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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cavs "Grind it out" to Force Game Seven Versus Celtics

Cleveland's 74-69 game six win over Boston was even more "aesthetically challenged" than the previous five defensive battles in this basketball war of attrition. LeBron James struggled with his shot for most of the game but his 9-23 field goal shooting (.391) actually represents an improvement over his series average and he scored 19 of Cleveland's 32 second half points while shooting 7-14 from the field; add in his three second half assists and James accounted for virtually all of Cleveland's offense in the second half of an elimination game against the team with the best regular season record in the NBA. James finished with game-high totals in points (32), rebounds (12) and assists (six). He shot 13-15 from the free throw line and 1-3 from three point range, a decent percentage and the first time this series that he has attempted fewer than four three pointers in a game. The only blemish on his stat line is that he committed eight turnovers. James played nearly 47 minutes and while he received a brief rest in the first half the home crowd literally pleaded and shouted for Coach Mike Brown to put James back in the game; while he was out the Cavs split a pair of free throws and shot 0-3 from the field and as soon as he returned he snared a defensive rebound and went coast to coast for a score.

Delonte West is the only other Cav who reached double figures in scoring (10 points) and he needed a long buzzer beating three pointer at the end of the first half to do it. The other three Cleveland starters shot 5-25 from the field. Joe Smith made a strong contribution off of the bench, scoring nine points on 3-4 field goal shooting and grabbing five rebounds; he sank a pair of free throws with 14.4 seconds remaining to provide a much needed cushion for the Cavs. Cleveland won despite being without the services of sharpshooting reserve guard Daniel Gibson, who is sidelined with a separated shoulder that he suffered in game five.

Kevin Garnett led the way for the Celtics with 25 points and eight rebounds, shooting 11-21 from the field, but he did not have much help and with the game up for grabs he had just four points and one rebound in the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce was the only other Celtic to score in double figures (16 points) but he shot just 5-15 from the field and committed six turnovers. He was much less aggressive offensively than James, attempting six three pointers and just four free throws. Pierce scored four points on 1-3 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Ray Allen continued to do his impersonation of the "Invisible Man," scoring just nine points on 3-8 field goal shooting; he was expected to have a huge advantage in his matchup with Wally Szczerbiak but at best this has been a draw overall during the series.

Cleveland outrebounded Boston 45-37 and James went to the free throw line more than the whole Celtics team, who shot 11-13 from the free throw line. Boston Coach Doc Rivers, trying to avoid a fine from the league while still making a point, obliquely criticized the officiating by saying that he thought his players drove to the hoop just as aggressively as Cleveland's but they did not hear any whistles. The reality, though, is that Garnett and Pierce took more than half of Boston's field goal attempts and they spent most of the game firing away from the perimeter.

I thought that game one of this series set a new standard for U-G-L-Y basketball but game six featured fewer points, more missed shots and an even worse turnover/assist ratio (yes, those words are in the correct order--for the second time in this series the teams had more combined turnovers than assists): Cleveland shot 24-73 (.329) from the field, had only 10 assists and committed 14 turnovers, while Boston shot 27-68 (.397) from the field, passed for 19 assists and committed 17 turnovers. In one of the great understatements in basketball history, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown began his postgame standup by saying--with a straight face--"This was definitely a grind it out basketball game. I thought the start was a little rocky for both teams." This was not just "grind it out"--this was "slash it to pieces with a machete"--and it was "a little rocky" like Mt. Everest is a small hill. Both teams set the tone early--and it was brutally off-key: at the 2:59 mark of the first quarter, Cleveland led 11-10 as the teams had combined to shoot 9-29 (.310) from the field with a turnover/assist ratio (12/4) that would make a grade school team ashamed. The first quarter included seven lead changes and it took a late flurry for the teams to stagger to an 18-18 tie after each team's point total spent more than half the quarter in single digits.

The second quarter was just as brutal and with 2:22 remaining in the first half Boston led 33-32. The Cavs give away free tacos to their fans when their team scores 100 points but at that stage 100 combined points did not look like a certainty. Then, out of nowhere, a game-changing sequence took place as the Cavs ran off 10 straight points to take a lead that they never relinquished: James made two free throws, Zydrunas Ilgauskas buried a long jumper on a feed from James, Ilgauskas made a free throw after the Celtics committed a defensive three seconds violation, James made two more free throws and West made his late three pointer after Anderson Varejao stole Pierce's pass. Garnett had been the best player on the court in the first half (13 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, four rebounds) but his team trailed by nine; James had 13 points, six rebounds and three assists but he shot just 2-9 from the field and committed five turnovers. The Cavaliers stayed on top by dominating the glass (10 offensive rebounds and a 26-18 rebounding advantage overall in the first half) and playing aggressively enough to earn 18 free throw attempts (11 by James) compared to just five by the Celtics (Garnett went 1-2, spending most of his time shooting jumpers).

James opened the third quarter by hitting a three pointer, a short jumper and two free throws and it looked like Cleveland might rout the Celtics. Allen ended the run with a nice reverse layup after he rebounded his own missed jumper. After West made a jumper Cleveland's offense went into a deep freeze just as suddenly and mysteriously as it had heated up at the end of the second quarter. Cleveland did not score for 5:21 as Boston whittled a 16 point lead down to three. Naturally, James broke the ice with a driving layup and then the Cavs closed the quarter strongly to lead 59-50 going into the final stanza.

Cleveland briefly pushed the margin into double digits but the Celtics kept rallying back, twice coming as close as five points and eventually making it a one possession game (72-69) with 23.4 seconds left after Allen made two free throws. That is when Smith made his two huge free throws and the game quite fittingly ended with Pierce and James exchanging turnovers followed by Pierce missing a three pointer.

These are two defensive minded teams and while their games are not pretty their styles are obviously effective: Defensive Player of the Year Garnett keyed a defensive revival in Boston that played the major role in the Celtics pulling off the greatest one season turnaround in league history, while Cleveland's three-pronged strategy incorporating defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James has already resulted in an NBA Finals appearance in 2007 and a playoff run in 2008 that at the very least includes extending these Celtics to a seventh game.

James said that he thought the Cavs lost game five in part because he was not aggressive enough at the start of the second half, so he made a conscious effort be very aggressive in the second half of this game. Coach Brown echoed those sentiments: "The biggest thing that we wanted to do coming out of the locker room (before the second half) was stay aggressive. We felt in game five they were the aggressors coming out at halftime and that changed the tone. The crowd got behind them and we did a few things that were passive. This time around we wanted to be the aggressors, starting at the defensive end of the floor."

Before this series began, I picked the Celtics to win in seven games, with my only caveat being that the Cavs could triumph in six games if they captured game one. Analyzing this series and considering game seven history--in which home teams have a phenomenal winning percentage--the only logical choice is to say that Boston will win on Sunday and that is what I believe will happen. However, I've never trusted Garnett as a big game performer and James is decisively better as both a player and a closer than Pierce, who is Boston's best closer; those factors mean that if Cleveland can rebound and defend well enough to keep the game close then everything could come down to James versus Garnett (statistically) and Pierce (head to head) and if that is the scenario in the final five minutes or so I would not bet against James: even at his young age he has a presence and a command of the flow of a game that Garnett and Pierce have never had and probably never will, as evidenced by the fact that in just his second playoff run James carried a team to the NBA Finals, something that neither Garnett nor Pierce has ever done.

I thought that the Celtics looked tight early in their game seven win over Atlanta in the first round but the Hawks were even tighter, so that relieved whatever pressure the Celtics were feeling. I don't expect James to be tight in game seven and if his teammates are loose as well then it will be very interesting to see how Boston reacts in the early going. This Celtics team seems like they are frontrunners who do not always respond well to adversity; that is why they have been dominant at home and lackluster on the road during the playoffs. After Boston's 108-84 game three loss to Cleveland, Garnett and Pierce entered the postgame interview room looking like someone had died--even though they still enjoyed a 2-1 lead in the series. Garnett and Pierce did not even show up in the postgame interview room after their losses in games four and six, something that I cannot recall the stars from other losing teams doing in the playoff games that I have covered; being a leader means standing tall in victory and in defeat--James faced the media after he shot 2-18 from the field in Cleveland's game one loss and he accepted responsibility for how he played while at the same time expressing confidence that he and his teammates would bounce back. You often hear the expression about guys who you would want to have next to you in a foxhole--James, with his combination of confidence, preparation, focus and talent, definitely fits into that category. Someone asked James if he feels "added confidence" going into game seven because Cleveland came close to winning a couple of the earlier games in Boston. "I don't need extra confidence," James answered. "I know, as an individual, that I can prepare myself to help our team get a win. For some of the other guys, I'm not sure--that is a question that you'd have to ask them. I make sure my troops are ready. This is game seven and we can win--we know we can win, we just have to go out there and do it."

I don't know whether or not Cleveland will win on Sunday but when James said prior to game six that a LeBron James-led team "is never desperate" he spoke the truth and that means that the Cavs have a puncher's chance to get a rare game seven road victory.

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Notes From Courtside:

LeBron James has only played in one game seven so far in his career, a 79-61 loss to Detroit in 2006. James had a game-high 27 points on 11-24 field goal shooting in that contest and he tied for game-high honors with eight rebounds but his Cavs had one of the worst offensive performances in playoff history. Fairly or unfairly, this Sunday's game seven will likely be most remembered for what James and Garnett do--or don't do. With that in mind, after game six I asked James what he specifically learned from his game seven experience in 2006 that he can apply in game seven versus Boston. James replied, "I have learned so much--it's not just what happened in game seven against Detroit. I've learned so much going through the regular season, now being in the postseason. You learn a lot of things. I've learned how to close out games, I've learned how to prepare better for playoff games. I've learned so much and it's not just one game that prepared me, it's continuing to go through the postseason and continuing to win and when you lose you learn from that also. So I've learned a lot since that game seven loss against Detroit."

One thing that I have noticed while covering James since his rookie season is that he is a very effective communicator and he structures his answers very well, almost as if he has anticipated certain questions and prepared appropriate responses for them. This answer was a typical example of that--he first states that he has "learned so much," then he cites some examples of what he has learned (how to close out games, how to prepare) and then he concludes by restating his first sentence. Whether this is the result of media training or simply a reflection of how clearly James thinks and expresses himself, this differentiates him not only from many other players but even from prominent figures in other walks of life who seem to be incapable of clearly and succinctly answering a straightforward question. Sometimes James will lapse into cliches, but usually his replies are thoughtful; I have noticed that he always wants to have a boxscore in hand before he faces the media after a game and when he answers questions he often cites statistics to support what he is saying, much like coaches do. I have very much enjoyed having firsthand access to watch James evolve from hot rookie prospect to legitimate MVP candidate.

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Boston's 69 points are the fewest ever scored by a Cleveland opponent in a playoff game, breaking the mark shared by Detroit (May 15, 2006) and New Jersey (May 18, 2007). This is also Boston's second lowest scoring playoff performance in the shot clock era.

Some Cleveland fans may be frustrated by what they perceive to be inadequacies in Coach Mike Brown's offensive game plan but during this year's playoffs the Cavs are holding their opponents to 87.0 ppg and .422 field goal shooting. Brown's defensive-first philosophy--borrowed from his time with a Spurs' franchise that has won four championships using that approach--may not be pretty but Brown's playoff resume is excellent, particularly for such a young coach: he has a 26-19 record and the Cavs have won five of seven series; the two series losses came to a 2006 Detroit team that went 64-18 (best record in the NBA) after making it to the NBA Finals the previous two years (winning the 2004 championship) and a 2007 San Antonio team that won its fourth title in nine seasons. Even if the Cavs lose to Boston on Sunday Brown's record is still very impressive and if Cleveland bucks the odds and wins on the road in game seven then the Cavs will have knocked off the Eastern Conference's top seed two years in a row after trailing 2-0 to start the series. Anyone who thinks that the Cavs would be better off with a different coach--other than maybe Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich, who don't figure to be available on the open market--needs to slowly and carefully reread this paragraph until he completely understands exactly what Brown's Cavs have accomplished in a short period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:14 AM

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At Saturday, May 17, 2008 9:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent summary and analysis. I'm not sure James has the firepower around him to get it done tomorrow but I would love to see him rise up to the occasion and put in a performance for the ages.

It's hard to watch this series because it's pretty clear the Celtics are a fraud and if the Cavs had a second option that could create for himself this series would be over by now.

The Cavs did have their chance in game 1 though, and they let it pass them by.

 

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