Overrate This! LeBron James Keeps His Cool, Carries Cavs to 3-1 Lead Over WizardsLeBron James produced game-high totals in points (34), rebounds (12, tied with teammate Ben Wallace) and assists (seven), carrying his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 100-97 win in Washington and a 3-1 series lead. James inserted daggers into the mouthy Wizards throughout the game before delivering the death blow at the end, drawing a double-team and passing to Delonte West, who delivered the game-winning three pointer from the left baseline. West finished with 21 points and five assists, shooting 5-8 from three point range. West and Daniel Gibson (12 points, 4-7 three point shooting) repeatedly made the Wizards pay for trapping James. Wallace's contributions will probably go unnoticed by most people but in addition to his 12 rebounds he had the Cavs' only two blocked shots while compiling a game-high +14 plus/minus rating. Even though Wallace did not attempt a single shot from the field and did not score a point, he put the lie to the idea that he is an offensive liability by grabbing four offensive rebounds and serving as a good pressure release when James was trapped, receiving passes from James and then immediately swinging the ball to the other side of the court; Wallace finished with two assists but even on plays when Wallace did not get the assist he played an important role in breaking down Washington's defense by making them scramble to guard the recipients of his passes.
Cleveland's three part recipe for victory is defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James. Cleveland played reasonably well on defense, holding the Wizards to .457 field goal shooting, but the Cavs outrebounded Washington 51-31 and James--as Doug Collins would say--had his fingerprints all over the game. Wizards' guard DeShawn Stevenson called James "overrated" a month ago and during the two games in Washington the fans thought it was amusing or cute to chant "Overrated!" at James, apparently oblivious to how completely ridiculous they are making themselves look to the rest of the nation, though Mike Tirico wryly noted that the chants seemed to noticeably die down after the Cavs took a second half lead. Tirico said of James, "He's staying away from the garbage...and just playing basketball." The ironic--and hilarious--thing about Washington fans chanting "Overrated!" is that perhaps the most overrated All-Star in the NBA--Gilbert Arenas-- plays for the Wizards. There is nothing wrong with fans booing the best player on the opposing team but when he is playing at a high level and simply killing your squad screaming "Overrated!" is not only childish but also ineffective. Great players "love being the enemy," to borrow the title of Reggie Miller's book, so antagonizing James in that fashion really did not do the Wizards any favors.
Antawn Jamison led Washington with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Caron Butler had a solid game (19 points, four assists). Gilbert Arenas got his second consecutive start, with decidedly mixed results in 32 minutes of action, the most time that he has played since returning from his knee injury: he scored four points in the final minute to help the Wizards tie the score before West made the game-winning shot but Arenas also had a game-high four turnovers and looked out of sync most of the time, scoring 10 points on 3-8 shooting from the field, adding two assists and two rebounds. Arenas had a -4 plus/minus rating, while Antonio Daniels--who started in Arenas' place for most of the season--had a +5 plus/minus rating in 17 minutes, contributing seven points and three assists while committing just one turnover.
The Wizards took an early 13-8 lead but they trailed 18-15 at the 3:39 mark of the first quarter when Daniels replaced Arenas, who had already committed four turnovers. The last of Arenas' miscues was stolen by James, who raced down court for a fast break dunk. Hubie Brown said simply that it was a "bad pass, bad decision" by Arenas, indicating that both the idea and the execution of the play were flawed. With Daniels running the show, Washington closed the quarter with a 13-6 run.
The Wizards played with much more defensive intensity and offensive efficiency in their game three win than they did in the first two games of the series and they continued to play well in the first quarter and a half of game four, building a 39-31 lead. Then things started to go downhill for them. Arenas missed a forced jumper and James converted a dunk. The Wizards missed a couple more jumpers and James passed to Wally Szczerbiak for a layup. Butler missed another jumper and on the next Cavs' possession Cleveland got three offensive rebounds, Wallace snaring the final one and passing to West for a three pointer that cut Washington's lead to 39-38. The Wizards no longer displayed good ball movement on offense, their defensive intensity had dropped off and the Cavaliers owned the boards. Still, it seemed possible that on their home court they could regroup themselves and win--but then the loud mouth Stevenson decided to become a wanna be tough guy, bopping James upside the head when James drove to the hoop. James went tumbling to the ground in one direction and his headband went flying in another. James immediately stood up and moved toward Stevenson but James has already shown that he is way too smart to do anything that will get him suspended, though James noted after the game that if Stevenson had pulled such a punk move (my term, not James') in the park then the situation would have "escalated"; that is why I say that Stevenson is a "wanna be tough guy," because it is easy to hit somebody in an NBA game when there are a bunch of people who are going to step in and make sure that there will not be a fight. The Wizards have never been known as a tough or physical team and their flagrant fouls on James in this series will do nothing to alter their reputation; real tough guys on a basketball court get rebounds, play defense, stay focused enough to execute and make winning plays, none of which the Wizards do on a consistent basis.
Stevenson received a level one flagrant foul, though at halftime Jon Barry said that he thought Stevenson should have been ejected. TNT's Charles Barkley did not go that far but he emphasized how dangerous it is to foul a player by hitting him in the head with such force. James made one of the two resulting free throws. James missed a jumper on the next possession but West stole the ball and passed to James, who nailed a deep three pointer to put the Cavs up 42-39. Cleveland closed the half on a 16-5 run after Stevenson's flagrant foul, with James scoring 10 points. By halftime, Cleveland led 54-44 and would never trail again, though the Wizards did tie the score late in the game.
In the third quarter, Hubie Brown suggested that a big problem for the Wizards is that they had started playing too much "one on one." As he said that, Arenas drove to the hoop and scored his first two points of the game on a reverse layup. "There's another example of a one on one play, but they converted," Brown noted. It is funny how Wizards' fans will exult when Arenas scores but for some reason they cannot figure out that he takes too many bad, low percentage shots and that his misses take his team out of games at least as often as his makes shoot the Wizards into games. The other problem with having a player like Arenas as a point guard is the corrosive effect it has on the rest of the team. During TNT's pregame show later in the day, Chris Webber talked about how frustrating it would be to play for the Denver Nuggets because Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson monopolize the ball; the other players go so long without having the ball, Webber said, that when they get it they are out of rhythm and don't know what to do. Arenas has the exact same effect on his teammates and it is sheer foolishness to not be able to recognize this.
The Cavs pushed the lead to 67-52 in the third quarter but the Wizards made one last run to cut the margin to 97-93 with less than a minute left in the game. The Wizards look their best when Arenas is either not in the game or when he plays within the context of their motion offense instead of trying to go on solo scoring missions. Washington fans were no doubt thrilled when a stumbling Arenas was bailed out because a foul was called on West with :57 left in the game. West did make contact with Arenas but it seemed like Arenas was losing his balance--and the ball--before the contact happened. Still, it was the correct call and Arenas drained both free throws. After James missed a jumper, Arenas got the rebound, dribbled downcourt and again seemed to lose his balance before launching a fadeaway shot off of one foot. I imagine that Washington Coach Eddie Jordan was thinking, "No, no...yes!" as Arenas' fling hit the backboard and went in. I give Arenas credit for wanting the ball in that situation and making the shot but let's be honest: it was a bad, low percentage shot in a tie game with plenty of time left on the shot clock.
On the Cavs' final possession, Arenas left West alone in the corner to trap James. I would assume that is what Arenas was instructed to do, though Arenas did cost the Wizards a game this season in Milwaukee when he left a shooter unattended in the left corner. After West made what turned out to be the game-winning shot, the Wizards called timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. Arenas received the inbounds pass but his three point shot fell short. Barkley later suggested that the play should have been called for Butler or Jamison since Arenas is not yet completely healthy. This is the Catch-22 that Arenas presents: he wants to play even though his presence is not helping the team and whenever he plays sooner or later he feels the need to dominate the ball, even if he goes through pass-first stretches. The only thing that will change next season when he is 100% healthy--assuming he does become 100% healthy, which I think is not a sure thing at this point--is that he will revert to dominating the ball even more; when he plays a pass-oriented style now I get the sense that this is not because his nature has changed but because he is not physically able to go out and jack up 20 shots. As long as Arenas is considered to be the main guy on the squad the Wizards will never be a legitimate contender; they will always simply be the "Gilbert Arenas Show."
After Cleveland's game one victory over Washington, LeBron James responded to a question about Washington's trash talking by saying, "93-86 (the final score) is the only words I need to say." In the same vein, "100-97" and "3 games to 1" are really all he needs to say now, although "34-12-7" also speak quite loudly.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:01 AM