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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Strong Second Half Effort Lifts Cavs Over Blazers

LeBron James posted his seventh triple double of the season (24 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) as the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 13 point first half deficit to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 88-80 at Quicken Loans Arena. With starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas sidelined by a back injury, the Cavaliers needed their other bigs to pick up the slack offensively, defensively and on the glass. Joe Smith finished with 18 points, five rebounds and a game-high plus/minus rating of +13. Anderson Varejao scored a season-high 16 points while also grabbing nine rebounds. Ben Wallace started at center but had five rebounds and no points in less than 16 first half minutes; at halftime, the team announced that he had back spasms and would not return to the game, which opened up some more minutes for Smith. Wallace missed a two handed dunk and a couple layups, causing many members of press row to openly ask (amongst themselves) if Wallace has lost a step. Assuming that the injury is not a chronic condition, such speculation may still turn out to be premature.

LaMarcus Aldridge led Portland with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Brandon Roy had a quiet night (15 points on 5-13 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists) and no other Blazer scored in double figures. In the first half, Aldridge was the dominant player on the court, scoring 17 points on 8-12 shooting; he displayed the versatile repertoire that will likely earn him an All-Star selection soon, showing that he could score in the post as well as consistently knock down faceup jumpers. James had nine points on 4-9 shooting in the first half, adding five assists and four rebounds, but his Cavs trailed, 43-39. The Blazers started the game with a 12-2 run during which Aldridge made a layup and drained two jumpers.

While diagramming one of the Cavs' numerous defensive breakdowns early in the game, Cleveland TV analyst Austin Carr said, "It's a thought process (for new Cavs like Ben Wallace) instead of a reaction." When you are thinking instead of reacting on a basketball court you will often arrive a split second late. Carr also later noted that this unfamiliarity is taking a toll on the Cavs offensively: "The Cavs are searching, rather than knowing what they want to do."

The Cavs slowed Aldridge down in the second half by treating him as if he already is an All-Star; they fronted him in the post to deny easy entry passes and they sent double-teams when he put the ball on the floor. James forced some turnovers as the double-teamer, showing that he is willing and able to accept more responsibility on defense than he did in previous seasons. Meanwhile, Smith, playing in place of the injured Wallace, provided an offensive spark for the Cavaliers, who took their first lead of the game when Varejao received a pass from James, made a layup, got fouled and converted the free throw to put Cleveland up 62-61. Roy closed the quarter by splitting a pair of free throws.

The fourth quarter was the "Lebron James Show," as it has been in many games this season. James led both teams in scoring (nine points), rebounds (four) and assists (three) despite shooting just 1-3 from the field, all of the attempts coming from three point range (he did his damage by making six of eight free throws); in fact James led both teams in all three categories for the entire second half (15 points, six rebounds, six assists), though he tied for the honors in rebounds. The score was tied at 67 at the 8:30 mark and James produced all of his fourth quarter points after that time. His three pointer with 4:18 left put Cleveland up 78-74 but the backbreaking play was a screen/roll that he ran to perfection with Varejao, who cut to the hoop, received a pass from James and dunked to put Cleveland up 83-77 with 1:16 left.

Portland Coach Nate McMillan was understandably disappointed with his team's second half perfromance: "We've got to come out scrapping in the third and fourth quarter...Offensively, you've got to run your sets hard, you've got to set screens and you've got to get to your spots. You've got to work a little harder to get to your spots. I thought their defense took us out of what we wanted to run. We didn't get the ball in the spots we needed to. We need to work harder to get to those spots...Their double teams (against Aldridge) are going to give you open looks against the traps. You just need to spread and be ready to shoot the ball and you've got to knock down those shots when you get them."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown had to juggle his lineup, particularly in the second half when he was without the services of three players who figure to be starters when the team is at full strength--Ilgauskas, Wallace and guard Sasha Pavlovic--and three point specialist Daniel Gibson: "In the first half, they (the Blazers) came out and played really well. We thought we had some good looks early in the game but the ball didn't go down. We felt we were OK, especially at halftime because of the good looks we had and we felt defensively we were playing OK. A couple things we did in the second half were step it up defensively and take care of the basketball." The Cavs had just one second half turnover--a shot clock violation--after committing nine first half turnovers, four of them by James, who termed those mistakes "unforced."

Although literally half of Cleveland's roster is different now than it was when the Cavs beat the Blazers 84-83 on January 30, the two big factors in that game prevailed once again: (1) James outdueled fellow All-Star Roy and (2) the Cavs took control of the game in the fourth quarter, using their experience and toughness to wear down a team that is younger and less battle-hardened.

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Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him about his thought process regarding how to rotate his bigs in light of the trade and Ilgauskas' injury: "There is a lot of talk about the disadvantages of playing Wallace and Varejao at the same time in terms of some of their offensive limitations. From your standpoint, what are the advantages of playing them together? Or is that something that you really hope to avoid doing for extended stretches once Z comes back?"

He replied, "If I thought that it was bad, then I'd start Joe (Smith) and I'd sit one of those two guys down. I think that combination can be a good combination. Defensively, in terms of getting us extra possessions, both of those guys are that type of player. Extra possessions in this league are really big. The thing that we have to get consistently (on offense) from either one of those guys--or both of those guys--is finishing around the basket. LeBron is going to draw a lot of attention and both of those guys are going to get some opportunities around the basket and they have to make sure that they finish those or get fouled in those situations in order for that floor to continue to open up not only for themselves but also for LeBron and the rest of their teammates. So, offensively, that has to happen. The thing that they have done and will continue to do is set solid screens. You have two guys who are going to set solid screens and then roll to the basket and finish and that is a big positive. Obviously, Z is a pretty good player and I think that he complements both of those guys extremely well but I think those guys can be effective together."

I followed up by asking, "Do you think that the value of setting screens is underrated because it does not appear in the boxscore and is not quantifiable like points are?"

Brown answered, "Yeah. You really can see that not only Ben (Wallace) but also Joe Smith--both of those guys are very, very good screen setters and not just in pick and roll situations but also in pin down situations or flare situations, they both set some tremendous screens that we see on tape. That has been very effective not only in getting their teammates open but also they have been the recipients of passes after setting some big screens (away from the ball)--especially Ben--and then stepping into the lane and dunking the basketball. That has to continue."

Even though Varejao and Wallace have limited shooting range they can still be effective offensive players by getting offensive rebounds, setting screens, cutting to the hoop and finishing with authority whether they get the ball via a pass or a rebound. Granted, the first quarter of the Portland game did not provide a shining example of that but Wallace's back injury may have had a lot to do with how tentatively and ineffectively he played--and Varejao's ability to play good screen/roll basketball with James led to some timely baskets, much like what happened in last year's Eastern Conference playoffs.

***

After James' big game in New York, he spoke of being 6-9, 260, which is taller and heavier than his listed size (6-8, 250). Asked about that before the game, James replied with a smile that he is 6-7, 240. A reporter joked that James was already that big in high school but James refused to budge, albeit with a huge smile on his face. I suppose that, like Bill Walton and others who did not want to be listed as 7-footers, James prefers to retain whatever mystique there may be about his listed dimensions as opposed to acknowledging what anyone who has seen him close up realizes: James is bigger than his listed size.

***

James has not only consistently said that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA but James will even remind questioners that he has consistently said that. Of course, many people take that statement with a grain of salt considering how competitive James is and how good he already is as a player. Does he really believe, in his heart of hearts, that Kobe--or anyone else--is better than he is? Obviously, we will probably never get a truthful answer to that question, so I took a different approach. Taking James' professed opinion at face value--that Kobe is better than he is--I asked James, "You've been very consistent about saying that you still think that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league. Everyone is talking about the MVP race pretty much being between the two of you. If you don't think that you are the best player right now, what do you think that you would need to do to have that title?"

James answered, "I don't know. I'm going to just continue to do what I do on the court every night and one day that title will come to me. Right now, with the MVP thing, I think that we are two players who just try to help our teams win ballgames and we do it at a high level every night. So we'll see what happens." In response to a follow-up question from another writer, James praised the fine season that Chris Paul is having, mentioning that the New Orleans guard could become the first player to average 20 ppg, 10 apg and 3 apg and saying that without Paul the Hornets might not be a playoff team even in the depleted East, let alone in the stacked West.

***

James also said that it is impossible to evaluate the results of the trade until all of the key players are active: "We can't find out how good a team we can be until we are injury-free...We are playing good basketball but we won't know how good we can be until we get everyone back. We are missing right now three of our top seven guys, two starters in Sasha (Pavlovic) and Z and then the sixth man in Boobie (Daniel Gibson). We'll see what happens but we'll be really good once we get healthy."

Outside observers have consistently doubted the Cavaliers and cast them in the role of underdogs, which is a big change for James, who noted that until he came to the NBA he had never been an underdog, that he was always used to stepping on the court and winning. He certainly is not fazed by the low expectations that many people have for the Cavaliers. "I'm looking forward to the postseason," James said with much conviction.

***

In the Cavs' locker room there are three bulletin boards displaying statistics. One of them shows the Eastern Conference standings and another one shows the league leaders in defensive field goal percentage, the key statistic monitored by Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich, his former college coach (and later his assistant with the Spurs before becoming an assistant to Mike Brown in Cleveland) Hank Egan and Mike Brown, who played for Egan in college. The third bulletin board lists "hockey assists," a term that refers to a pass that leads to the pass that is credited in the boxscore as an assist (in hockey, two assists can be awarded on one play); the concept works well in basketball, as I suggested in my article last year about Mark Aguirre. James leads the Cavs in "hockey assists" with 135, while Gibson ranks second with 80.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 AM

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