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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Garnett Carries Celtics as James Struggles

On a night when the other three All-Stars on the court combined to shoot 4-36 from the field, Kevin Garnett shot 13-22, scored 28 points and grabbed eight rebounds as his Boston Celtics escaped with a 76-72 game one victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. If this game were a building, it would have been condemned and torn down; if this game could have looked into a mirror, the glass would have shattered into a million pieces. This game was U-G-L-Y--unless you are a big fan of missed shots (the teams combined to brick, airball and otherwise misdirect 91 out of 143 field goal attempts) and turnovers (38). Rajon Rondo played a solid game, scoring 15 points (all in the first half) and adding six assists and five rebounds. Paul Pierce had five rebounds and four assists but he just shot 2-14 from the field, finishing with a playoff career-low four points; to his credit, he played good defense against LeBron James, drawing two second half charges and making things difficult for Cleveland's star. Ray Allen went scoreless for the first time since his rookie season, shooting 0-4 from the field and looking passive--if not downright invisible--for most of the game. Allen entered the game with a career playoff scoring average of 23.5 ppg, so his performance is simply bizarre. Boston Coach Doc Rivers said that the Celtics have to do a better job of providing open looks for Allen. Sam Cassell picked up the slack for Allen and Pierce, scoring 13 points on 4-8 shooting in 18 minutes of action.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Wally Szczerbiak scored 13 points but shot just 5-14 from the field, which was about par for the course on a night when the Cavs shot 23-75 (.307) from the field. Other than the final score, the numbers that will most be remembered from this game belong to LeBron James, who became just the third player to have two field goals or less in a playoff game in the same season that he won the scoring title (Bob Pettit and David Robinson are the other two). James finished with 12 points on 2-18 field goal shooting, the worst shooting performance of his career, playoff or regular season. He had nine rebounds and a game-high nine assists but he committed 10 turnovers, tying his playoff career-high and matching the second worst total in playoff history. Several factors explain how such a talented player can shoot so poorly and commit so many turnovers:

1) The Celtics employed essentially the same defense that the San Antonio Spurs used against Cleveland in the 2007 NBA Finals: they built a wall around the paint by trapping James aggressively after every pick and roll that involved him and they sent waves of defenders in his direction any time that he tried to drive to the hoop. The idea is to force James to pass the ball or shoot long jump shots. In order for this to work, the defensive team has to have active, mobile big guys in the paint plus three perimeter defenders who understand the proper rotations and are committed to executing them. Few teams have the mental discipline and the right personnel to play this way for 48 minutes--the Spurs and the Celtics might be the only teams that can do this. It is important to understand that even the Spurs and Celtics don't play defense like this all game, every game during the 82 game regular season, because the schedule makes that mentally and physically impossible (plus, it is not necessary against most teams). James has had good regular season games against the Spurs and against the Celtics but in the playoffs teams can zero in on a player's weaknesses.

2) James is the second best player in the NBA behind only Kobe Bryant but James is an erratic free throw shooter and a below average midrange and long range shooter. He made his free throws (8-10) in this game but he shot 0-6 from three point range and he missed several midrange jumpers. James' only two made baskets were a layup at the very beginning of the game and a layup midway through the fourth quarter. Although the kind of defense that the Celtics played would make Bryant work for his points, Bryant's ability to make midrange and long range shots makes it unlikely that he would have a 2-18 shooting performance. TNT's Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Chris Webber blamed Cleveland's coaching staff for supposedly putting James in bad positions on the court, saying that James should have been receiving the ball at the foul line extended or in some of the "sweet spots" where Bryant operates but James is not that kind of player: his game is based on attacking off of the dribble, not on setting up in the midpost area; if James catches the ball there it will be easier to trap him and recover to the shooters and James does not have the footwork or shooting prowess that Bryant uses to free himself and score in that area of the court. The one thing that was unusual was that on a few occasions when James managed to break through the wall and get to the hoop he missed layups, including one that could have tied the game with less than 10 seconds left; he is perhaps the best finisher in the game but those misses could have been the result of how much mental and physical energy he was forced to exert throughout the game, plus the fact that even those close shots were well contested by bigger players.

3) Many of James' turnovers resulted from poor decisions and trying to force things. He seemed to be frustrated because he missed so many shots and he also seemed anxious to try to beat the traps by threading the needle with his passes. One way that the coaching staff and his teammates can help James is by making sure that they space the floor in a way that creates a shot for someone in the area of the court where the Cavs have a four on three advantage when James is being trapped.

Bashing Cleveland Coach Mike Brown for his allegedly bad offensive game plan is a popular pastime but let's look at this objectively. Brown is a defensive-minded coach whose philosophies derive from his time spent working in San Antonio under Gregg Popovich; building a team around defense and rebounding has worked pretty well for Popovich, wouldn't you say? Everybody loves to watch Phoenix, Golden State and Denver but Brown's Cavs have won five playoff series while losing just two, so his team gets it done when it counts--in the postseason--better than any of those squads have the past couple years. This season, James led the league in scoring while shooting a good percentage and he ranked in the top ten in assists. The Cavs dealt with holdouts, injuries and a big trade and still earned the fourth seed in the East; then they beat a team with three All-Stars who many "experts" thought would be a tough out (those were probably the same "experts" who predicted that the Cavs would not even make the playoffs--like Stephen A. Smith, who had the no-defense Nuggets going to the Finals and the Cavs going to the lottery). Brown's formula for success is to keep the game close by playing great defense and by rebounding well so that James--one of the game's great finishers--has an opportunity to take over at the end. Although game one was hardly aesthetically pleasing, it actually went according to plan for Cleveland more so than for Boston, whose Coach Doc Rivers repeatedly stressed that he wanted his team to play more of an uptempo style. Mike D'Antoni or Don Nelson or George Karl may have drawn up a looser, more fun to watch offensive game plan for Cleveland (though that may not be possible with their current personnel, something that the pundits don't seem to understand) but that would likely have resulted in a 110-100 loss, not a game that was winnable until the very end. As Herm Edwards famously said, "You play to win the game." Brown's overall philosophy results in Cleveland being in a lot of close games in which James can make his imprint felt at the end; if Brown opened things up and got into uptempo shootouts then some of his slow footed Clydesdales (Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith) might fall out in the middle of the game.

This game had a strange feel right from the start. Neither team scored for nearly a minute and a half until James broke the ice with a fast break layup. Who would have imagined that he'd make only one more field goal the rest of the game? Cleveland and Boston each missed six of their first seven field goal attempts, but Boston then made eight straight shots, going ahead 25-15 by the end of the first quarter. The Celtics pushed their lead to 29-17 but the Cavs chipped away even though James was on the bench; there is a widely believed myth that James is leading a cast of nobodies but the fact that he could play so poorly and his team could still stay in contact for 48 minutes with a 66-16 Boston team refutes that notion (a point that TNT's Mike Fratello made during the telecast): when the Cavs are healthy they actually go 10 deep in terms of players who can play at least 20-25 productive minutes on a given night. The Cavs defended well and made some timely shots to trim the margin to 29-22 while James rested for more than four minutes. After Cassell committed a flagrant one foul against James, James made two free throws to cut the lead to 30-26. Boston led 41-37 at halftime.

Two Garnett baskets in the first minute of the third quarter made the score 45-37 and it seemed like Boston might pull away but instead Cleveland went on a 14-0 run in the next 6:06. The Celtics closed the quarter with an 8-2 burst to make the score 53-52 Boston going into the fourth quarter. Fratello helpfully reminded any viewers who tuned in late that this was not a halftime score.

Cassell really made his presence felt in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points, including eight points in a three and half minute stretch during which Boston built a 66-60 lead; he also made the two free throws with :52 left that put the Celtics up for good. Garnett, who is not known as a go-to scorer or a particularly great late game performer, had eight fourth quarter points. James had two points and two assists in the fourth quarter, shooting 1-8 from the field, including 0-4 in the final :55. His inability to consistently make jumpers means that when defenders build a wall around the paint they don't have to get right on top of him; play that kind of defense against Bryant and you are asking for a barrage of three pointers and long jumpers and a 50 point explosion. While James did hit some long shots in his tremendous game five tour de force last year versus Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals, the real problem for the Pistons was that they repeatedly let him get all the way to the hoop and dunk, something that the Spurs and Celtics prevented.

Each team can create a positive spin about this game: the Cavs can say that this was a winnable game despite James' bad numbers and that if they get the same defensive effort combined with just a little more production from him then they will win game two; the Celtics can say that they won despite horrible shooting performances from two of their three All-Stars and that this was Cleveland's best chance to steal a game in Boston. The reality is that for the Cavs to have a good shot to win this series they needed to win game one. Kenny Smith astutely said that in every series there is a game that you have to win--it could happen at any point but when it happens you cannot miss that opportunity. The Cavs just missed that opportunity and I suspect that they will spend all summer thinking about it after this series is over. Yes, Cleveland came back from a 2-0 deficit versus Detroit last year but these Celtics play with much more effort and consistency on a nightly basis than the Pistons do, so instead of the Cavs putting the Celtics in a must win situation the Cavs are now in that unenviable position; I don't know who started the myth about teams merely "holding serve" by winning the first two games but the truth is that when the home team wins the first two games they win the series 94% of the time, so Cleveland's season is very much on the line in 48 hours. It would have been interesting to see Garnett, Pierce and Allen have to deal with that kind of pressure, particularly after a game in which Pierce and Allen shot so poorly. We just saw the Suns almost beat the Spurs in game one and then fall apart after that; I suspect that Cleveland will demonstrate much more resiliency and toughness than the Suns did but that does not change the fact that they now must win four times in six games against the team with the best record in the NBA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Thursday, May 08, 2008 8:31:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

James doesnt understand the nuisances of the game yet. Hes a great player but he gets his by being a great athlete. His game hasnt really improved since he entered the league. Im sure you can go to basketballreference and find some numbers to dispute this but I mean on the curt play. He doesnt have any real moves that he can go to like Bryant does. Thats a big problem. Ive never seen Bryant go 2 for 18. Ive seen Bryant go 9 for 26 but not 2 for 18. There is no excuse for making just two shots.

 
At Friday, May 09, 2008 10:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

You make some good points but I think that LeBron's problem is not so much that he doesn't understand the nuisances of the game but rather that he does not have a reliable outside shot. Until he develops that skill, elite defensive teams will be able to wall off the paint, sag into the passing lanes and make life difficult for LeBron.

 
At Saturday, May 10, 2008 1:19:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

In addition to a jump shot, I think LeBron should really work on a low post game. With all of his muscle, there's no excuse for him not to have a decent post-up game.

LeBron's offensive game reminds me a lot of that of a young Magic Johnson. Lots of power, a great ability to get to the hoop and finish, both on the break and in half-court settings, but an unreliable jumper and not a whole lot of other polished moves. The difference is LeBron shoots a lot more and is a better leaper.

 
At Saturday, May 10, 2008 5:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree that considering his size and athletic gifts LeBron should be a better post up player. He really does not have a go to move there other than "jump over/go through whoever is in my way." I can't recall seeing him use a drop step or a jump hook or a reverse pivot, etc. His footwork is not as good as Kobe's and I really can't understand why some people seem to have a hard time grasping this concept.

The Magic comparison has some validity but the young Magic shot a much higher field goal percentage than young LeBron because young Magic hardly took any threes or long jumpers; I think that young Magic had better shot selection and more polish than young LeBron.

 

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