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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Cleveland Romps: Cavs Smash Sonics, 95-79

LeBron James had 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals as Cleveland cruised to a 95-79 home victory versus Seattle. The Cavaliers have a season-high tying four game winning streak, have won six out of seven games for the first time this season and improved to 4-0 in 2008. The Cavaliers maintained control throughout most of the game and Cleveland led 81-62 by the 8:36 mark of the fourth quarter, enabling James to sit out the remainder of the game so that he will be well rested for the second half of the back to back, which takes place in Atlanta. James received strong support from Daniel Gibson (17 points, 5-8 three point shooting) and Anderson Varejao (14 points, nine rebounds, a game-high plus/minus rating of +16). Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden struggled offensively--each shot 1-6 from the field--but gathered nine and six rebounds respectively. Larry Hughes had nine points, four rebounds, two assists, three steals and the same plus/minus rating as James (+13) but that did not stop the home fans from booing lustily almost every time that he missed a shot (Hughes shot 4-11 from the field). Hughes' field goal percentage (a career-low .336 so far this season) has become a hot button topic in Cleveland but the reality regarding him is quite simple: (1) he has never been a great shooter (.410 career field goal percentage) and (2) the Cavaliers perform better when he is healthy and in the starting lineup, even when he does not shoot well. Hughes has been healthy during the current winning streak that has propelled Cleveland back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Hughes has missed 14 games this season and the Cavs went 7-7 in those contests (they also lost the two games before he went on the injured list when he tried to play but was clearly not 100%). The Cavaliers were 6-8 last year when Hughes did not play--and 43-25 in the remaining games. Hughes may not be as good as Cavaliers' fans had hoped for when the team signed him but there is no doubt that he works hard at both ends of the court and that the team is much stronger when he is in the lineup. Fans pay their money for tickets and have the right to boo or cheer at their discretion--but it is hard to understand what positive result fans expect to happen from their relentless booing of their team's starting point guard. Kevin Durant led Seattle with a game-high 24 points and he shot 10-20 from the field, well above his normal shooting percentage. Three of his missed shots were blocked--no one else in the game had more than one shot blocked--and his floor game is still somewhat limited (six rebounds--which is good--but only one assist, no steals, one blocked shot and four turnovers). Wally Szczerbiak (15 points) was the only other Sonic who scored in double figures.

Both teams started out the game poorly, littering the court with missed shots and turnovers. Neither team scored until Jeff Green's layup gave Seattle a 2-0 lead at the 10:43 mark of the first quarter. An Earl Watson jumper soon put the Sonics up 4-0 but that proved to be Seattle's largest advantage of the game--and a short lived one at that. Varejao's dunk with 3:26 remaining gave the Cavs their first double digit lead (20-9) and the rout was pretty much on after that, although Seattle did make a couple token runs. James' fast break dunk at the 4:03 mark in the second quarter gave the Cavs their biggest first half lead, 39-23. Seattle cut that margin to 45-33 by halftime; the 33 points represent a season-low for a Cleveland opponent. James (14 points, 7-10 field goal shooting) and Durant (12 points, 6-13 field goal shooting) were the only double figure scorers.

Cleveland pulled away right after the third quarter began and soon led by 20 points, 55-35. As usually happens in the NBA in such games, the losing team made a run. Durant twice drove to the hoop and converted layups, two of the better moves that I have seen him make this season. He was fouled on the second score and made the free throw to cut the lead to 55-40. Then Szczerbiak drilled two three pointers and split a pair of free throws in a 1:13 stretch to make the score 58-49, Cleveland. After a Cleveland miss, Watson drove to the hoop with a chance to cut the lead to seven but what ensued instead was a disaster for Seattle. Watson missed the shot, James scored a fast break layup and then Gibson buried a three pointer after stealing the inbounds pass. Seattle turned the ball over again on the next possession and Gibson's layup made the score 65-49, Cleveland; as Seattle Coach P.J. Carlesimo put it after the game, "You can't have a worse segment." The Sonics never got closer than 14 points the rest of the game.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was understandably pleased with his team's performance: "I thought we did a nice job defensively throughout most of the game, and we obviously had a nice lift from our bench. I thought there were times when we really moved the ball well from one side of the floor to the other. We limited our turnovers tonight and stayed focused for most of the game."

James is glad that the team's defensive focus has returned: "That's four in a row, six out of our last seven because we've decided to start playing defense again--and we're undefeated in 2008. We just need to keep it going." James likes being on the court with a shooter like Gibson because that forces opposing defenses into a lose-lose situation: "Either let me go one on one or you help and hopefully you can close out on the best shooter in the league. I wouldn't leave him open; he's shooting lights out."

In his postgame standup, Carlesimo said, "What has plagued us a lot this year is turnovers for breakaway layups. Some of the turnovers were just horrible. Some of them were created by good, aggressive play by Cleveland but a number of them were just guys not catching the ball or guys dribbling the ball of their foot or guys making very ill advised passes...We didn't do a good job against either 'Boobie' (Gibson) or Anderson. Anderson was aggressive and really did a good job and hurt us and we didn't locate 'Boobie.' The way he's shooting the ball, to lose track of him is not good. Those are two things defensively that we did not do very well."

However, Carlesimo also mentioned an underlying problem in addition to the turnovers and missed defensive assignments: "It's easy to say turnovers more than anything else (led to the loss) but we didn't match the aggression--for some people. I thought that some people competed and I thought that other people didn't play aggressively enough. When we took the ball to the basket we needed one more dribble to really attack it or on plays when two guys had a chance to get a rebound we have to come up with a few more of those. They played better than we did, they had more individuals play better and they certainly took better care of the basketball."

Carlesimo would like to see his players be more willing to meet the challenge of playing against All-Star players and not just accept that the All-Stars are automatically superior. "Not saying that we competed over the edge for 48 minutes but compared to Washington (where the Sonics lost, 108-86, on Sunday), particularly the fourth quarter, it was much better. I just mean that in some individual matchups we are a little accepting. I mean, if you want to enter a game and say, 'Hey this is LeBron James or this is Caron Butler and that's a tough matchup, I can't compete with him,' that's one thing; if you go after him and are more aggressive but get beat that's something else. I think that we have been a little too compliant lately. That, to me, is different. The fourth quarter against Washington was a disgrace. I didn't think tonight was that bad but I did think that we are too compliant in some of our matchups."

Durant sprained his left ankle and did not return to action after leaving the game at the 7:22 mark of the fourth quarter but after the game he indicated that he does not expect to miss any games as a result of the injury. Standing next to him in the locker room, one really gets a sense of just how young he is; his boyish face still has some acne and with his jersey off his lack of upper body musculature is even more glaringly apparent than it is during games. Durant will surely add weight simply by growing up and completing his physical maturation and he can accelerate that process to some degree by lifting weights but he has narrow shoulders and I question how much bulk his frame can really hold. A generation ago, Ralph Sampson tried everything imaginable to put on weight but the 7-4 center could barely get up to 240 pounds and by the end of a long, draining season he was usually 15 pounds lighter than that. The 6-9 Durant will face a similar uphill battle.

Durant has a very pleasant demeanor, earnest and soft spoken. It is obvious that opposing defenses load up on him because Seattle lacks a consistent, credible second offensive option but Durant is too smart and mature to be baited into saying anything that could sound derogatory about his teammates. When a reporter asked Durant about the team's lack of scoring threats, Durant replied, "I wouldn't say that we don't have another scorer. Guys are producing. I mean, in this league we just can't hit shots. I can't hit shots. I think that we are getting great looks and guys can score on this team. I think that we're pretty balanced, to be honest with you. We have four guys (averaging) in double figures. I wouldn't say that there is not a second scoring option or anything like that."

Next, someone asked Durant why Seattle seems to be able to hang around in games to a point before almost inevitably fading. Durant answered, "If I knew what was going on--I wish I could tell you and that we could capitalize on some things. Tonight, we turned the ball over--that was one thing. I don't really know. It's frustrating. Losing 25 games (out of the first 34), that is not something I envisioned doing coming into the league. It's frustrating."

Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game, I spoke with Sonics assistant coach Paul Westhead, the only person who has coached both an NBA championship team (Lakers, 1980) and a WNBA championship team (Mercury, 2007). We talked at length about his coaching career, which includes stops not only in the NBA and WNBA but also the NCAA as well; those quotes will appear in an article that I am writing about Coach Westhead but I also had the opportunity to discuss some other subjects with him.

It is sometimes said--even by as august a person as John Wooden--that the women's game is more fundamentally sound than the men's game. Rick Barry once told me that the only statistic that is "true and legitimate" is free throw percentage: assists are subject to a scorekeeper's whim, players can pad their rebounding totals by tapping at the ball and field goal percentage does not indicate a player's shooting range. Since putting the ball in the basket is the ultimate fundamental, in August 2005 I looked at the year by year free throw percentages for the NBA and WNBA. I found out that, contrary to popular belief, the men had a small but consistent advantage. Coach Westhead is certainly uniquely qualified to talk about the state of fundamentals in both leagues, so--without mentioning those numbers--I asked him whether or not he believes that the women play a more fundamentally sound game. He replied, "I don't think that there is anything sweeping that I can say about the men's game versus the women's game. I would say that they are very similar more than different. They are the best players in the world; the players in both leagues are very skilled and very talented. You just simply have to get the right group of women (to win a championship), like I had, and you can look out and say that the San Antonio Spurs have the right group of men that are fundamentally sound and play great basketball and win championships. I don't think that there is anything categorical but I would say, as a compliment to the women, that they are much better than people who have not seen them think. They are talented and skilled and they play the team game. They know how to play basketball."

After talking a little bit more about the differences between the women's and men's games, Westhead said, "I will say that the one thing that bears noting is that they sure shoot free throws a lot better than the men." I immediately replied that this is what everyone seems to think but that my study from two years ago showed that this is not the case. Westhead was surprised by this but he told me that in his brief time in the WNBA that many people told him that the level of play had improved dramatically from year one to now; he mentioned that his team led the league in free throw percentage last year (.817) and wondered if the overall numbers from last year would tell a different story than my 2005 research did. Sure enough, when I looked it up, the WNBA's free throw percentage in 2007 (.775) was higher than the NBA's free throw percentage in 2006-07 (.752); the WNBA also posted a marginally better free throw percentage in 2006 (.747) than the NBA did in 2005-06 (.745). In the years that I examined originally, the NBA had the edge in every season except for the lockout abbreviated 1999 campaign. The WNBA's overall free throw percentage was .713 in 1997, the league's inaugural year, while the NBA's free throw percentage in 1996-97 was .738. I think that these numbers show two things: (1) It was a misnomer for people to say years ago that the WNBA had better free throw shooters or was more fundamentally sound; (2) as Coach Westhead suggested, the level of play in the WNBA has increased significantly in the past decade or so.

I also asked Coach Westhead about Kevin Durant's development so far, particularly regarding his field goal percentage. I'll simply reprint the entire portion of the transcript that covers that subject:

Friedman: “Kevin Durant is known as a very good shooter and he has a good free throw percentage. We know that the shooting touch is there and everyone saw that in college. His field goal percentage this year is hovering pretty consistently around 40%. What is the reason for that?”

Westhead: “I think that the easy reason for that is that teams in their scouting reports are saying that the Sonics need Kevin Durant to score to win. So, you’re our best defender—stick him. They not only put their best defender on him but any time that he gets close to another offensive player, on a pick and roll or something—trap him, double him, stunt him. He’s getting high quality defensive coverage as a 19 year old who just arrived in the league. That’s not the easiest thing to endure. In a season or two or three, the best defenders probably won’t pull his shooting percentage down. He’ll have arrived and be able to shoot through that. But I think that it is marvelous in 30-plus games that this 19 year old is performing how he is. I think he’s off to a terrific start. I’m amazed that even though he is young looking and 19 that he has a mature game, that he does not get overwhelmed by this league.”

Friedman: “As a coaching staff, how do you feel about his shot selection?”

Westhead: “You’re asking the wrong guy—and the reason I say that is, my players, from good teams or bad teams, will say to you that I never saw a bad shot by a player on my team. They can’t take a bad shot.”

Friedman: “Because you believe in taking quick shots to put pressure on the defense?”

Westhead: “I believe that I want to give them the freedom to create what they think are good shots and once you start stipulating that I want you to shoot from here but not there and I want you to shoot this but not that then you start putting things in their minds that they have to make hard decisions about at a moment when they should be focusing on the basket.”

Friedman: “That’s a great relief for a player at any level.”

Westhead: “Exactly. If you let a player take 15 or 20 shots, he might take what the world might say are a couple bad shots but he doesn’t want to take bad shots. He’s not going to go from three bad shots to eight bad shots because you don’t say anything to him. He’ll eliminate those bad shots--or at least cut down on them--on his own.”

Friedman: “So you think that the good players will figure that out without someone hammering on them and yanking them from the game and yelling at them and all of that?”

Westhead: “Absolutely. Therefore, in Kevin’s case, I think that it is a particular compliment to P.J. (Carlesimo) that he monitors him very well and gives him a lot of rope but if things break down or he has a problem he will sit him down and let him rest a little bit to get refocused and then get him going again."


When Cleveland reserve guard Shannon Brown came on to the court a couple hours before the game to shoot around, he glanced into the stands and saw that the cover of the game day program had a very familiar face on it: his own. He seemed genuinely surprised--and happy--and said to me, "Who's that on the cover?" I handed him a copy so that he could take a closer look. Later on I saw him in one of the back corridors and asked him if he had kept the program and he said that he had. James and Durant have been on so many covers that they probably are numb to that experience by now but it is cool to see a second year player so thrilled by a relatively simple trapping of the NBA life.


The Cavaliers' overhead scoreboard has numerous bells and whistles and can literally shoot out flames but something inside of it went haywire before the game, so it had to be lowered to ground level to be checked out. Whenever the scoreboard ascends or descends the movement is accompanied by a sound that is akin to the warning beep issued by a truck that is backing up--but several times louder. Whatever the problem was, it never got completely fixed, because the part that should have showed the Cavaliers' score on one of the scoreboard's four sides was completely dark throughout the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:34 AM



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