Cavaliers Outmuscle, Outhustle NetsCleveland controlled the boards again (49-32) and closed the fourth quarter with a 15-7 run to beat New Jersey 102-92 and take a 2-0 series lead. LeBron James was magnificent, finishing with 36 points and a playoff career-high 12 assists; his 25 second half points tied his own franchise record for most points in a half of a playoff game. James has scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 playoff games, the second best such run ever (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the mark, accomplishing this in his first 27 playoff games). Curiously, James had only one rebound, but his teammates more than picked up the slack in that area. Sasha Pavlovic set a playoff career-high in points for the second straight game (17), while Drew Gooden had 10 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. Vince Carter led the Nets with 26 points but shot just 10-26 from the field. He also had seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. Carter suffered a severe cramp in his left calf late in the fourth quarter but did not have to leave the game. Jason Kidd just missed a triple double (17 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) while shooting 6-9 from the field, including 4-6 on three pointers. Richard Jefferson contributed 22 points and eight rebounds, while Mikki Moore added 15 points on 6-8 shooting. One problem for the Nets is that outside of Moore and their terrific perimeter trio they received virtually no production; a second problem is that Kidd, Carter and Jefferson grabbed 24 of the team's 32 rebounds, while Moore and starting power forward Jason Collins managed to corral just four rebounds in nearly 70 combined minutes on the court.
Just like Game One, the first quarter was tightly contested. Jefferson, Kidd and Moore combined to shoot 9-10 from the field as the Nets led 28-24 at the end of the quarter; the Nets shot a sizzling 11-18 (.611) but the Cavaliers were almost as hot (10-18, .556). Both teams cooled off markedly in the second quarter, but the Cavs compensated for this by snaring 10 offensive rebounds, converting enough of those second chances to take a 48-45 halftime lead; amazingly, the Nets had just three offensive rebounds in the entire game.
The Nets gained a little ground in the third quarter as Carter scored 10 points on 4-7 shooting and Kidd nailed two three pointers. Cleveland held a precarious 74-73 lead going into the fourth quarter. New Jersey went on an 8-4 run to take an 81-78 lead on Jason Kidd's three pointer at the 8:38 mark of the fourth quarter but the Cavs answered that with a 7-0 run and never trailed again. A key moment in the game happened during a timeout with 5:39 left in the game. Cleveland led 87-85. After the game, Coach Mike Brown explained what took place in the Cavs' huddle during that stoppage of play: "He (LeBron James) turned to me and said he wanted the ball. I said, 'What if they play zone?' He said he didn't care. He said he wanted the ball because he's going to win it for us. I went in the huddle. I called one play. That one play was going to LeBron every single time whether it was versus man or versus zone. He made the plays, the necessary plays to get us over the hump. He was a man tonight." James powered to the hoop for a layup on the possession right after the timeout and the next time down the court he passed to Gooden for a dunk, putting Cleveland up 91-85; the Nets never got closer than four points again. James had 12 points and three assists in the fourth quarter.
While Coach Brown always makes a brief statement before he answers postgame questions, Nets Coach Lawrence Frank strides to the podium and simply says, "Questions?" In response to said questions, Frank praised Pavlovic--"I think Sasha has been one of the better players in this series"--and zeroed in on the Nets' biggest, most obvious problem: "We cannot give away all these extra possessions. You have to give Cleveland credit because of their effort and their wherewithal. They are just kicking our tails on the boards. You have to give them credit and if we are going to put ourselves in a position to get back in this series we're going to have to look within and find a better way."
In his postgame remarks, James singled out the Cavs' defensive mindset as the reason for the team's success (Cleveland has won 10 straight games dating back to the end of the regular season): "We really believe in our defensive schemes and guys know that if one guy beats his man then he's got help. It makes the offense so much easier...Coach has put in a great scheme and we abide by it. We're allowed to do what we want to do on offense when we play defense. He gives us that freedom to do whatever we want to do on offense as long as we do what he wants us to do on defense." I cleaned up the last part of that statement, which James fumbled slightly--transposing "we want" and "what he wants"--before quipping, "You know what I mean...I didn't go to college," which elicited laughter from the assembled media.
When I interviewed Cavs Assistant Coach Hank Egan last year, I asked him how long it takes for a team to really internalize the kinds of defensive concepts that the coaching staff is teaching. He replied, "It depends upon how talented your team is and what their corporate memory is and how quickly they assimilate the information. We’re getting better but it takes a year or more -- especially at the defensive end. You’re deep into your second year before you’re getting to the point that it is second nature." The Cavs are in their second year under Mike Brown and--despite media and fan complaints about his coaching style--things seem to be progressing pretty much at the pace that Egan predicted to me when Brown and his staff had not even been on the job for half a season.
Notes From Courtside:
Prior to the game, NBA Commissioner David Stern gave a brief, informal press conference and spoke about a variety of topics. Here are some excerpts of his remarks and his responses to various questions:
"The game looks great. We love the openness of it. We think it's fun...I think that we are at a place where there really are more talented players on a global scale in the NBA than at any time previously. I'm not surprised that our arenas are sold out at playoff time and that we've had our fourth year of record attendance in the league...If you're not loving it at this time of year then you are not a fan."
Stern fielded several questions about whether or not the NBA should re-seed the playoffs after the first round. He does not agree with that idea, to say the least: "(Mike) Wilbon and (Tony) Kornheiser have nothing else to do except cause trouble. Ignore them." Stern had his tongue planted firmly in cheek here--I think (but if Wilbon ends up on the same island with Joey Crawford...). "Last year, it was 'You shouldn't have Dallas playing San Antonio' (before the Conference Finals). We changed that, not because people complained but because they made a good point...If you re-seed it means that you have to stop and wait for all the series to be over. The fans wouldn't like it, the teams wouldn't like it, but I'm positive that Kornheiser would like it."
Bill Livingston of the Plain Dealer asked Stern about the possibility of simply taking the eight best teams in the playoffs, as opposed to reserving three spots for division winners. Stern said, "This is a very quiet playoffs, obviously, for this topic (to be brought up)." He firmly stated his objection to this idea, stressing that the NBA schedule has long been formatted so that teams play their intra-division rivals more frequently than they play other teams and that teams should receive some kind of reward (i.e., a division title) for being successful in those games.
Stern said that the NBA plans to create "an enterprise called NBA China," which will incorporate all of the NBA's businesses in China, which includes TV deals, an internet site, commercial products and more. He added that after the Beijing Olympics in 2008 this venture may lead to a joint NBA-CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) league that would "begin to develop basketball even faster and further in China." This "NBA China" league would not be a part of the NBA but would be a self-contained league.
He added that he believes that his successor as Commissioner may add an NBA division in Europe once suitable arenas are built there.
Stern revisited the controversy about the new synthetic fiber basketball (which has, of course, been replaced by the original basketball due to numerous player complaints). He said that the introduction of the new ball was "well intentioned" but could have been handled better and that the next time such a change is considered that there will be more input from the players.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 AM