asked their opinions.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 AM



At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 9:45:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Why are you granting them anonymity? This is a blog. Do they read the blog? Are they worried about who they think the MVP is? Call them out.

At Wednesday, March 28, 2007 4:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I granted them anonymity before I asked the question because I wanted an honest answer, not an answer that might be shaded by their loyalty to their own team or being "politically correct." This wasn't meant to be a definitive scientific survey or a 60 Minutes-style expose; I just wanted to get some input from some other people who watch a lot of basketball to see what they think. As longtime readers know, I don't use a lot of anonymous quotes but it seemed like the best idea here. This way, the focus is on what they said instead of who said it, their facial hair or anything else other than basketball.


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