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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Well Done is Better Than Well Said: Cavs Silence Wizards, 93-86

The Washington Wizards talked trash, delivered hard fouls and muscled their way to an 11 point first half lead--but the Cleveland Cavaliers had the last word because they have LeBron James and the Wizards don't. James scored a game-high 32 points on 12-19 field goal shooting, leading the Cavs to a 93-86 game one victory at Quicken Loans Arena. James also had six rebounds, four assists and just one turnover. The Cavaliers' three part recipe for success is defense, rebounding and James' brilliance. Cleveland enjoyed a slim 43-42 rebounding edge and neither team shot well from the field so James proved to be the difference, as he did several times when these teams met in the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a strong game (22 points, 11 rebounds, four assists), carrying the offense early in the game before James got going. Delonte West shot just 3-10 from the field but in the fourth quarter he made a big jumper and shot 4-4 from the free throw line. He set playoff career-highs in points (16), rebounds (five), assists (five) and blocked shots (two), including a block of a Gilbert Arenas jumper with less than a minute left and the Cavs only leading by four points.

Arenas led the Wizards with 24 points in just 27:47 of playing time; he is still coming off of the bench instead of starting because the medical staff has restricted his minutes while he recovers from knee surgery and Coach Eddie Jordan feels like he can better control Arenas' minutes if Arenas operates in a reserve role. Jordan only played Arenas 10 minutes in the first half so that he could use him for most of the second half. Arenas scored 14 points in the first half, making all four of his three pointers, but he faded badly down the stretch and completely disappeared in the latter stages of the fourth quarter. Antawn Jamison had 23 points and a playoff career-high 19 rebounds. Brendan Haywood had a double double (15 points, 10 rebounds) but, like Arenas, he did most of his damage in the first half. Caron Butler had a solid but quiet game (14 points on 5-10 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, three steals). DeShawn Stevenson, who made headlines a month ago by saying that James is "overrated," scored three points on 1-9 shooting. He also had five assists and played tough defense on James--but not tough enough to stop James from taking over when the outcome of the game was in the balance.

The Cavs jumped out to a 13-6 lead even though James missed his first three field goal attempts. Arenas entered the game at the 3:42 mark with Cleveland still up 17-12 and after shooting an airball on his first attempt he sank four straight three pointers in less than six minutes. The second of those bombs, launched from 35 feet as time expired in the first quarter, put Washington up 24-19. His fourth trey gave the Wizards their biggest lead of the game, 30-19. The thing about Arenas is that he is a streak shooter; when he's on he can shoot his team into a game but when he's off he can shoot his team right out of it--and Arenas displayed both of those traits in this game. Cleveland settled down after this initial Arenas onslaught and James finally got going, scoring eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting in the second quarter after missing all four of his field goal attempts and scoring just four points in the first quarter. The score was tied at 46 at halftime.

Washington's strategy for dealing with James became apparent right from the start of the game: hit him constantly and foul him every time he goes to the hoop, forcing him to shoot free throws instead of making layups. Andray Blatche smacked James across the face when James drove to the hoop near the end of the first quarter. James missed the shot and tumbled to the court but no foul was called. The Wizards scored a fast break layup while James slowly stood up. Free throw shooting and three point shooting are James' only weaknesses (he shot 8-14 from the free throw line and 0-2 from three point range in this game). Washington's game plan is the same one that the "Bad Boys" Pistons used in the late 1980s versus Michael Jordan, who responded by hitting the weight room in the offseason so that he could deal with the punishment--and deal out some punishment of his own. James is listed at 6-8, 250 and has spoken of being 6-9, 260, so he is the same size as Karl Malone; as James put it after the game, "There is a difference between a foul or a hard foul or just when LeBron James goes to the hole, hammer him. I was built for this. I'm not 6-9, 260 pounds to shoot jumpers all night. I go to the hole and I create contact. Don't ever think at one point that I am the only person feeling that contact."

James got his revenge against Blatche by giving him an inadvertent (but not really) elbow a little bit later in the game as James drove to the hoop. James repeatedly showed that he is willing and able to deliver physical punishment. Just before halftime, Haywood nailed James with an illegal screen, again sending James sprawling to the ground. Haywood stood over James--"in a very disrespectful manner," as James later put it--so James hopped up and elbowed Haywood's arm aside. The players who were in the game for both teams rushed to intercede in the midcourt altercation but no one left the bench area and no punches were thrown. James, Haywood and Jamison each received technical fouls. Maybe the Wizards thought that they were setting a physical tone--employing the "intimidation factor" as James described it at halftime--but the second half proved that this did not work.

James scored 12 points on 5-6 shooting in the third quarter. After he converted a dunk that put Cleveland up 53-50, James subtly waved his hand in front of his face, mocking a celebration that Stevenson sometimes does. However, Jamison (nine points) and Butler (eight points) also had strong third quarters and Washington carried a 69-65 lead into the fourth quarter. The score remained close for most of the final period. Cleveland briefly went up 80-75 with 7:10 remaining but the Wizards capped off a 9-2 run with an Arenas reverse layup to take an 84-82 lead with 4:38 left. That would prove to be his last field goal, as he missed his last four shots, all of them attempted between the 2:13 mark and the :32.9 mark. Meanwhile, James scored six points in the last 1:37 of the game, including two strong drives to the hoop that made the score 86-84 and then 88-84, after which the Cavs never trailed again. His free throw nemesis popped up as he only split his last four free throw attempts, but the Wizards were stuck on 84 points until Butler tacked on a meaningless layup as time expired.

The trash talk from Arenas and Stevenson did not distract James or make him do anything out of character; he maintained his focus and led his team to victory. "93-86 is the only words I need to say," James explained after the game. "The series is not going to be won between LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson...For me as an individual, I can't go out there and make it an individual challenge because that takes away from our team efforts and what we have at task. It's never going to be between me and DeShawn, it's going to be me and my team against Washington."

This game is a wonderful example of how statistics do not tell the whole story about teams or players. The numbers say that Arenas had a great game but Bill Russell once sagely observed that what matters is not just how many points you score but when you score them. James scored throughout the game but he put his fingerprints all over the final outcome with his six late points, especially those two hard drives to the hoop in defiance of all of the Wizards' earlier physical play. That is why James is an MVP-level player while Arenas is simply a talented All-Star but not a franchise player. It is also worth noting that while Arenas got his points several of his teammates who were productive during his absence in the regular season struggled mightily: Stevenson, Roger Mason and Darius Songaila combined to score six points on 2-19 field goal shooting. Is that Arenas' fault? Not directly, but the point is that some people look at Arenas' gaudy individual numbers and view him as an indispensable player while the reality is that the team did roughly as well in almost a full season without him as the team did last season when he played 74 games. Arenas dominates the ball when he is on the court, so his value is not proven simply by citing his statistics; there is a delicate balance involved here because as his touches and numbers go up other players' touches and numbers go down. Arenas' advocates are convinced that the Wizards are significantly better with Arenas than without him but there is no proof of that; the team's record the past several years is much more affected by Butler's absences than by Arenas' absences and Arenas has yet to lead the team to either 50 regular season wins or two playoff series victories in one season, benchmarks that would support the claim that he is truly a franchise player.

Yes, this was just game one and the Wizards may very well win game two and seize homecourt advantage but the point is that we have years of evidence from the regular season and the playoffs about both James and Arenas and that mountain of evidence shows that James is a franchise player and that Arenas is not. That does not mean that Arenas has no value or that he makes the team worse or that he can't have a big game and carry the Wizards to a win or two in this series--but it does mean that, barring evidence to the contrary, he cannot lift the Wizards the same way that James lifted the Cavs last season.

After the game, Arenas offered all kinds of explanations and excuses for the decline in his play in the second half: "It usually happens since I've come back. I'll start off hot in the first half and cool off in the second half. It comes from sitting. They're trying to manage my minutes and it's kind of difficult to get my rhythm." He later added, "I was tired and didn't have my legs under me. Still I should have made those shots." Arenas had some success posting up West but did not do that late in the game: "We have to take advantage of the little guards but still it's my fourth game back. It's not the old Gil. I have to learn to take advantage of the post up opportunities earlier in the game when I'm fresher. The first five minutes of the game are when I'm at my best, because I'm fresh. I have to take advantage of it and that's why I was shooting threes earlier, because I had my legs under me. As the game goes on, I start to get tired and fatigued a little bit, so I tried to shoot pullup jumpers."

Arenas may very well be limited physically since he has just come back from injury, but the old rule used to be that if you are injured then you can't play and if you can play then you aren't injured--in other words, no excuses. Kobe Bryant is playing with a broken finger that will require surgery but you never hear him mention that. The Cavs pride themselves on never making excuses. James has been dealing with back spasms for quite some time now but when he was asked before the game how his back feels James answered simply, "I'm ready to play." James obviously is not 100% healthy; his gluteal and hamstring muscles tightened up late in the game, which probably has some relationship to the back spasms, and James spent a longer time than usual out of the game during the fourth quarter, lying on his back while the trainer stretched him out. Yet James never used his back injury as an excuse, before or after the game.

Arenas fouled out of the game with 13 seconds left and the outcome already decided. Yet, he was not done talking. As he sat down on the Wizards' bench he engaged in a heated exchange with assistant coach Phil Hubbard, with Arenas looking very much like Chad Johnson arguing on the field with quarterback Carson Palmer last year. That is another thing that you rarely--if ever--see James doing: arguing with his coaches or teammates. Arenas has a lot of talent and he put on a breathtaking show for about six minutes in the first half but James controlled the outcome of the game and James will control the outcome of the series.

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

Prior to the game, I asked Coach Brown who would draw the primary defensive assignment against Arenas in light of the fact that Arenas is coming off the bench now as opposed to being a starter. Brown replied, "There is not going to be a primary guy on him. Devin may guard him some, Delonte West may guard him some, even LeBron may guard him some. Daniel Gibson may guard him some. I don't have in my mind that I am going into the game saying 'This guy is going to be the main defender on Gilbert Arenas.' (Wizards Coach) Eddie (Jordan) may bring Gilbert in in the first three minutes of the ball game. If I said Devin is going to guard him--Devin probably is not going to be in the game in the first three minutes, so it is going to depend (on the situation) and be based on feel more than anything else."

As Coach Brown predicted, several players took turns guarding Arenas. James can perhaps bother Arenas the most because James is much bigger and just as quick. Gibson and West have decent quickness but can be overpowered by Arenas close to the basket; it is also easier for Arenas to shoot over either of them than it is for him to shoot over James.

***

Entering this year's playoffs, James had career playoff averages of 27.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg and 7.1 apg in 33 postseason games. No other player in NBA history who has played in at least 20 career playoff games has averaged more than 25 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 6.0 apg. James has the highest playoff scoring average in the NBA since the time he made his playoff debut in 2006.

***

Before the game, James admitted that he felt "jittery" prior to his first career playoff game in 2006; that did not stop him from notching a triple double (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in a 97-86 victory over the Wizards. "I'm more calm. I am able to control my energy a little bit," James said of the difference between his pregame mindset before the playoffs now versus then. "I am excited about it as we get close to game time...(Back then) I couldn't really focus as much as I wanted to because I was so excited just to play in my first postseason game."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM

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2 Comments:

At Monday, April 21, 2008 1:33:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

hello,
I watched the game. You've got the point about Arenas... if he dominates the ball like in the 4th quarter of this game, Wizards are lost. Apparently I overestimated him, he's not that smart to play smart. He just can't (or doesn't want to) adjust his game to the team. To the point I think he should break his arm or twist his ankle or something so the Wizards could play their game ;) and I bet they would be more motivated with him on the bench.
Would it push them over Cavs? Maybe, but with Arenas playing I don't see it, unless he reads your blog.

 
At Monday, April 21, 2008 5:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

It is instructive to compare how Arenas plays with how KG, Pierce and Allen play this year. Each of Boston's "Big Three" has sacrificed shot attempts for the good of the team. Look at the teams that have won championships over the years. Wilt, Oscar, Dr. J, Bob McAdoo, Mark Aguirre and many other players accepted different roles so that their teams could win; the first three guys were still All-Stars, while the latter two became reserves, but the point is that you have to figure out how to play in a way that best serves your team. Arenas still has a chip on his shoulder from being drafted in the second round, being cut from Team USA and who knows what else, so every night he wants to "prove" that he is "the man." That is why he declares that he is a better fourth quarter closer than LeBron--but Arenas does not have the game to back those words up on a consistent basis; Arenas is an All-Star, so he can do those things sometimes but he is not on the same level that LeBron is and nothing that Arenas dictates to his blog's ghostwriter will change that. That said, I predicted that this will be a six game series, so I expect Arenas and the Wizards to have some moments to brag about before the Cavs ultimately eliminate them.

 

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