Taking Care of Business: Cavs Tame Timberwolves, 92-84It was not particularly pretty and--except for a few sensational dunks by LeBron James--it was not particularly exciting but Cleveland played solid defense to earn a 92-84 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. James finished with 30 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds; he sprained his ankle in a 92-87 loss at Boston on Wednesday but seemed to have plenty of spring in his step versus Minnesota. After the game, James said that his ankle is fine, but he soaked both of his feet in a bucket of ice water while he spoke with the media. James banged his right thumb on the rim during one of his dunks, reaggravating an injury from earlier in the season; he joked that he will have to try to not dunk the ball so hard the next time. Al Jefferson led Minnesota with 22 points and 10 rebounds but he had just four points and three rebounds in the second half as the Cavaliers aggressively trapped him and forced other players to shoulder the offensive load. Cleveland battled Minnesota to a 40-40 tie in rebounds, overcoming a 26-20 first half disadvantage in that category. The Cavaliers enjoyed significant edges in points in the paint (50-38) and fast break points (15-5).
This was my first opportunity to see the "new" Cavs in person but I can't really make any sweeping judgments for several reasons. First and foremost, Minnesota is a bad team; the Cavs did not trade away half of their roster, including two starters, to beat the Timberwolves. Second, Wally Szczerbiak was not with the team because his wife is expecting a child. Third, key rotation players Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic did not play due to injuries. Of the three newcomers who did play, Ben Wallace (eight points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots) and Delonte West (12 points, five assists) had solid games, while Joe Smith struggled (two points, three rebounds). Before the game, Smith talked about how the terminology in Cleveland is completely different from what he was used to in Chicago, where he was arguably the Bulls' most consistent player this season. Presumably, when he becomes acclimated to Cleveland's system he will once again be productive. The best sign so far for Cleveland is that Wallace has been very active on the glass and as a shotblocker. In this game, the Cavs also tried to refute the myth that Wallace is just as effective stopping his own team's offense; a couple key fourth quarter sequences involved plays that culminated in Wallace setting screens and then diving to the hoop to receive passes from James that he converted into a layup and a dunk. Just because Wallace cannot make a shot outside of the paint does not mean that he is a bad offensive player. In fact, he is a good screener, a decent passer and a fine offensive rebounder. While James runs pick and pop plays with Smith or starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, he can also run traditional pick and roll plays with Wallace or backup center/forward Anderson Varejao; teams dare not blitz James on such plays because he will hit Wallace or Varejao with pinpoint passes that they will turn into easy scoring opportunities. The two Wallace plays versus Minnesota were nice because they involved a lot of player movement and screening, almost like the sleight of hand a magician uses to distract his audience. Cleveland does not have to run 20 of these a game, either; just a handful will be enough to keep the defense off balance (and keep Wallace content with his touches, which has been an issue at times when he was with Detroit and Chicago).
All of this looks good and sounds good but Minnesota fell to 12-45 after this loss, so for all we know a pick and roll play with LeBron James and comedian George Wallace might also be effective against them. Until we see Cleveland's complete current roster in action against good teams it is impossible to really know if the big trade helped, hurt or is simply a wash. That is why my initial reaction to this trade was lukewarm; I believe that the previous nucleus, when healthy, was good enough to make a return trip to the Finals. Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry has publicly stated that he thought that the team was not good enough, so it will be interesting to see how his intended upgrade pans out. It may very well work but I would have been hesitant to put my team through such upheaval shortly before the playoffs begin without bringing in a bonafide All-Star (perhaps Wallace will be able to once again play at that level).
In his postgame standup, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said, "The last couple games we've had some breakdowns defensively. Against Milwaukee in transition defense we broke down quite a bit...I thought that against Boston our pick and roll defense was not good at all. They really exposed us...I thought that tonight we were better in both of those areas and also as a team defensively. Al Jefferson had 18 at the half, so we decided to turn up our aggressiveness on him and double him quicker. We did that as a team and then guys covered for one another in our rotations and on the back side. We limited them on the glass in the second half." Brown also liked his team's activity level defensively in the paint, with either Wallace challenging shots and Ilgauskas (10 points, six rebounds, four blocked shots) providing support or vice versa.
I acknowledged that it is early but I asked Coach Brown what one area he is most pleased with regarding his "new" team and what is the one area where he would most like to see some improvement. He replied, "We have to just keep playing with one another because it is not necessarily just one area. Obviously, you end up talking about both sides of the ball. Offensively, for us, when we face certain teams if a team does something that we have not worked on then we are going to struggle a little bit. One of the things that Boston did against us is get up into us and deny us (passing angles) and they really pressured us. We hadn't worked on any (specific) counters, so we just kind of played basketball. Memphis tried to press us and I hadn't said one word about our press break (strategy), so we just had to kind of improvise. On the flip side, defensively, we haven't talked about transition defense and those rules, so we got exposed. Our pick and roll (defense) is a continuing conversation; we got exposed against Boston. So there are a lot of areas, not just one specific area, that we have to try to continue to work hard to clean up and we have to use these games as some of our practices. We have to kind of coach and teach and figure things out on the fly."
Just to be clear, Brown is not saying that the Cavs have no plans about these things; on the contrary, those plans were put into place in training camp. The issue now is that half of his roster has been swapped out, so principles and philosophies that he taught to players not just in training camp but over the past two years have to be taught to the new players as the season winds down. That challenge prompted my next question: How concerned is he about being able to get the new players up to speed before the playoffs so that a postseason opponent is not able to catch the Cavaliers by surprise with a press or some other tactic? Brown answered, "I think that all of the bases will be covered come playoff time. We just have to make sure that we try to do them at a high level. With this team, with the intelligence of the guys that we have and that we feel that they have for the game of basketball, I think that that will be there."
I also asked James what he is most pleased with about his "new" team and what area he would like to see improved before playoff time. He responded, "We are only going to improve with time, with games and with practices. Early, we are looking pretty good. Defensively we are very active, especially on our interior. Those guys are clamping down on the interior and we are just trying to make teams beat us with outside shots. It's been pretty good, so I am looking forward to what we have in store later on in this season and going into the postseason."
Notes From Courtside:
Just prior to the start of the game, Ferry presented a plaque to James in honor of James becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 10,000 career points. James reached that milestone after 368 games, which makes him the ninth fastest player to accomplish this. He is the second fastest player to accumulate 10,000 points, 2500 rebounds and 2000 assists, trailing only Oscar Robertson, who did that in 334 games. Looking ahead, James reached the 10,000 point plateau in fewer games than six of the top 10 scorers in NBA history, though three of the top four scorers of all-time beat James' pace (#1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored his first 10,000 points in 319 games, #3 Michael Jordan needed 303 games and #4 Wilt Chamberlain raced to 10,000 points in just 236 games). Julius Erving played the first five years of his career in the ABA and ranks fifth on the career scoring list if his ABA points are included; I do not know exactly when Erving scored his 10,000th career point, but based on his annual scoring averages in those early seasons he likely did so in approximately the 350th game of his career, narrowly edging James.
James' game is about a lot more than just scoring, of course. He won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for games played from February 19-24, the third time this season and 13th time in his career that he has received this honor. James set a career-high by having double doubles in four straight games and he became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain (March 16-20, 1968) to average at least 28.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 10.5 apg in a four game span. James had at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in each of the first three games of that week; only Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson have ever reached those each of those levels in three consecutive games. James had triple doubles on February 19 versus Houston and on February 20 at Indiana. That is the second time this season that James has had triple doubles on consecutive days, the first time anyone has done that since Magic Johnson (1988). James now has 16 career triple doubles; he is the third youngest player to record 15 triple doubles, trailing only Robertson and Johnson.
How quickly do things change in the NBA? When I covered Cleveland's 95-79 win over Seattle on January 8, I noted how thrilled Cavs reserve Shannon Brown was about being pictured on the cover of the game day program. Of course, he was traded away as part of the big deal that netted Wallace, Smith, Szczerbiak and West, who were each pictured on the cover of the program for the Minnesota game under the tagline, "Welcome to the Family."
This was Cleveland's 22nd sellout in 28 home games but it might have had the fewest media members in attendance of any NBA game that I have covered; I think that a lot of the local Cleveland media are covering the Browns' moves as the free agent market opens and the dreadful Timberwolves obviously do not have a lot of writers and broadcasters documenting their first post-Kevin Garnett season.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 AM