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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cavs Show Signs of Life, Cool off Heat

The Cleveland Cavaliers got off to a great start, hit a second quarter lull and then played very well in the second half to beat the Miami Heat, 96-82, in the first game of a Christmas Day ABC/ESPN tripleheader. As usual, LeBron James led the way, scoring a game-high 25 points, dishing a game-high 12 assists and also grabbing six rebounds. He received plenty of help, though: Drew Gooden had 18 points and nine rebounds, Daniel Gibson came off the bench to score 16 points while making four of his six three point shots and Anderson Varejao scored 15 points, snared seven rebounds and made all five of his shots. Varejao had a game-high +21 plus/minus rating (James was second at +18) as he once again had an even greater impact than his boxscore statistics suggest. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a solid game (13 points, eight rebounds). Miami relied too heavily on Dwyane Wade, who still seems to be hampered by his various injuries and may not be good enough to carry the team now that Shaquille O'Neal is no longer a dominant presence. Wade shot just 7-18 from the field, finishing with 22 points, eight assists, six rebounds and five turnovers; as ABC's Hubie Brown correctly noted, Wade padded his scoring total with a couple late baskets that had no effect on the outcome of the game. O'Neal had 13 points and nine rebounds but only his early removal from the game by Coach Pat Riley prevented him from fouling out for the sixth straight game, which would tie a 55 year old record; O'Neal sat out the last 6:57 after picking up his fifth foul.

The Cavaliers now have their complete roster intact (except for the injured Donyell Marshall) and for the first time this season they used the starting lineup that played so well down the stretch of the 2006-07 season and had a great playoff run that culminated in a trip to the NBA Finals. TNT's Kenny Smith often speaks of how important it is for everyone on a team to be playing the correct position and performing the right role--and, because of injuries and holdouts, neither of those things have been true for Cleveland in the first third of the season. Cleveland's best starting unit features center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, forwards LeBron James and Drew Gooden and guards Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic; that group has a good mix of shooting, rebounding, ballhandling and defense. Daniel Gibson, the first guard off of the bench, spaces the floor with his outside shooting, while Anderson Varejao, the first big man off of the bench, provides rebounding, defense and energy. When Donyell Marshall is healthy, he can come off of the bench bringing length and three point shooting. Contrary to anyone who says that Cleveland's run to the Finals was a fluke, that is a pretty good eight man rotation. Specialists Eric Snow (defense), Damon Jones (three point shooting), Devin Brown (scorer) and Shannon Brown (scorer) can be thrown into the mix on a given night as well, depending on matchups, foul trouble or injuries.

With their rotation finally set up in optimum fashion, the Cavaliers began the game with a 9-2 run, with all of the points scored either in the paint or at the free throw line. Cleveland led 25-17 at the end of the first quarter. Riley switched to a zone defense to try to keep the Cavaliers out of the paint and the Heat enjoyed some success with this strategy, eventually taking a 47-43 lead by halftime. Riley, like many NBA coaches, generally disdains zone defenses but the zone is a good change of pace defense to use against Cleveland because it takes advantage of two of the team's weaknesses: the lack of a true point guard and a dearth of outside shooting in the starting lineup. Last season, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown would sometimes attack the zone by using a small lineup of Varejao, Marshall, James, Gibson and Jones but the disadvantage of using that group is that it sidelines the team's two best rebounders, Ilgauskas and Gooden. In any case, with Marshall unavailable and Jones not receiving much playing time this season, Brown stuck with a more conventional rotation.

The Heat struck quickly in the third quarter, scoring on a Ricky Davis fast break layup and an O'Neal postup to push the lead to 51-43, prompting a quick Cleveland timeout. James missed a jumper on the next possession and a Udonis Haslem layup put the Heat up 53-43. Just when it looked like the Heat had completely taken control of the game, the Cavaliers tightened up their defense, forced some turnovers and went on a 9-2 run in the next 2:21. Miami answered with a couple baskets to go up 59-52 but then the Cavaliers scored 15 straight points, feasting on a host of Heat turnovers (11 total in the third quarter).

Cleveland led 67-61 going into the fourth quarter but Gibson soon provided some breathing room by nailing back to back three pointers to make the score 79-69. He is like a modern day B.J. Armstrong--baby faced, more athletic than he first appears and a stone cold shooter in a point guard's body. As Gibson showed during last year's playoffs, he is perfectly suited for the role of coming off of the bench to provide a scoring spark and he is more than capable of providing good court spacing for James during the fourth quarters of tight games. Varejao led the Cavaliers with 10 points in the fourth quarter, while James scored nine.

If injuries or other factors do not prevent the Cavaliers from using this starting lineup and player rotation for the rest of the season then they will be a very tough out in the playoffs--much tougher than most of the national media appears to think. On the other hand, Miami's problems run much deeper than just getting a couple players healthy or shuffling the lineup. Riley essentially mortgaged the team's future to make a short term run at winning at least one championship, agreeing to pay maximum dollars to O'Neal well into the center's declining years--and the strategy worked (thanks in no small part to Dallas falling apart after taking a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals) because Miami won a title. Now--and possibly for quite some time to come--Riley and the Heat must pay off that mortgage and the house that he is left with is not pretty: he has one banged up star in Wade--a player who may never be completely healthy due to his rugged style--and the rest of the roster is a mess, a mixture of has beens, never weres, malcontents and question marks. Maybe now people can better understand why Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who does not have the financial resources that the Heat ownership does, declined to retain O'Neal's services after the 2004 season. What if Buss had ponied up the maximum to O'Neal and ended up with a hefty bill and no championships? O'Neal's questionable work habits made him too big of a risk. I have always said that the O'Neal trade was a short term deal for the Heat but a long term one for the Lakers and now we are seeing both aspects of that scenario play out. The Heat got their title--at a heavy financial price and at the cost of possibly becoming a non-playoff team--while the Lakers remained a playoff team, rebuilt their roster around Kobe Bryant and are now considered one of the surprise teams this season, pairing the young, developing Andrew Bynum with a Bryant who still has several more prime seasons left.

Hubie Brown tried to defend O'Neal's meager statistics this season by pointing out O'Neal's age (35), comparing his production to other centers in the league and noting that O'Neal's per minute output is solid but that his overall numbers are down because he is playing fewer minutes. The latter two factors do not justify O'Neal's lack of production for several reasons: (1) O'Neal is receiving a max contract, so the Heat are not getting their money's worth at this point; (2) there are few true back to the basket centers left but the ones who exist are much better than O'Neal is now (Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, even Chris Kaman); (3) O'Neal's minutes are down because he is so slow and awkward that he cannot avoid foul trouble and when your best big man only plays a little more than half of the game then you are forced to put lesser players on the court for substantial minutes, which means that O'Neal's foul trouble clearly hurts the team. As for the age issue, O'Neal's production this year (28.3 mpg, 14.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .590 field goal percentage) does not compare favorably with the numbers put up by several of the greatest centers of all-time who were still playing at 35 years old. Bill Russell turned 35 in the middle of his final season, during which he averaged 19.3 rpg and was the player-coach on a championship team. When Wilt Chamberlain was 35, he averaged 42.3 mpg, played in all 82 games, scored 14.8 ppg, led the league in rebounding (19.2 rpg), led the league in field goal percentage (.649), made the All-NBA Second Team, made the All-Defensive First Team and won the Finals MVP for a team that won a championship after setting records for most wins in season (69-13, since broken by the 72-10 Chicago Bulls in 1995-96) and most consecutive wins (33, a mark that will likely never fall). When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 35, he averaged 32.3 mpg, played in 79 games, scored 21.8 ppg (first on the Lakers, 16th in the NBA), averaged 7.5 rpg, ranked fourth in the league in field goal percentage (.588), ranked ninth in the league in blocked shots (2.2 bpg), made the All-NBA Second Team and helped his team reach the NBA Finals after posting the second best record in the league (58-24). The next year, Abdul-Jabbar made the All-NBA First Team and the year after that he not only made the All-NBA Second Team but he won the Finals MVP. Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 18.9 ppg and 9.6 rpg and made the All-NBA Third Team when he was 35. It is simply not true to suggest that O'Neal's rate of decline or current production match up well with his great predecessors; they kept themselves in better shape throughout their careers than he has and therefore were able to be more productive for a longer period of time. O'Neal's lack of conditioning possibly cost him an opportunity to win more championships during his prime and it has led to a premature degradation of his skills. O'Neal is an all-time great who squandered the chance to accomplish even more than he already has.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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