Bulls Crash the Boards, Bash the CavsOn Sunday, LeBron James scored 37 points as Cleveland beat Chicago 95-86 despite being without Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic, each of whom missed the game due to injury. Those players also were not able to play in Thursday's rematch and this time the Bulls defeated the Cavs 107-96. Luol Deng and Ben Gordon led the Bulls with 23 points each, while James finished with 39 points, three rebounds and one assist; if Kobe Bryant put up a stat line like that, a lot of people would say that he played a selfish, one dimensional game but that is nonsense: great players read the defense and react accordingly. James shot 13-27 from the field, while the other Cavs shot just 20-57, so there were not many assists to be had. Combined with his 50 points versus the Knicks on Wednesday, James has scored 89 points in his last two games, the most a player has scored in consecutive games since Bryant dropped 60 and 50 at Memphis and New Orleans last March.
This game was not decided by James' scoring or his passing; it was decided on the backboards, where Chicago enjoyed a 56-48 rebounding advantage, including a 21-14 edge in offensive rebounds. Joakim Noah had a game-high 20 rebounds, 10 offensive and 10 defensive. Five of Deng's eight rebounds came on the offensive glass. The formula for Cleveland's success is defense, rebounding and the brilliance of James. An oft-repeated statistic this season is that the Cavs are 0-6 without James but most people fail to mention that rebounder/defender Anderson Varejao also missed several of those games. Why is that significant? Prior to Thursday's game, the Cavs were 18-9 with Varejao and 17-17 without him; they enjoyed a +3.5 ppg differential with him but were outscored by 3.5 ppg without him. There is a widely believed myth that James basically carried the Cavs to last year's Finals all by himself--and the same people who are foolish enough to believe that are the ones who predicted that Cleveland would not make the playoffs this year. The reality is that during last year's playoff run James carried a heavy offensive load--as both a scorer and playmaker--but Cleveland's frontcourt rotation of Ilgauskas-Varejao-Drew Gooden played a vitally important role in terms of rebounding and defense.
From Cleveland's standpoint, the theory behind the recent three way trade with Chicago and Seattle that shipped out Gooden, Larry Hughes and four other players in exchange for Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Delonte West is this: the frontcourt rotation of Ilgauskas-Wallace-Varejao-Smith has more depth, West will relieve James of some ballhandling responsibilities by helping to push the ball up the court in transition and Szczerbiak will provide three point shooting. If all of those things turn out to be true, then this will be a good deal for Cleveland but it is important to understand how well Cleveland's previous frontcourt rotation played and how important Hughes was as a perimeter defender. Perhaps Cleveland's rebounding problems on Thursday were simply a function of Ilgauskas not playing and/or James not rebounding as well as he usually does--but the point of the trade was precisely to have enough depth to compensate for when the team is shorthanded up front for whatever reason. Wallace and Varejao did have 10 rebounds each but they also only combined to score six points on 3-15 field goal shooting. The nice thing about having Ilgauskas and Gooden is that they not only rebound but each of them can make a 15 foot jump shot. The "new" Cavs frontcourt may look better and deeper on paper but the question is whether or not it will look better on the court during the playoffs. I understand what General Manager Danny Ferry was thinking when he made the deal but I still am not sold that it significantly improved the team.
In addition to working out the frontcourt chemistry--and getting everybody healthy at the same time--the Cavs have to be concerned about who will be the team's lockdown perimeter defender. Maybe you saw the highlight clip of Ben Gordon freezing James at the foul line with a fake and then blowing by him to the hoop. That is going to be a recurring theme in the playoffs when the Cavs face the likes of Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton, who are bigger and more skilled than the sometimes erratic Gordon.
The Bulls held James to 3-12 field goal shooting in the second half, keeping him out of the paint and off of the free throw line, and they outscored Cleveland 60-45. Yes, it's just one game, but the Cavs showed weaknesses in the very areas that I questioned as soon as this trade was announced. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was not at all pleased with what he saw: "We've got to dig down deep and find out who we want to be. Play 110 to 115 on the road and win sometimes and look pretty winning? Or do we want to be a playoff team that's going to go far in the playoffs and have a chance to compete for an NBA championship? Get ugly and dirty sometimes by getting stops first and figure out how to score second. It's very concerning for me right now."
The Cavs are 4-3 with their new players (they also won a shorthanded game after the trade when various players had not yet been cleared to play by the league); they started out the calendar year 15-7. The "old" Cavs went 2-1 versus Boston and 0-1 versus Detroit; the "new" Cavs are 0-1 versus Boston and will face Detroit three times before the regular season ends. Keep in mind that the "old" Cavs beat Detroit in six games in last year's playoffs--rattling off four straight wins--and even as an inexperienced team they extended Detroit to seven games in the 2006 playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:55 AM