Welcome Back: James, Varejao Return, Hughes Scores 36 as Cavs Beat the PacersEveryone who penciled the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic or Detroit Pistons into the NBA Finals better have some erasers or liquid paper handy. As LeBron James warned everyone last week, "Teams better get their wins against us now. They're trying to kill us and talk trash about us now because we have guys who are out but when we get our guys back it's going to be a different story." James is more than capable of delivering on those words--he's no Anthony Smith.
LeBron James returned on Tuesday night--and he brought along a couple friends as his Cleveland Cavaliers snapped a six game losing streak by beating the Indiana Pacers, 118-105. James wore a glove to protect his injured left index finger and did not start for the first time in his professional career but he had a very significant impact, as his game-high +27 plus/minus rating suggests. He finished with 17 points, five assists and three rebounds and the only time that the finger or glove seemed to be an issue is when he was unable to control an alley-oop pass with his left hand. Larry Hughes scored a game-high and season-high 36 points in just 26 minutes, shooting 13-17 from the field in just his second game back after missing more than three weeks with a leg injury; Hughes' plus/minus number was +24. Anderson Varejao contributed six points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes in his season debut and his plus/minus number of +17 hints at the fact that his value is not completely captured by box score numbers alone; he provides energy, defense and toughness. Mike Dunleavy led the Pacers with 23 points, adding six rebounds and five assists.
Regular Cleveland starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden were joined by point guard Eric Snow, shooting guard Shannon Brown and small forward Sasha Pavlovic, who usually plays shooting guard. That unit helped the Cavs take a 15-11 lead at the 5:59 mark. Then the cavalry arrived: James, Hughes and Varejao entered the game at the same time. My first thought was that it was clever to have James and Varejao come into action together so that the Cleveland fans would not boo Varejao for his extended holdout. After the game, James said, "I thought it would raise the intensity of the fans, having me, Larry and Andy come in at the same time--and it worked. I thought by coming in with Andy it might stop some of the boos Andy might get, just protecting my teammates." Those three players helped Cleveland to close the first quarter with a 22-5 run; for the first time this season, the Cavaliers looked like the team that made it to the NBA Finals last season.
The only blemish for the Cavs in the early going was that several of their perimeter players committed offensive fouls while driving to the hoop. Cavs TV analyst Austin Carr talked about the importance of having the ability to shoot a pull up jumper or a teardrop/floater in such situations; being able to utilize those kinds of shots prevents a player from needlessly picking up charging calls. Carr also predicted that James' scoring average will decline now that the Cavaliers are close to full strength (Daniel Gibson missed this game due to a dental procedure and Donyell Marshall is still out of action) but that his assists and the team's wins will both go up. Carr also offered a very good explanation for Hughes' performance: Hughes natural position is shooting guard, which is where he played against Indiana. Last year, the Cavs shifted him to point guard out of necessity and then kept him there because the team performed well overall even though Hughes was playing out of position. He was, as Carr put it, "a victim of his own success." Hughes often is the target of fans' wrath due to his large contract and frequent injuries but the reality is that the Cavaliers have consistently been much better with him in the lineup than they have been when he is out of action. This game provided a glimpse of what he is capable of doing when he is healthy and Cleveland fans have to hope that he somehow can avoid the injury bug that has plagued him for several seasons.
The Pacers opened the second quarter with a quick 10-0 run as the Cavaliers missed three shots and committed another offensive foul but Indiana was not able to get closer than eight points. James and Hughes combined to score 10 points for Cleveland in less than two minutes as the Cavaliers pushed the lead back to 16 points, 51-35. Cleveland led 65-49 at halftime.
Indiana made another good run to start the third quarter, shaving the margin to 70-61 but keep in mind that James, Hughes and Varejao began the second half on the bench. They entered the game together at the 7:09 mark and less than four minutes after that Cleveland was up 88-64. The Cavaliers led 97-74 at the end of the quarter and were never seriously threatened in the final period. The Pacers may be off of the national radar at the moment but the Pacers won three of four on their recent West Coast road trip and on Friday night they beat the Magic, 115-109; this is an impressive win for Cleveland.
The Cavaliers lost five straight games without James (six overall if you count the game in which he got hurt and played less than a half). Does that prove that James has a terrible supporting cast? Not necessarily--it depends how you define your terms. People often debate the quality of the supporting casts that surround various NBA stars but to answer that question accurately one really has to evaluate two different things: (1) what a given player is capable of doing on his own, particularly in terms of creating his own shot; (2) whether a given player is able to capitalize on the open opportunities that are inevitably available to someone who plays alongside a star who commands double teams. Cleveland does not have a lot of players who fit into the first category but the Cavs have several players who belong in the second category.
During Cleveland's recent struggles sans James, Varejao was out and Hughes missed all but one of the games, so the Cavaliers were not only missing their very best player but also two others from their top six; the cumulative effect of the absence of that much talent would cripple any team. Another thing that is important to understand is that players like Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson may not be able to create much for themselves but they are perfect complementary players for James because they can hit open shots when James is double-teamed. The Cavaliers don't have many players who can create opportunities for themselves--as Charles Barkley keeps saying, they could use a top flight point guard--but that does not mean that they have a bad team; they have a lot of players who can be productive playing alongside James, plus the Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao frontcourt is very formidable defensively and on the glass.
It is tempting to say that James carried a bad team to the NBA Finals. Certainly, the Cavaliers roster is not perfect and James had a tremendous playoff run but it is not correct to dismiss the talents and contributions of his teammates, players who may not be able to create much on their own but have the correct skill sets to take advantage of the openings that James' presence creates. If James were truly on a bad team then Cleveland would struggle even with him in the lineup and the Cavaliers certainly would not have made it to the Finals last year.
Pundits regularly dismiss Cleveland's chances this season, criticize General Manager Danny Ferry for not upgrading the roster and even question if the team will make the playoffs. The underestimation of the overall strength of this Cavaliers team will turn out to be one of the biggest stories of this season--assuming that the team remains reasonably healthy the rest of the way.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 AM