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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Focused Cavs Rout Undisciplined Wizards, 116-86

The Washington Wizards made good on their vow to repeatedly hit LeBron James but James and his Cleveland Cavaliers kept their composure and hit back where it counts the most: the scoreboard. Cleveland's 116-86 game two victory exposed the Wizards to be a team that--in the words of their coach, Eddie Jordan--lacks "intensity, discipline and organization." Those deficiencies showed up in all facets of the game: the Wizards shot just 27-72 (.375) from the field, they were outrebounded 49-34 and they allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 42-81 (.519) from the field. LeBron James led the Cavs with 30 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, his 13th double double in 35 career playoff games. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had another strong game (16 points, nine rebounds), while Wally Szczerbiak (15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting) and Daniel Gibson (13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting) spread the court with their outside shooting. Ben Wallace (eight points, seven rebounds in just 18 minutes) played good defense and provided a lot of energy. Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson and Darius Songaila paced Washington with 12 points each. Gilbert Arenas finished with seven points, three rebounds, three assists, a team-high three turnovers and a team-high two shots blocked (not blocked shots, but his own shots blocked); Arenas shot just 2-10 from the field and had a -22 plus/minus rating in just under 24 minutes of action, tied for second worst on the team behind Antawn Jamison, who had a -30 plus/minus rating in 34:38, scoring nine points on 4-13 field goal shooting and tying James and Ilgauskas with a game-high nine rebounds.

The Wizards actually got off to a good start, leading 15-7 by the 6:15 mark of the first quarter. Arenas made his first appearance of the game shortly after that with the Wizards still up 15-9. Within 1:14 he missed a jumper, committed a foul against Szczerbiak while defending against a post up move and then received a technical foul for pushing Szczerbiak after the whistle had blown. Arenas did not deliver a violent blow but it was just a stupid thing to do right in front of the referee. In five minutes of first quarter action, Arenas shot 0-3 from the field while committing two fouls, a technical foul and one turnover. The Wizards' 15-9 lead turned into a 27-22 deficit with Agent Zero on the case. James had nine points, four rebounds and four assists in the first quarter.

The Cavaliers outscored the Wizards 26-18 in the second quarter to take a 53-40 halftime lead. James was quiet in the second quarter (three points) but Ilgauskas (nine points, four rebounds) picked up the slack. The Wizards' alleged Big Three (Arenas, Butler, Jamison) came up small in the second quarter, combining to score 10 points on 4-13 field goal shooting. Arenas scored two points on 1-7 shooting in the first half, Butler had six points on 1-8 shooting and Jamison led the team with nine points on 4-11 shooting. James and Ilgauskas each scored 12 points.

At halftime, TNT's Magic Johnson stated the obvious: Arenas hurt the team not only with his ineffectiveness but because he took bad shots, something which Johnson noted that other Wizards then started to do as well. Kenny Smith said that last year when Arenas was "the hot player" the Wizards were like a "dictatorship" and everything ran through him. This season, though, the Wizards did well despite the fact that Arenas missed virtually the entire year, and Smith said that now the team functions more like a "democratic society and he has to understand that it (the offense) goes through a lot of different people and it's not just him." As TNT ran a clip of Arenas futilely trying to post up the much bigger James, Smith stated the obvious (or, rather, what is obvious to everyone but Arenas): "This is not a good matchup, him posting LeBron James up." Barkley wrapped things up by saying, "Gilbert is a guy who is ball dominant. When he is out, Caron Butler becomes an All-Star, Jamison is an All-Star. He (Arenas) hasn't figured it out. When you're not 100% you can't do the things you used to do. It's very simple. He has to get the ball to Caron Butler and Jamison because he is not 100%. He has to understand that; that is the reason he is a good player and not a great player--he worries about getting his instead of making the players around him better." That is exactly right--and precisely what I have been saying about Arenas for quite some time. He is a talented, skillful player but he is not a great player and he is not a franchise player--and even when he was healthy he was not a franchise player, because he does not have the mentality of a franchise player. The best thing that happened to Cleveland in this series is when Arenas made his first four three pointers in game one because Arenas is going to spend the rest of the series chasing the mirage that he is on fire, not realizing that the only smoke is coming from his team going down in flames. It's funny how his fans dwell on his few special moments but all of the forced shots that he misses seem to have been surgically removed from their memories.

Why focus so much on Arenas when he has just come back after missing so much time because of a knee injury? Simple--via his ghostwriter, Arenas stated in his blog that the Wizards wanted to face the Cavs because they think that the Cavs are very beatable. If Arenas is going to say such things then he has to be prepared to either back them up on the court or accept the criticism that comes from failing to do so. You don't call out a team and then make excuses for not playing well. If he didn't think that he was healthy enough to have an impact in this series then he should have kept his mouth shut. The reality is that James is by far the best player on either team and that Cleveland is more dedicated to team defense and rebounding than Washington is; those three factors are why I picked Cleveland to win this series and why I am mystified that so many people liked Washington's chances. I did not expect a game two blowout and I still would not be surprised to see Washington win as many as two games but Cleveland's superiority should have been apparent before the series to any objective observer.

All of the Wizards' fake toughness and empty bravado came to a head at the 6:59 mark of the third quarter. Cleveland already enjoyed a 65-50 lead when James drove to the hoop and elevated, only to receive a forceful two handed shove from Washington center Brendan Haywood, who did not even make a pretense of trying to make a play on the ball. James landed awkwardly out of bounds and the referees immediately--and correctly--assessed Haywood a level two flagrant foul, which carries with it an automatic ejection. Haywood may very well be suspended by the NBA for the next game as well because, as James said after the game, "It was definitely not a basketball play in no shape, way or form." James added that the last time he was on the receiving end of such a foul was in high school and that he broke his wrist when he landed. Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that not only is what Haywood did completely uncalled for but if you do that in a park or rec league game you are 100% guaranteed to start a fight. That was pretty much the extent of the Wizards' plan to stop James: injure him or get him kicked out for fighting. The way that James reacted puts to shame Carmelo Anthony and the Phoenix Suns; remember when Anthony jumped into the middle of the fracas at Madison Square Garden, threw one sucker punch and then moonwalked his way out of range before he could get hit? That was supposedly his way of proving his toughness but all he did was look like a punk and hurt his team by getting suspended for 15 games. Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw got so bent out of shape when Robert Horry fouled Steve Nash in last year's playoffs that they bounded off of their bench and got suspended. Yet, James was on the receiving end of a total cheap shot but he simply got up, shook it off and shot his free throws--he did not throw punches or lose control and his team follows his lead (just like Anthony's team follows his, just like the Suns regularly lose their composure in late game playoff situations and just like the Wizards follow Arenas' lead in terms of being undisciplined and disorganized). James and the Cavs have been involved in several heated situations in the playoffs the past few years and they never do anything stupid because James sets a mature tone and everyone else falls in line.

After James made his free throws, Delonte West nailed a three pointer to put the Cavs up 20 and the rout was on. The Wizards never got closer than 20 points the rest of the way and the Cavs emptied their bench with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter: all 12 active Cavs scored at least two points--even Billy Thomas, who spent most of the season in the Developmental League.

The Wizards' defense was a mess for most of the game. Basically, they trapped James randomly, no one rotated and the Cavs feasted on easy cuts to the hoop and wide open jumpers as Washington looked like "Denver East." Their offense was not well organized either, consisting largely of one player dribbling until he found an opening to jack up a shot. I have always maintained that Arenas sets the tone in this regard; that is how he plays and then everyone follows suit. Some Wizards' fans swear that the numbers show that the team is more efficient offensively with Arenas than without him and I'm sure that they will chalk this loss up to just being one bad game for the team and that they will excuse Arenas because he is not 100%. Well, this one bad game was the most important game of the season because teams that have a 2-0 series lead virtually always advance; don't believe the misconception that all Cleveland did was "take care of business" at home and now Washington can do the same: Washington has to win four out of five games to avoid elimination and that is very difficult to do. After all, even if the Wizards do win the next two games that just puts them in a three game mini-series with two of the games in Cleveland.

The postgame quotes from both sides were absolutely fascinating. Arenas did not bother to show up at the podium, though he did tell a reporter in the locker room that "the fouls they're calling out there is like golf compared to what the Bad Boys (Detroit) used to do to Michael (Jordan). So, if it is getting out of hand, I must have been blind when I used to watch basketball when I was little." Again, it must be emphasized that undercutting an airborne player with a two handed shove poses a serious injury threat and is a no-no at any level of the game. The Cavaliers delivered some hard fouls in this game--Anderson Varejao received a level one flagrant foul--but they did not do anything as egregious as what Haywood did to James.

Coach Jordan personally took the blame for his team's poor performance, saying, "Cleveland did a great job tonight. They played with a lot more intensity, a lot more discipline. They executed a great game plan...We just lost our discipline, all the things we talked about for two days. I did a horrible job keeping our guys in an organized fashion...I did a horrible job trying to keep our guys playing with intensity and discipline and organization." Of course, even though Jordan is taking the bullet for his team he is also sending the players a message by blasting their lack of professionalism. It will be interesting to see how they respond. It is worth asking why Jordan felt like he had to keep emphasizing discipline and why his players were nevertheless unable to maintain their poise; the obvious answer is that Arenas and Stevenson did so much talking before this series that they got themselves and their teammates so hyped up that they could not concentrate on what they are supposed to be doing offensively and defensively. Arenas' declaration about how much the Wizards wanted to face the Cavs simply looks asinine and anyone with an IQ above room temperature realizes that Stevenson is an idiot for saying a month ago that James is "overrated." Jordan tried his best to put out the raging fires that Arenas and Stevenson stoked with their ill chosen words, saying this about James: "LeBron controlled the game. He's head and shoulders above a lot of people and sometimes he looks like a man playing among boys. He controlled the game with his intensity, with his leadership and his playmaking and just his presence." As for the Cavs, Jordan said, "We are playing the (Eastern Conference) champions and I know they changed their team but they still have the same coaching staff and, in a respectful way, the monster player (James) and he's taking over the series." Those two quotes are what the Wizards should have been saying publicly all along; if they wanted to play the Cavs or think that James is overrated they should have kept those sentiments to themselves. You don't see or hear any Cavalier players talking about Arenas being overrated or noting that the Wizards don't have much regular season or playoff success with their current group.

Jamison is a thoughtful, classy individual who must privately be appalled at the way that Arenas and Stevenson have acted. Jamison tried to distance himself from their comments, declaring that they took place a month ago and that he and his teammates absolutely did not underestimate the Cavs. Of course, Jamison is not entirely correct: while Stevenson's statement is a month old, Arenas stuck his foot in his mouth right before the playoffs began and specifically said that the Wizards wanted to face Cleveland. There must be some fascinating closed door conversations in that Wizards' locker room, particularly between the business-like captains Jamison and Butler and Arenas and Stevenson.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown applauded the way that the officials managed the game: "I've said it time and time again: we know that this series is going to be physical. Washington has come out and said they're going to hit LeBron, they're going to hit LeBron, they're going to hit LeBron and you can't have grown men saying I'm going to hit somebody. If that's the case, we, the NBA, the officials, cannot allow anything to get out of hand and they have to keep control over both sides." Brown also noted that he did not have to give a halftime speech because James took the floor to speak to the entire team, telling them to stay aggressive and focused.

James explained his leadership role: "It definitely starts with me because I am the guy that they're throwing everything at. They're trying to play physical. They're sending double and triple teams at me. They're trying to get me out of my comfort zone. They're trying to get me to the point where I get frustrated. If I'm not mentally prepared as the leader on our team, I'm not going to be focused on what's at task. We're here to win a series, we're not here to talk. We've just got to play good basketball and move on."

This was undoubtedly the best performance by the "new" Cavs, the unit that has been playing together for fewer than 30 games since the big midseason trade. Obviously, beating this ragtag Wizards team does not necessarily translate into being able to defeat the league-leading Celtics but if the Cavs can consistently employ last year's winning formula--defense, rebounding, the brilliance of LeBron James--then they will have a puncher's chance to return to the NBA Finals. I am still skeptical that the trade significantly improved the team's ability to win in the playoffs but this was the first time that the "new" squad clicked on all cylinders.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game, there was a moment of silence in honor of Darell Garretson, who passed away this weekend at the age of 76. Garretson was a referee from 1967-94 before serving 17 years as the NBA Supervisor of Officials.

***

Israeli hip-hip violinist Miri Ben-Ari performed the National Anthem and she was also the featured halftime act. The National Anthem is difficult for even talented vocalists to sing, so I imagine that it is very difficult to play it on the violin but her rendition brought down the house. The Grammy Award winner also performed at the 2005 All-Star Game in Denver.

***

The Cavaliers' performance in this game was really remarkable across the board. They set franchise playoff records for largest margin of victory (the old record, 27, was set versus Philadelphia on May 1, 1990) and most three pointers in one half (seven in the second half). The last time they scored more than 116 points in a postseason game was May 17, 1992, when they scored 122 versus Boston. The last time they had 27 assists in a playoff game was May 17, 1993.

***

The supposed rivalry between the Cavs and Wizards is looking more and more like the one that existed between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. The Cavs have now beaten the Wizards in eight straight playoff games over a span of three seasons. That is the longest postseason winning streak against one team since 1997 and the sixth longest one in NBA playoff history.

***

During his pregame standup, someone asked LeBron James what he thought of Chris Paul's playoff debut versus Dallas. James was very impressed and he opined that if the Hornets did not have Paul that they would not have made the playoffs even in the East, let alone in the West.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:34 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 11:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go on being a Cleveland Traveliers and LeBron "i can do whatever i want on the floor and get away with it" James bandwagoner! He will be no where near Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant etc.

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 5:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I have not put LeBron up there with Magic, Bird or MJ and I have him behind Kobe in my MVP rankings.

As for the officiating, it is worth noting that if you listen to the fans of both teams each side thinks that it is getting a raw deal. The Wiz fans think that LeBron is getting away with violations while the Cavs fans say that LeBron is getting pounded and should be attempting more free throws.

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 6:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous regggie


gil arenas could play he is very good not great he takes alot of bad shots and it seems he is not getting it i liked him ever since he played with the warriors. lebron is the best or second best up there with kobe in the league i think he is right there if i got to take one i take lebron kobe shoots 15 footers at end of games lebron makes game winning layups. he has two triple doubles two game winning lay-up agianst wizards we should call him wizard killer he has dominated them in the playoffs he will be on the bird magic jordan level and possibly up there and shaq and kobe if they get up there i would put shaq ahead of kobe and kobe ahead of lebron. no answer for 23 the wizards are getting beat in 6.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Kobe has a more reliable jumper than LeBron does, so shooting 15 footers is not a bad option. Also, Kobe still drives to the hoop a lot and he is much more likely to make his free throws than LeBron is. Kobe's the best player in the NBA and LeBron is just a little bit behind him.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 8:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i rather be two feet from the basket than shoot a 15 footer like kobe does at end of games kobe could make the 15 footer but being as close as lebron is at end of games is better. i know kobe a better shooter than lebron but lebron is stronger and a better driver it's man among boys you know he gonna drive and theres nuthing you could do about it. to me that gives him the slight edge on kobe.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 7:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Kobe can drive or shoot the 15 footer, while LeBron is much more dependent on being able to drive. They are both great players and great closers but Kobe is more versatile and thus more difficult to guard. Also, if LeBron does not improve his free throw shooting then he will continue to get hammered every time he goes to the hoop.

 

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