Celtics Edge Cavs as James and Pierce Stage a Duel for the AgesPaul Pierce and LeBron James did their best to revive memories of the classic 1988 game seven Boston Garden showdown between Larry Bird (34 points, 20 in the fourth quarter) and Dominique Wilkins (47 points, 16 in the fourth quarter). Bird's Celtics beat Wilkins' Hawks 118-116 and the final result this time was very similar: the visiting player scored more points but the Celtics won the game. Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 97-92 victory over Cleveland in which Pierce scored 41 points on 13-23 field goal shooting (including 4-6 from three point range) and 11-12 free throw shooting. He also had five assists, four rebounds and two steals. Sam Jones is the only Celtic who ever scored more points in a seventh game (47). James scored 45 points on 14-29 field goal shooting (including 3-11 from three point range) and 14-19 free throw shooting; only three players have ever scored more points in a seventh game (Jones, Wilkins and Kevin Johnson, who scored 46). James led the Cavs in assists (six) and steals (two) and he had five rebounds, missing the team lead by one in that category.
Kevin Garnett (13 points on 5-13 field goal shooting) simply does not have the mentality or the skill set (i.e., a back to the basket offensive game that culminates in something other than a fadeaway jumper) to be a big-time, go-to scorer like James or Pierce but he had a game-high 13 rebounds and once again served as the anchor of Boston's defense. With about two minutes remaining in the first half, Garnett guarded James one on one and stopped his driving move, forcing him to pass to Wally Szczerbiak at the top of the key. Garnett then switched on to Szczerbiak, stole the ball, raced down court and drew a foul on Szczerbiak. No other Boston player can match Garnett's defensive skill and his ability to guard multiple players on one possession but his defensive energy and intensity are contagious and helped transform the Celtics into the best defensive team in the NBA. Sure, it would be nice if a player with Garnett's size and athleticism shouldered a bigger offensive load but he has rarely done that in his 12 season career so there is no reason to expect him to do it now--and being in a tandem with Pierce is actually perfect for both players, because Pierce definitely thrives in the role as a go-to scorer and Garnett's example at the other end of the court has resulted in Pierce playing better defense than ever.
It hardly makes sense to say that the Celtics have a "Big Three": although Ray Allen made the All-Star team and had a solid season he was outplayed by Szczerbiak for most of this series and he scored just four points on 1-6 shooting in game seven. Allen sat out virtually the entire fourth quarter, entering the game only near the very end when he knocked down a pair of free throws with :18 left to put Boston up 93-88. Despite Pierce's scoring and Garnett's defense and rebounding, the Celtics would probably have lost if not for key contributions made by reserve players P.J. Brown and Eddie House. Brown scored a season-high (playoffs or regular season) 10 points on 4-4 field goal shooting and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes. His putback gave the Celtics an 89-84 lead with 2:45 left and his jumper put them up 91-88 with just 1:21 remaining; those were Boston's final two field goals of the game--Pierce did not make a field goal in the final 6:03 (though he did make two big free throws to close out the scoring) and Garnett did not make a field goal in the last 3:43. Brown also slid over as a help defender and forced James to shoot an airball on a drive to the hoop with :25 left and Boston clinging to a 91-88 lead. House scored four points on 1-5 field goal shooting but his game-high plus/minus rating of +13 hints at the true magnitude of his contributions. As Boston Coach Doc Rivers said after the game, House played good defense, he scrapped for loose balls and he provided a huge energy boost in his 15 minutes of playing time; in one sequence in the second quarter, House dove head first for a loose ball and saved it from going out of bounds by flipping it to James Posey, who got fouled and made two free throws to extend Boston's lead to 34-23.
Delonte West was the only Cav other than James to score at least 10 points (15). No Cav other than James attempted more than eight shots and starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas (eight points), Ben Wallace (3 points) and Szczerbiak (0 points) were largely invisible for most of the game. Cleveland's winning formula is the brilliance of James supplemented by team defense and rebounding. James certainly came through with a great performance but Cleveland failed badly in the other two areas, allowing the Celtics to shoot 32-67 (.478) from the field and losing the battle of the boards 39-29.
Pierce got the Celtics off to a quick start, scoring their first two baskets on jump shots and then assisting on a Garnett jumper. The Celtics led 16-4 at the 4:33 mark of the first quarter. Although James played a fantastic game overall, it must be said that he also played a role in creating the double digit deficit that forced Cleveland to battle uphill all game long: he missed four of his first five field goal attempts, including some difficult, low percentage shots. At the 6:23 mark he missed a turnaround, fadeaway jumper from the left block. James actually landed out of bounds behind the baseline after he released the ball over Pierce, who raced down court and scored a fast break layup on a feed from Rajon Rondo (who finished with eight points, eight rebounds and eight assists). James jogged back in transition instead of sprinting as his man scored on a three on two fast break. After a close game, a lot of attention is paid to what happened in the final couple minutes but plays like that in the first few minutes have just as much impact on the result. During timeouts at Quicken Loans Arena, the big overhead scoreboard sometimes shows the famous film clip from "Any Given Sunday" when Al Pacino talks about how "life is a game of inches" and that the "inches we need are everywhere around us." Better shot selection and getting back faster on defense are some "inches" that James squandered in this particular instance. That said, James carried virtually the entire load for the Cavs in the first half when he and West were the only Cleveland starters who scored.
Throughout the telecast, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson repeatedly talked about Garnett's obvious reluctance to play a larger role offensively. One time, Garnett had the ball in the paint but passed to Rondo, who missed a jumper. Van Gundy said, "Kevin Garnett has to be hungrier to score. He had the ball in the lane versus (the much shorter) Delonte West." Boston led 18-13 after the first quarter, with Pierce scoring nine points on 4-8 shooting and James scoring nine points on 3-7 shooting. Garnett had just four points on 2-6 shooting--all of them jumpers--but he controlled the boards with six rebounds. Jackson and Van Gundy both said that Garnett should make Cleveland pay for using single coverage on him. On the one hand, I agree with them and this is part of why I have never considered Garnett to be as great as Tim Duncan but on the other hand, as I indicated above, after a while it almost does not even make sense to criticize Garnett any more about his passivity as a scorer. Obviously, this is a shortcoming in his game but he is not going to change; Garnett is a great defender, rebounder and passer who is unable or unwilling to be a dominant scorer, so the coaching staff and his teammates have to take that into account and play in a fashion that maximizes the impact of the many things that he does well and works around the fact that he is rarely going to score 40 points in a game or get 15 points in a quarter.
James started taking better shots as the game wore on--eschewing long jumpers and fadeaways for drives to the hoop and shorter jumpers--but he still got very little help from his teammates; he played all but 1:12 of the game and when he got that brief rest in the second quarter Boston's lead grew from 29-23 to 34-23. The Celtics were up 50-40 at halftime. Pierce already had 26 points, while James had 23 points (but just one rebound and one assist).
The Celtics started the third quarter so drowsily it looked like someone had spiked their Gatorade. James got a steal, drove coast to coast for a layup and drew a foul. He missed the free throw but got the rebound. That possession eventually ended with him passing to West for a three pointer. After a Boston score, Ilgauskas hit back to back jumpers to cut Boston's lead to 52-49. The Celtics called a timeout during which Rivers lit into his team for their lackluster effort. They soon built the lead back up to 67-58 but Cleveland pulled to within 73-68 by the end of the quarter.
The Celtics briefly led by seven in the fourth quarter but during most of the final 12 minutes it was a two possession or one possession game, magnifying the importance of every shot, every pass and every turnover. At the 5:01 mark, James defended Pierce tightly above the top of the key, flicking the ball of Pierce's leg and out of bounds. Somehow, the referees missed the fact that James had tugged so hard on Pierce's jersey that he actually untucked it from Pierce's shorts. On the next possession, James drove to the hoop and hit a tough runner over Garnett to slice Boston's lead to 85-82. Garnett answered with his final points of the game, his patented fadeaway shot from the block. West sank a couple free throws and then Brown stepped into the spotlight with his putback of Rondo's missed jumper. Ilgauskas made two free throws and then things got very interesting when James stole the ball from Pierce and raced down court for a dunk that made the score 89-88 Boston, the first time that Cleveland had been within one point since the opening moments of the game. Garnett then missed a jumper and James missed a three pointer before Brown hit a jumper to put Boston up three.
After West missed a wide open three pointer there was a scramble for the ball and Ilgauskas ended up in a tie up with James Posey. Naturally, the much taller Ilgauskas controlled the resulting jump ball but Pierce smartly stepped in front of James and grabbed the ball. Van Gundy said that this was a huge mistake by James, who neglected to box out Pierce--again, more "inches" squandered in a very close game. The Celtics did not get any points out of this possession but they used up nearly the full 24 seconds on the shot clock. James rebounded Garnett's missed jumper and dribbled down court, eventually shooting an airball from inside the paint after Brown challenged his shot. Van Gundy noted that James could have shot an open three pointer, going for the tie and giving the Cavs a chance to have a two for one (two of the last three possessions of the game, since the shot clock would prevent the Celtics from holding the ball). Instead, Garnett rebounded the miss and Allen ended up making two free throws, his only points of the second half. James drove to the hoop on Cleveland's next possession but only made one of two free throws after Pierce fouled him. Trailing 93-89 with :16 left, the Cavs obviously had to foul. House made two free throws but Sasha Pavlovic kept Cleveland's hopes alive by making a three pointer when Pierce inexplicably left him open to challenge a driving James, who smartly passed to Pavlovic. Boston inbounded to Pierce, who was promptly fouled. His first free throw bounced high off the rim before coming back down and falling through the hoop. Pierce had a big smile of relief and then he swished the second free throw to put Boston up 97-92. James missed a three pointer and seconds later Cleveland's season was over.
Garnett and Pierce were no shows in the interview room after two of Boston's three losses in Cleveland but of course they hammed it up in the interview room after this win, with Garnett uttering a few profanities that were audible during NBA TV's live feed and giddily saying that Boston's strategy was, "Get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out the way." It sure is nice to have a great player to carry the scoring load when you are unable or unwilling to do so yourself.
James shows up in the interview room win or lose. He praised Pierce's performance, adding, "Paul Pierce is one of my favorite players" and saying that Pierce's footwork is second only to Kobe Bryant's. Cleveland made a big midseason trade but fell in the second round this year after making it to the 2007 NBA Finals. Several times during his postgame remarks James said, "We need to get better" and though he did not specify what he meant by that he indicated that personnel changes may be necessary, citing the examples of teams like the L.A. Lakers, Boston, Detroit and Orlando, each of whom upgraded their rosters in the past year. When Bryant (rightly) asked for more help last offseason he was roundly criticized but James will not likely face the same backlash--nor should he: it is only natural for an MVP-level player who is highly competitive to want to have the best possible roster around him so that he can contend for championships.
As Rivers noted during his postgame interview session, the Celtics conserved some of Pierce's energy by having Posey guard James but James guarded Pierce for virtually the entire game; Rivers had hoped that by having Pierce go right at James that James would get fatigued but Rivers said that this did not appear to work because, if anything, James seemed to be getting stronger as the game continued. In previous seasons, James' defense was not a strong suit but after the game he said, "I made a change this year that if I want to be the best I have to guard the best." Of course, that is taking a page out of what Michael Jordan used to do and what Bryant does now. This process really began in last year's playoffs, when James guarded Detroit's Chauncey Billups during some key late game possessions. It is great to see James embracing this challenge.
I hate it when I hear some players whose teams have been eliminated from the playoffs say that they won't even watch any of the remaining games. I remember when Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre used to go to NBA Finals games as young players before they played on championship teams and I have always felt that this is the right approach to take: soak in the environment of the NBA at its highest level and see what it really takes to win a championship. So I was delighted to hear James declare that he will follow the rest of the playoffs closely: "I'm a fan of the game. You might even see me at a few of the games."
After Cleveland was swept in last year's NBA Finals, James said, "I’ve got a lot of things to work on to get better for next year. There’s no one thing that I want to focus on intensively, it’s just everything. I definitely need to get better and once I get better our team will automatically get better. I have to do everything that I’ve done well and continue to improve in order for us to be a better team next year." I was a little surprised to hear his current take on the same subject; he said that for the most part he is satisfied with his game now, concluding, "I need to fine tune the rest of my game," as opposed to making any radical changes. I cannot recall a great player--let alone a young player who has yet to win a championship--express satisfaction with his game; Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan all added something new to their games each summer, whether it was better outside shooting, improved strength, a three point shot or something else. James has taken a big step forward defensively but his outside shooting is a glaring weakness and his free throw shooting is not as good as it should be for someone who gets fouled as often as he does; he is also a turnover prone player in the postseason, particularly against good defensive teams that concede the jump shot and deny good passing angles.
James shot .476 from the field and committed 3.2 turnovers per game in the 2006-07 season but he shot .356 from the field and committed 23 turnovers (5.8 per game) in last year's NBA Finals versus the Spurs; this season he shot .484 from the field and committed 3.4 turnovers per game but against Boston he shot .355 from the field while committing 37 turnovers (5.3 per game). San Antonio and Boston successfully employed the same defensive strategy against James: wall off the paint to minimize his driving opportunities while sagging off of him on the perimeter, conceding the jump shot and hindering his ability to complete passes. James shot 4-20 (.200) from three point range in the 2007 Finals and he shot 9-39 (.231) from three point range versus the Celtics. Even more significantly, he shot a poor percentage in both series on midrange jumpers. In other words, it is wrong to say that James merely had a shooting slump against San Antonio or Boston; those teams scouted him and came up with a game plan that forced him to make outside shots, something that he is not able to do on a consistent basis.
Sometimes, James makes his jump shots and often he is able to get to the hoop even when defenders sag off of him; it is actually pretty remarkable that despite his limitations as a shooter he scored 48 points in a playoff game last year versus Detroit and 45 points in this playoff game versus Boston. Nevertheless, until James develops a better, more consistent outside shooting stroke the elite defensive teams will use this same plan against him in the postseason and he will continue to shoot below .400 from the field and commit more than five turnovers per game in playoff series against such teams.
James is a marvelously gifted player, a superb passer and rebounder who drives so strongly and relentlessly to the hoop that most teams cannot contain him. I rank him as the second best player in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant--but until James develops a more consistent shooting stroke from the free throw line and the perimeter it will be tough for him to lead the Cavs past the best of the best. I consistently--and correctly--rate the Cavaliers higher than most other analysts do but I also correctly picked the Cavs to lose to the Spurs and to lose to the Celtics, in part because those teams have the necessary game plan and personnel to do just enough to sufficiently contain James and thus beat Cleveland. While it certainly would not hurt if the Cavs added some more talent, if James had a consistent outside shot then teams would have to guard him more closely and that would open up driving lanes and passing angles for him--and that would have been just enough to help the Cavs beat the Celtics this year. If James wants to be the best player in the NBA and lead the Cavs to a championship, then it is clear exactly what he must do this offseason.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:51 PM