Not a Treat: Cleveland's Halloween Home Opener Delivers More Chills Than ThrillsThe Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the 2007 NBA Finals on the strength of LeBron James' brilliant play plus great team defense and rebounding. Neither of the first two elements were up to par in Cleveland's home opener, a 92-74 loss to Dallas. The evening at Quicken Loans Arena began with the unveiling of the 2007 Eastern Conference Championship banner but by halftime the fans were serenading the Cavaliers with boos and shortly after the 9:00 minute mark of the fourth quarter many of the fans began heading for the exits in disgust. James finished with 10 points, five rebounds, four assists and five turnovers while shooting 2-11 from the field and 6-10 from the free throw line in what may very well rank as the worst performance of his young career; he actually played even more poorly than those meager numbers suggest, because he collected virtually all of his points, rebounds and assists in the second half when the outcome of the game was never seriously in doubt. Jason Terry led the Mavericks with 24 points, nailing six of his eight three point shots, including four of six in the second half; every time the Cavs even came close to threatening to possibly make a run it seemed like Terry hit a dagger from long range. Jerry Stackhouse added 17 points, Dirk Nowitzki had 15 points on 6-15 shooting from the field, eight rebounds and six assists and Devin Harris also reached double figures (13 points on 5-9 shooting). Ex-Cav Desagana Diop, now in shape and mobile, had eight points and 11 rebounds, doing most of that damage in the first quarter as Dallas took command of the game right from the jump. The only Cavalier who played well was Zydrunas Ilgauskas; he led the team in both scoring (17 points) and rebounding (18 rebounds). Drew Gooden had a decent game (12 points on 5-12 shooting, 10 rebounds) and guards Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson (eight points each) nailed some jumpers but did little else. Larry Hughes had an odd stat line: seven points on 2-13 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, seven steals and no turnovers in 36 minutes; his floor game was reasonable but not good enough to make up for that atrocious shooting.
Diop and Terry had eight points each in the first quarter as Dallas raced to a 29-15 lead by the end of the first 12 minutes. James put up a nearly invisible stat line: 0-3 shooting, no rebounds, one assist. Cleveland shot just 7-22 (.318) and provided no defensive resistance, allowing the Mavericks to connect on 12 of 22 attempts (.545). While fans will likely focus on James' bad game and the Cavaliers' poor shooting as a team, Coach Mike Brown offered a different perspective in his postgame standup: "The thing that we have to remember is that we're a defensive team first and that did not show tonight. In the first half we didn't defend at all. We've got to get back to the basics defensively. We need to shrink the floor. We've got to be in the right defensive position in order to help our teammates so they don't get layup after layup or dunk after dunk. It's paramount that we have to defend and then the rest of the game will come eventually." He noted that Cleveland has won 50 games each of the past two years by relying on playing good defense night in and night out, the theory being that even when the Cavaliers shoot poorly they can still be competitive by getting stops.
James picked up his second and third fouls within a 15 second stretch in the second quarter. The Cavaliers trailed 43-25 at that point and Coach Brown elected to sit James for the rest of the half. ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy disagreed with that decision, saying that he does not believe in reflexively benching a player just because he gets two fouls in the first quarter or three fouls in the second quarter. In this particular instance, Van Gundy said that without James the game could get so out of hand by halftime that his foul situation could be rendered irrelevant. Granting that leaving James in would incur some risk, Van Gundy concluded that the risk/reward ratio favored not benching James, particularly because he is an intelligent player who would likely know how to play effectively while in foul trouble. Of course, on this night James' game seemed off regardless of how many fouls he had. The Cavaliers pulled to within 43-30 with James sitting but by halftime they trailed 54-34. In just under 14 minutes of play in the first half, James shot 0-4, scored no points, grabbed no rebounds, had one assist and turned the ball over twice. Anybody can have an off shooting night but it is difficult to recall an instance of a player of his caliber having that little of an impact on a game without an injury being a mitigating factor. The sellout crowd of 20,562 voiced its displeasure very loudly as the teams headed to the locker rooms. As Larry Durstin said to me while we looked at the halftime stats, the fans were saying "Boo" and it had nothing to do with Halloween.
When ESPN's Steve Levy anchors SportsCenter, he will often quip during NBA highlights as a team mounts a comeback, "It's the NBA--everybody makes a run." Well, the Cavaliers never did, unless you count getting within 15 points. For a good portion of the third quarter, Dallas led by more than 20. Back to back three pointers by Damon Jones cut the margin to 67-50 and near the end of the period James made two free throws to trim the lead to 72-57 but then Terry answered with a three pointer and Harris hit a long three pointer at the buzzer to put Dallas up 78-59 going into the fourth quarter. Dallas slowly pulled away in the final period and after Terry's three pointer made the score 84-61 at the 8:47 mark it was like someone gave out an evacuation signal: seemingly all at once a sizable portion of the crowd stood up and left. The brightly lit Eastern Conference Championship banner suddenly looked very lonely.
Short of an injury to James it is hard to imagine a more deflating or discouraging beginning to the season for Cleveland. Anyone can have a bad shooting night but it was strange to see a player as talented as James not impose his will on the game in some fashion; for long stretches you didn't even really notice that he was on the court. Imagine if Kobe Bryant had played like that on Tuesday. However, just because most of the media goes overboard in reacting to and overanalyzing every move that Bryant makes and every shot that he takes or doesn't take (see below for Van Gundy's take on this), it is not fair to dissect James' performance in that fashion. The simple truth is that even great players sometimes just have an off night; if James strings together several games like this, then there will be something to analyze and talk about. Meanwhile, Charles Barkley and other critics of the Cavaliers certainly must feel very justified in their stance now, while my pick that Cleveland will successfully defend its Eastern crown does not look great at the moment. It is important to maintain some perspective here and not race to conclusions after one game. Dallas lost its first four games last year and still finished 67-15; speaking of that, it's not like the Cavaliers lost to the Sisters of the Poor. Dallas is a very good team--first round playoff exit notwithstanding--and I expect the Mavs to battle the Spurs tooth and nail in the Western Conference Finals to determine which team will beat the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals. Also, the Cavaliers played without key rotation players Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic (though, to be fair, the Mavs were without suspended All-Star Josh Howard). Pavlovic just re-signed with the team and is expected to play on Friday. The bottom line is this: Dallas is very, very good and--unless you believe that James has suddenly and completely forgotten how to play and that the Cavaliers cannot regain their stride defensively--Cleveland is not nearly as bad as this performance suggests. Many people make a big fuss about the fact that several Eastern Conference teams upgraded their rosters while Cleveland basically stood pat--but this ignores the reality that Cleveland proved to be the best team in the Eastern Conference last year. For some reason, everyone acts like that was a fluke but the onus was on the other teams to try to better themselves to knock off Cleveland. It made no sense for Cleveland to make a deal just to make a deal if there was not a real opportunity to improve the team.
Notes From Courtside:
During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him the following question: "Despite making the Finals last year, there are a lot of people who are predicting that the Cavs might not even make the playoffs this year. In a strange way, does that actually provide a motivational tool for you to use with the team to fight against complacency, to kind of have an 'us against the world' philosophy?" He answered, "I've never been a bulletin board guy with newspapers or clippings from TV or magazine articles or anything like that. I guarantee if you go back to last year there were a lot of people who did not pick us to win 50 again or make it to the NBA Finals. A lot of people get paid money to write things and say things on TV. That's great because it is entertaining but I don't listen to it." I followed up by asking him if it is possible that people underrate the Cavs because they simply look at the roster on paper and do not take into account that the team hangs its hat game in and game out on playing good defense to provide a winning foundation. Brown smiled and said that this is certainly the foundation that he is trying to lay (little did we know some of the cracks that would appear in that foundation less than an hour later) and added, "I don't spend time at all trying even to figure out what guys think and say (about the Cavs) or why they are saying it, so I don't know why people think that (the Cavs won't do well this year) and I don't even want to assume why people pick us where they pick us."
During the ESPN telecast, Van Gundy offered his take on the Kobe Bryant saga: "Stop already with the Kobe stuff! There should be a moratorium on that right now." Play by play man Mike Breen countered, "This is the number one story," to which Van Gundy replied, "The guy got 27 free throws in a game is the number one story. That guy was on the attack the other night. I'm just saying, can we let a situation (develop)? It's like constant bombardment; I mean, people are taking shots at this guy. He could have had 50 easily if he had not missed so many free throws, with a sore wrist I might add, and without practicing and he looked like he could have played 48 minutes. Sometimes we get so wrapped up--a player's greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness. He's passionate, he's competitive. Has he said some things that he would probably would like to take back? Maybe so, but everything is overanalyzed to the point where it is harmful." Breen responded that this media feeding frenzy creates a distraction for the Lakers but Van Gundy does not buy that: "They didn't lose the other night because they were distracted. They lost because they have a very weak starting unit. Think about who is starting around Kobe Bryant: Derek Fisher, Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Kwame Brown. That is not good enough to be a really good team. They miss Lamar Odom badly."
The loudest cheers of the night, by far, came during the timeout between the third and fourth quarters when the Cavs' "Scream Team" dancers reenacted part of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Their costumes and moves really captured the feel of that classic video but when your dance team is getting way more applause than your basketball team it is not a good night for the franchise.
During a couple timeouts, the huge video screen on the overhead scoreboard displayed some spoofs of Mark Cuban's famous stint on "Dancing With the Stars." After one of these satires, the camera panned to where Cuban was sitting in the stands. He offered a good natured smile and thumbs-up while mouthing, "Go Mavs."
posted by David Friedman @ 8:00 AM