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Friday, December 21, 2007

Fourth Quarter Rally Propels Cavaliers to Victory Over the Lakers

The L.A. Lakers built an 11 point lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers with 2:15 remaining in the third quarter but less than three minutes later that entire advantage was gone and by the 9:19 mark of the fourth quarter the Cavaliers were up by five. Instead of adding one more road victory to their surprising early season resume, the Lakers were left trying to explain yet another win that slipped from their grasp in the fourth quarter, a disturbing trend that includes losses to Milwaukee, New Jersey and Golden State. Meanwhile, Cleveland's 94-90 triumph was a welcome turnaround after Wednesday's embarrassing 108-90 loss to the New York Knicks. As usual, LeBron James led the way for Cleveland, scoring a game-high 33 points on 12-29 field goal shooting. He contributed 10 rebounds and five assists; James also handled the defensive chores on Kobe Bryant on the last few possessions, after demanding that assignment and insisting that Sasha Pavlovic check someone else. "If you want to win ballgames, you have to be able to defend the best player," James later explained. Anderson Varejao, playing in just his sixth game after missing the start of the season due to a contract holdout, led both teams in rebounds with a season-high 15 and he also scored a season-high 11 points. Six of Varejao's rebounds came on the offensive glass. The Cavaliers have not exactly set the world on fire since Varejao came back, going 3-3, but that is a better percentage than their overall record of 12-15. Varejao's rebounding, defense and energy played an important part in Cleveland's success last year and as he rounds into game shape it would not be surprising at all if the Cavaliers go on a winning streak or at least put together a run of .700 or .800 basketball to boost their record. Daniel Gibson provided timely shooting (15 points, 5-9 from the field) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12 points, five rebounds) had a solid game.

Bryant finished with 21 points (8-22 field goal shooting), five rebounds and five assists. He shot just 1-6 in the fourth quarter, including a missed three pointer over James that could have given the Lakers a one point lead with less than five seconds left. When he and James guarded each other on the last few possessions, a palpable buzz of anticipation went through the crowd: that was what everyone had come to see. James deserves credit for making some key plays but it is also important to remember that Bryant is still suffering from a left groin pull that has robbed him of a lot of his explosiveness. After the game, Bryant said, "It's pretty frustrating. I can't explode to the basket like I want to. I have to rely on my jump shot a lot more and it's tough to get a lot of lift, so I am going to have to get in the gym early tomorrow and figure out how I am going to shoot through this." Despite his current physical limitations, Bryant still accepted the challenge of guarding James. Bryant downplayed that, saying simply, "Why not? I look forward to those matchups. That's what I do. I'm a defensive player." James' two free throws after he was fouled by Andrew Bynum gave Cleveland the lead for good with 1:44 left but James missed both of the jumpers that he took against Bryant after that and went scoreless the rest of the way.

Plus/minus statistics can be "noisy" (imprecise due to a variety of factors) but it is interesting that Bryant and James played virtually the same amount of time (40:02 for Bryant, 38:28 for James) but that Bryant had a +8 rating while James had a -7 rating; in other words, most of the time that they shared the court, the Lakers outplayed the Cavaliers. The decisive moments of the game were not the final possessions but rather the 16-0 run that the Cavaliers made at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter, most of which took place with both superstars not in the game. As Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said, "The key to the game was the way we finished the third quarter and the way the momentum switched at the beginning of the fourth. That was the game in a nutshell. We had control of the game and we were doing what we wanted to on the floor and we lost our concentration."

Bryant went out of his way not to blame the bench, saying that the Lakers' reserves have been among the league's best all season, but the sudden dramatic collapse when Bryant briefly left the game is very reminiscent of what repeatedly happened to this team last season, eventually necessitating Bryant going on a scoring binge in the second half of the season just so the Lakers would not miss the playoffs. It was also very similar to what happened the last time these two superstars and their teams faced each other in Cleveland, when a completely healthy Bryant clearly had the edge in his individual battle with James but Bryant received little help from his teammates in the fourth quarter as the Cavaliers won, 99-90.

Lamar Odom had 19 points and 11 rebounds but after scoring 12 points in the first quarter he was basically a non-factor for the rest of the game. With 15.9 seconds left and the Lakers trailing 92-90, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew two defenders and passed to a wide open Odom in the right corner but Odom missed a three pointer. It seems odd that the Lakers put Odom, a career .315 three point shooter who is shooting just .225 from long distance this season, in position to take that shot instead of Luke Walton (a .394 three point shooter this season), Sasha Vujacic (.378) or Derek Fisher (.358 and a proven clutch shooter). Odom bristled at that suggestion: "It was just a regular play. Kobe drove, he had two people on him and I was wide open, so I had to shoot it. If I had a bad night, I still would have taken the shot. That's basketball. A player drives, kicks it to you, you're wide open, you shoot it." He added that he thought the shot was good when it left his hands but that "a game shouldn't come down to one or two shots," particularly since the Lakers had a double digit lead at one point.

Andrew Bynum had 17 points and 11 rebounds but he missed two free throws that could have tied the game with 11.9 seconds left. Bryant stormed in to the lane to rebound the second miss and called a timeout, giving his team one last chance to win or tie. Someone asked Bryant about how he got that crucial rebound but Bryant laughed and said, "I'm not giving up my secret. I told him (James) I was going to get it. That's just years of experience." Bryant winked to a courtside camera after the play, provoking boos from the crowd when that image was displayed on the giant overhead screen. After Bryant missed the three pointer over James on the ensuing possession, Fisher appeared to control the rebound but instead he was called for a loose ball foul on Gibson, who made two free throws to ice the win. Asked after the game if he fouled Gibson, Fisher answered point blank, "No. They made the call but, in my opinion, no. I felt like I got to the ball first. There was contact but I had two hands on the basketball, so I felt had I pushed him first and then secured the rebound it would have been a foul but, you know, we shouldn't have been in that spot to begin with." In his postgame remarks, Jackson noted that if what Fisher did was a foul then Varejao committed fouls on each of his offensive rebounds--the point being not that Varejao did in fact commit fouls but rather that this kind of contact is not usually considered a foul in the NBA.

I asked Bryant about his fateful miss: "When you shot the three at the end when you were down by two, was part of that from not being able to drive because of the groin, or was that just reading the defense, or going for the win on the road, or a little bit of all of those things?"

Bryant replied, "He had his hands down on me and he knows better than that. Put your hands down and I'm going to let it fly. It hit the back heel (of the rim), really (ticked) me off because it felt great. As soon as it left my hand, I felt like the ball was going down. It hit the back heel and came out. It was just one of those nights."

Later, after most members of the media had left, I asked Bryant if in his current injured state the court seems much larger and harder to traverse than usual due to his limited mobility and his eyes widened in acknowledgment as he said "Yes" before reiterating his earlier comment: "But I'm going to go in the gym, work on my jumper and figure out how to get through this."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

Bobby Jones once told me that steals and blocked shots are "unselfish stats. Those are stats that don’t hurt your teammates; they help your team." He added that one of his goals during his career was to get at least 100 steals and 100 blocked shots each season and he marveled at the fact that Julius Erving--an ABA rival turned teammate in the NBA--accomplished this feat 12 times (tied with Hakeem Olajuwon for the all-time record--and Erving missed the cut by three blocked shots in 1977-78 and surely had a 100-100 season in his rookie year when those stats were not yet officially tracked): "He had good anticipation and he was willing to gamble. He was willing to expend the energy and he was a tremendous athlete who could play both ends (of the court)."

Sometimes, defensive "gambling" gets a bad name but it all depends on what kind of system a team is playing and Jones explained that gambling was built into the defensive system used by the 76ers teams for which he and Erving played: "In the type of defense that we played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do."

Kobe Bryant usually ranks among the league leaders in steals but every once in a while a quote attributed to Tex Winter or Phil Jackson will be trumpeted by Bryant's detractors as "proof" that Bryant is not a good defender. During Jackson's pregame standup, I asked him, "Kobe had some steals in the previous game against the Bulls that led to fast break points. I know that you've talked about that you don't want Kobe gambling too much; talk about the fine line between the advantage of playing the passing lanes to get steals that can lead to easy points versus maybe doing too much of that. How do you evaluate that?"

Jackson answered, "There are guys who just have a nose for the ball and they definitely are going to go after the ball: Chris Paul, Baron Davis and a variety of guys, if the ball is around them they take the ball; they just have the ability to get in there and take the ball. There are some guys who play passing lanes well. (Mike) Dunleavy is a guy like that--Duke kids basically are. That's another style. Then there are some of your post players--Ben Wallace is good at taking the ball on the entry pass and circling the players. Olajuwon was a guy like that--or stealing outlet passes because of their (athletic) ability. But any time you gamble on the ball you put your team in jeopardy because if the ball gets by you suddenly it's five versus four or four versus three."

Of course, that did not really directly answer what I asked. Reading between the lines, it sounds like Jackson is on board with certain kinds of steals but disdains what he would consider a low percentage gamble that is not likely to result in a steal but will definitely lead to an advantage for the offense if the steal is not made. I am not Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes, jumping out from behind bushes with rapid fire questions about defensive gambling, nor am I ever going to go John McEnroe on someone and scream, "Answer the question!" I asked the question clearly and what Jackson chose to say--and not say--is informative in and of itself. Still, I decided to try a couple follow up questions just to see where they would lead, figuring that Jackson would likely stay "on message," as politicians like to say: "Based on the way that you described how different players get steals, is Kobe more of the kind of guy who gets steals because he has that eye for the ball like Chris Paul or Baron Davis or is he more of a guy who gets into the passing lanes?"

Jackson replied, "He's both. He is one of those guys who will take the ball away from somebody if they expose it but he also plays the passing lanes."

I then asked, "So, is what you are looking for in your scheme based more on taking the ball if the opportunity is there (as opposed to playing the passing lanes)?"

Jackson answered, "That's always a feature but you have to know that you are going to get in foul trouble at some point. Eventually it's going to cost you."

Bryant was called for a foul on the first play of the game when he swiped at the ball as Pavlovic drove to the hoop but Bryant only was called for one other foul the rest of the game. Likely due to his injury, Bryant did not play the passing lanes as aggressively as he normally would, finishing with one steal. Pavlovic, the man Bryant was primarily responsible for guarding most of the game, scored seven points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

***

During the shootaround less than an hour before pregame warmups, Odom came on to the court with a bulky ice pack wrapped around his right knee. That surprised me because generally athletes want to increase blood flow to the joints before competition (i.e., use heat) and then afterwards they want to decrease blood flow to the joints (i.e., use ice) in order to prevent/reduce inflammation. Lakers strength coach Joe Carbone helped Odom to unwrap the ice and as Odom went through his shooting routine I asked Carbone why Odom was using ice before competition instead of afterwards. Carbone prefaced his remarks by saying that only the trainer could answer this for sure but that some players like to use ice before games to relieve pain and inflammation. He assured me that Odom would fully warm up the joint before the game and then most likely use ice again afterwards.

***

Jackson still remains one win away from tying Dick Motta for eighth on the career wins list. Asked about this before the game, Jackson said that it made him think of memories of Motta as a coach. Jackson praised Motta and added, "It seemed like he coached forever." I said, "That means you've been coaching forever, too, right?" and Jackson chuckled and said, "That's what I mean."

***

In his pregame standup, Coach Brown explained why he is against making changes in the starting lineup: "I can't just change guys to keep changing guys. I have to give a group of guys an opportunity to play to see whether or not it can work. That's going to take some time. Hopefully, it won't take a long time but that is where we are right now."

The outcome of this game reaffirmed Brown's thinking in this regard; in his postgame standup, he said, "The one thing that I have to make sure I do is I've got to give our guys an opportunity to play and show that they can help contribute. And that's why even after a game like last night (against the Knicks), I felt I needed to go the same way."

He concluded, "If we give effort like that for as close to 48 minutes as possible, which we did, we'll have a chance to be a good team."

***

Before the game, James talked about how much he enjoyed being Bryant's teammate on the Team USA squad that won the FIBA Americas tournament last summer: "I can always play with a guy who plays hard every night and just has that drive to try to win every ballgame. It was fun being out there on the wing with Kobe Bryant every single night and going out and just taking away anything that anybody wanted on the offensive end. Defensively, me and him were in tune."

James added, "We have different games but at the same time we have the same thing in common and that is wanting to win, just that competitive nature that we always want to win no matter what we are doing, on the court, off the court, we just want to win in everything."

Asked if he thought that Bryant is passing the ball more this season, James said, "Guys make shots and guys make plays, so he has more confidence in them. He's a great playmaker. Sometimes I think that he feels that if guys are not making enough plays then he has to be a little bit more selfish. Guys are making more plays for him this year, which allows him to rest up until the fourth quarter and then do what he do."

Asked if he is surprised that the Cavs still have not put everything together even though the roster from last year is now intact, James replied, "Last year has nothing to do with this year. You look at a team like the Mavericks, they went to the Finals and then they lost in the first round. You look at the Heat, they won the Finals and then got bumped out in the first round. You can't base last year off this year. This is a whole new year, teams are getting better and we have to get better. Who cares what we did last year? It's over and done with."

***

Bynum's improvement and good bench play are no doubt important reasons for the Lakers' good start this season but don't forget that the team also dropped unreliable starting point guard Smush Parker in favor of Fisher, who had 18 points, five assists and four rebounds versus Cleveland. Parker averaged 11.1 ppg on .436 field goal shooting and .646 free throw shooting last season, played horrible defense--particularly in the second half of the season--and openly feuded with Jackson. Fisher's scoring average is about the same as Parker's was (11.5 ppg) but his field shooting (.487) and free throw shooting (.933) are much better, as are his attitude, defense and overall decision making. Parker was the worst starting point guard on any of last year's playoff teams--if not the worst starting point guard in the entire league--and that placed a lot of extra pressure on Bryant both offensively and defensively.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:41 AM

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