James' Jam Punctuates Cleveland's 88-77 Win Over BostonIt's halfway to deja vu all over again for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year, the Cavs lost their first two playoff games against number one seeded Detroit before ripping off four straight wins. This year, the Cavs lost their first two playoff games against number one seeded Boston but now they have bounced back with two home victories, including an 88-77 triumph on Monday. The Celtics dropped to 0-5 on the road in the 2008 playoffs, so there is a lot of pressure on them to win game five in Boston; they certainly don't want to be facing elimination when the series returns to Cleveland on Friday.
LeBron James had 21 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots. He shot just 7-20 from the field--and he only made two shots outside of the paint, a pair of three pointers--but James is the dominant player on the court in this series, a fact that Boston Coach Doc Rivers understands all too well. Asked after the game if he is surprised that the series is 2-2 considering that James has shot just .256 from the field, Rivers replied, "You think LeBron is struggling? He had 21 points, 13 assists, six rebounds. He probably forced 15 fouls. We don't look at LeBron as struggling. You only look at field goal percentage. We don't; we look at the way he's playing his total game and making plays. The (Daniel) Gibson threes and (shots made by other Cavs) don't happen without LeBron James."
Gibson's minutes were expanded a bit because starting point guard Delonte West had to go the locker room in the first half to deal with an eye irritation; West eventually returned to the game but he only had six points and one assist, a big decline from his game three performance. Gibson finished with 14 points, six rebounds, four assists and a game-high +19 plus/minus rating. He shot 5-9 from the field and he made a dagger three pointer with 2:38 left in the fourth quarter to put Cleveland up 82-75; the Cavs maintained a three possession lead the rest of the way. Wally Szczerbiak also had a strong shooting game (14 points on 6-11 shooting) and after he scored nine quick points in the third quarter the sellout crowd of 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena began chanting, "Wally! Wally!" Anderson Varejao played stout defense in addition to scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds. The Cavs outrebounded the Celtics 42-38 and shot 35-77 (.455) from the field while holding Boston to 27-70 (.386) shooting. Cleveland's three keys to victory are rebounding, defense and the brilliance of LeBron James.
Boston's whole defensive strategy in this series revolves around making James take outside shots and also forcing his teammates to shoulder more of the scoring load than they are accustomed to handling. The Cavaliers almost won game one despite James' 2-18 field goal shooting and as the series has progressed Cleveland Coach Mike Brown and his staff have done an excellent job of countering how the Celtics are walling off the paint from James by finding ways to exploit the open spaces in the Celtics' defense. James, in turn, has applied these theories in practice, making pinpoint passes that enable his teammates to simply catch and shoot. During the first round of the playoffs, Washington Coach Eddie Jordan marveled at James' ability to throw laser-like crosscourt passes, saying that there really is no defense for that. We are seeing this weapon come into play versus Boston now that the Cavaliers understand how to properly space the court to respond to what the Celtics are doing. James had 15 assists and 17 turnovers in the first two games versus Boston but in games three and four he had 21 assists against just six turnovers.
Coach Brown has repeatedly emphasized that the Celtics are a great "strong side defensive team," meaning that their defense is excellent on the side of the court where the ball is: the only way to break that defense down is to have a lot of player movement but that movement must be with a "purpose," as Brown puts it, and the ball must quickly move from strong side to weak side. Brown says that sometimes the ball must be reversed two or three times in order to create a good shot against Boston. Obviously, with the 24 second shot clock ticking down it is imperative that the ball and player movement be precise. Cleveland had some beautiful chain reaction plays in game four, bang bang sequences that led to easy baskets: for instance, the Varejao layup that put Cleveland up 68-65 at the end of the third quarter happened after James drew the defense and passed to Joe Smith, who immediately found a wide open Varejao right underneath the basket. Such plays are only possible, as Rivers indicated, because James attracts so much attention. The other thing that must be said is that James is most assuredly not playing with "trash," as Stephen A. Smith has asserted more than once. In fact, after the game, James said that what he likes most about Cleveland's big mid-season trade is that the Cavs now have "explosion" off of the bench: "We can play 10 guys and not slack off." Not too many teams can accurately say that but in addition to starters James, West, Szczebiak, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace, Mike Brown can call upon 2007 playoff hero Gibson, solid veteran big man Smith, rebounder/defender Varejao, shooter/scorer Sasha Pavlovic, slashing scorer Devin Brown and three point specialist Damon Jones. The latter two are the odd men out at the moment as Coach Brown goes with an eight man rotation but Devin Brown and Damon Jones each averaged at least 19.9 mpg during this season, so they both had a lot of meaningful playing time, which is not usually the case with your ninth and tenth players.
What Cleveland lacks is a bona fide All-Star duo or trio like Boston has with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but James is the best single player on the court in this series and the untold story to date is that Pierce and Allen are shooting poorly (.346 and .333 respectively) without having the impact in other areas that James is having. That places the burden on Garnett to carry the load but he has never been that kind of player; after scoring nine points on 4-4 shooting in the first quarter of game four he had just six points on 2-11 shooting the rest of the way. Wallace and Varejao have done a great defensive job against Garnett.
Garnett contributed 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he did not come close to controlling the game the way that James did; Cleveland usually defended Garnett one on one, while it seemingly takes a village--to borrow a phrase--to try to even slow down James. Pierce ended up with 13 points on 6-17 field goal shooting and Rivers candidly admitted that Pierce forced matters, particularly in the fourth quarter. Allen had 15 points on 4-10 shooting as the Celtics continue to be inexplicably unwilling or unable to exploit the fact that the slow-footed Szczerbiak has the primary defensive assignment on him. Magic Johnson aptly asked before this game, "Where is the leadership now? One of those guys has to step forward and say, 'We're not playing well now and here's why we're not playing well' and correct it." To this point, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have not done that. Rajon Rondo scored 15 points on 7-14 shooting but the Boston point guard had just four assists while committing three turnovers.
Neither team led by more than eight points in the first three quarters. The fourth quarter spread was not greater than five points until James hit a three pointer with 3:17 remaining to put Cleveland up 79-73. Pierce made a tough jumper and then Gibson answered with his huge three pointer off of a feed from James.
The defining moment of game four--and the series so far--is James' dunk over Garnett with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. The boxscore says that this play put Cleveland ahead 84-75 and was worth just two points--but the boxscore lies: this play had a greater impact than a mere two points. Consider the visual evidence:
The Celtics have limited James' field goal percentage to record low levels so far but James has still found a way to lead his team to two victories; this play embodies how James and the Cavaliers have broken loose despite the Celtics' best efforts to hold them down. How much of an impact did this play and this win have? Garnett did not even show his face in the main interview room, nor did any other Celtic save for Rivers; I cannot recall covering a playoff game when no players from the losing team stopped by the main interview room to be interviewed on television. After Cleveland's game three win, I wrote, "Garnett and (Paul) Pierce entered the postgame interview room looking like someone had just died." The Celtics have been frontrunners all season but it is obvious that these two losses to Cleveland have rattled them and shaken their confidence. Granted, the Celtics may just be one home win away from restoring order--they are 6-0 at home in the playoffs--but it is important to keep in mind that James has already led a team to the NBA Finals, something that Garnett, Pierce and Allen have never done during their long careers.
James' dunk instantly reminded me of one of the greatest dunks of all-time and a personal favorite of mine--Julius Erving's 1983 "rock the cradle" slam over Michael Cooper. Both dunks involve fantastic verticality and awesome extension of the dunking arm, with the main difference being that Erving's happened on a fast break from the left hand side while James' took place out of the halfcourt set on the right side. Here is Erving's dunk:
This is a dangerous time for Boston. The series has now been reduced to a three game set. That means that if James can break out offensively and come up with a 40 point performance then his Cavs can steal game five on the road and play the series clincher at home, just like they did last year versus Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals. Before the series began I suggested that Cleveland's best chance to win in Boston would be game one but even though the Cavs squandered a golden opportunity in game one they have the Celtics so discombobulated that it would not surprise me now if the Cavs win game five.
History still suggests that Boston will win this series--and a seventh game on the road would be tough even for James and his Cavs--but if James can come up with a sublime 48 minutes on Wednesday he could shatter whatever remains of Boston's confidence; it is almost impossible to imagine the Celtics winning on the road in game six if they drop game five at home.
Notes From Courtside:
Just before tip-off, a fan encouraged legendary Cavs broadcaster Joe Tait to call a good game. Tait replied the he would do his best but it's not up to him. After the fan walked away, I said to Tait, "You'll call what you see, right? It's up to the players to make it a good game." Tait acknowledged that this was exactly what he meant.
Tait has seen all of the great players of the past four decades. I told him that when James soars to the hoop with his arm fully extended and then hammers home a dunk I think that he very much resembles Erving--and I said this a couple hours before James posterized Garnett. Tait agreed with this comparison.
Commissioner David Stern held court for the media about a half hour before tip-off, offering his thoughts on a wide range of subjects. One of his pet peeves is the oppressive sound and light extravaganzas that have become standard fare in NBA arenas: "I think that what has happened is that very well-intentioned people feel that it's their obligation to root their team on to victory, to urge them. But what they do is, they think if you turn up the loudspeaker it's going to help them perform better--even though there are babies in the building. I think we should have it as a time capsule item, because in some future century people are going to look and say, 'What were they thinking about?' And I'm positive that Red (Auerbach) is watching and getting ready to call me, because I think we've gone over the top."
Stern did not comment specifically about the O.J. Mayo case but he pointedly said that he would like to see the NBA Players Association take a proactive stance regarding agents who are involved in nefarious activities, much the way that the NFLPA has banned agents who engage in improper conduct.
Asked what he most likes about the NBA right now and what he would most like to improve, Stern cited the great competitiveness of the games as the biggest positive: fans are getting to watch a very good product. On the other hand, Stern wants to do whatever it takes to discourage excessively hard and/or dangerous fouls and get the players focused primarily on playing basketball.
The Boston contingent of reporters wanted Stern to elaborate about the fine that Pierce received for making "menacing gestures" during the Atlanta series. There has been speculation that Pierce threw up a gang sign but Stern emphatically said that his office never accused Pierce of that and the media simply ran with that account on their own. Stern explained that Pierce was fined because he walked over to "the wrong bench" and Stern wryly added that he did not believe that Pierce did so with "peace and love" on his mind. Stern concluded that the NBA fined Pierce and moved on but that if Pierce or the media want to continue to drag the story out then there is nothing that the NBA can do about it.
The All-Defensive Teams were just announced. James did not make the cut but he did receive two second team votes and one first team vote in balloting conducted among the league's 30 coaches, who are not permitted to select their own players. Garnett, who previously won the 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year award (selected by the media), and Kobe Bryant tied for the most points, with each receiving 24 first team votes and four second team votes; it is stunning that one coach did not vote for Garnett at all and it is a bit odd that one coach left Bryant off of his ballot as well.
Coach Brown said that he expects that James will soon attain first team status and that once he gets there he will be there for years to come. Brown said that James' on ball defense was solid from the beginning and that he has made great strides in terms of his off ball defense and his understanding of team defensive concepts.
James said that making the All-Defensive Team is one of his goals and that he believes that he is on track to do so.
Late in the second quarter, LeBron James and his mother Gloria had a moment for which Hallmark has yet to design a card. At the 4:13 mark, Pierce wrapped up James to prevent a layup and the two players ended up tumbling out of bounds near where James' mother sits. She immediately stood up and said something to Pierce. Garnett tried to calm her down and then James emphatically told her, "Sit your ass down."
James' retort was the main subject of discussion in the media room at halftime and naturally James was asked about it after the game. He explained, "All I was thinking about at that time even though it was my mother is the commissioner doesn't care if it's your mother or your kids or anybody--you can't allow fans and players to get involved with each other. I can't afford for my mom to not be at every last one of my games. I told her to sit down with some language I shouldn't have used. Thank God today wasn't Mother's Day. All I could think about was--I know my mother. We're fine, we're good."
The Pierce foul looked flagrant at full speed from a certain angle but on the replays you could clearly see that he merely wrapped up James around the shoulders, as opposed to going after the head or neck. Some players foolishly respond to such fouls with macho posturing and then get needless technical fouls but James remained calm and offered a friendly pound on the chest to Pierce to indicate that he had no hard feelings about the play. TNT's Doug Collins commented, "LeBron is wise beyond his years...You don't hear him complaining or moaning. He just plays and his team follows suit. This is a 'no excuse' team and he leads that charge."
posted by David Friedman @ 8:39 AM