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Friday, May 09, 2008

The LeBron Rules: Celtics Contain James, Crush Cavs

For the second game in a row, the Boston Celtics contained LeBron James but this time the Celtics also generated enough offense to put the contest out of reach well before the final buzzer, beating Cleveland 89-73. James had a game-high 21 points plus six assists and five rebounds but he shot just 6-24 from the field and committed seven turnovers. Neither team shot well but Boston got solid performances from All-Stars Paul Pierce (19 points, six rebounds, 7-13 field goal shooting), Ray Allen (16 points, 4-10 field goal shooting) and Kevin Garnett (13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, 5-9 field goal shooting). Sam Cassell has been a real factor off of the bench in both games; he finished with nine points and three assists and even though he shot just 4-12 from the field he played a big role in the surge during which the Celtics took the lead, after which they never looked back. Young guards should watch him closely to see how he continually gets open for high percentage shots despite not having blazing quickness or exceptional jumping ability--he is a real pro's pro. Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 19 points on 9-12 field goal shooting, Wally Szczerbiak had 13 points on 4-11 field goal shooting but--except for James--no other Cav scored more than five points. Ben Wallace, who is not a scoring threat but does a good job crashing the boards and serving as a pressure release player who can catch a pass and reverse the ball to the other side of the court, left the game after just 3:40 in the first quarter due to dizziness; he was taken to the locker room for treatment and although he later returned to the bench he did not reenter the game.

Cleveland's three trumps are usually defense, rebounding and the brilliance of James but the Celtics won all three categories, holding Cleveland to .356 field goal shooting while shooting .403 themselves, outrebounding Cleveland 45-39 and doing an excellent job against James, the 2008 scoring champion (30.0 ppg). Amazingly, James has shot 8-42 from the field versus Boston so far, the worst field goal percentage (min. 30 attempts) posted by a player in the first two games of a playoff series in the shot clock era--that covers more than 50 years of NBA basketball! One tends to think that this cannot possibly continue for the whole series but keep in mind that the San Antonio Spurs held James to .356 field goal shooting and forced him to commit 23 turnovers when they swept the Cavaliers in last year's NBA Finals.

As I explained in my game one recap, the Celtics are essentially guarding James the same way that the Spurs did, something that ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned prior to game two: "They have one of the best defenses in the past 10 years because of the execution of a rock solid scheme and the versatility of the Defensive Player of the Year in Kevin Garnett. They took a page out of San Antonio's playbook in how they defended LeBron James." Basically, the Celtics are double-teaming James after every pick and roll, preventing him from driving into the paint and forcing him to shoot jump shots. James is fantastic when he gets up a head of steam and powers his way to the hoop but for a player of his ability he is shockingly inept not only as a three point shooter (0-10 in this series) but even as a midrange jump shooter: of the eight field goals he has made in this series only one of them, a 22 foot jumper in the third quarter of game two, came from outside of the paint. The reason that James' field goal percentage versus Boston is so abysmal is that he is also missing inside shots that he normally converts but that just shows how his prowess as an inside player usually masks his inability to shoot well from the outside. It is actually a testament to his talent and determination that he can lead the league in scoring despite not being much of an outside threat but Boston is showing that it will be tough for James to lead a team to a championship until he fixes this one glaring weakness in his otherwise complete skill set.

That said, I disagree with anyone who would say that James is "overrated." It takes an excellent, well coached defensive team to execute a very good game plan for 48 minutes in order to control James. Let's not forget that James has a 5-2 career record in playoff series and he has already led a team to the NBA Finals, while veterans Garnett, Allen and Pierce have yet to make it to the NBA's ultimate postseason stage. What we saw in the 2007 NBA Finals and what we are seeing again now is merely confirmation that James is not yet the best player in the NBA, despite what many numbers-crunching stat "gurus" say; the correct way to evaluate players is not by blindly looking at numbers but by observing players' skill sets, making note of their strengths and weaknesses. The fact that James has a higher career field goal percentage than Kobe Bryant is not nearly as important as the fact that Bryant is a scoring threat from anywhere on the court while James does most of his damage in the paint. As Doug Collins repeatedly pointed out during Wednesday's Lakers-Jazz game, Bryant is a "complete offensive player" who has "no weakness in his offensive game." Scoring averages, assists averages and other statistics are dictated by a player's minutes, his role on his team and other factors--but if you watch players with an informed eye you can properly evaluate their footwork, their ballhandling, their passing, their shooting range and so forth. Consider just a simple example that you can look for the next time the Lakers play and the next time the Cavs play: watch the completely different ways that defenders close out to Bryant and to James--the first defender will go chest to chest with Bryant to deny him the chance to shoot an open jumper, relying (hoping) that there will be a rotation to stop Bryant from driving but the first defender closing out on James will stop two or three feet in front of him, daring James to shoot while cutting off his driving and passing angles. That is just one example of how you can tell which player is more difficult to guard and has a more complete offensive game. A really interesting aspect of this is that James' poor shooting touch negatively impacts his ability to effectively pass the ball because it enables defenders to cheat into passing lanes, while in contrast Bryant's excellent shooting touch opens up angles for him to pass: not only is James shooting poorly against Boston but he is turning the ball over at a terribly high rate because even when he is double-teamed it is often hard for him to get the ball to the open man because the defenders are playing James for the pass more so than for the shot. Another thing that is clearly happening is that James is becoming frustrated, which in turn results in him either forcing long shots or trying to thread the needle with very difficult to complete passes.

During the regular season, teams do not have the time--and, of course, many teams do not have the proper personnel--to implement a detailed game plan to keep James from getting to the hoop but in the playoffs against elite teams even an outstanding player like James will have his weaknesses exposed. Please note the difference between what the Celtics are doing and the nonsense that the Wizards did in the first round: the Celtics are putting bodies between James and the hoop and delivering hard (but clean) fouls to stop him from shooting layups; the Wizards offered little resistance to James when he drove to the hoop and then delivered cheap shots once he was already in the paint. You could call it the difference between playing defense and simply being wanna-be tough guys who have big mouths but small games--or you could call it the difference between being a 66 win, championship contending team and being a mediocre, overhyped team that will not likely ever get past the second round as currently constructed.

The principles--you could call them the "LeBron Rules"--that the Spurs used and are being adapted by the Celtics would simply not work against Bryant; any team that concedes wide open midrange and three point jumpers to Bryant will watch him drop at least 40 points in a heartbeat. As Mark Jackson put it, "You look at Kobe Bryant and there is no way to defend him and comfortably sleep at night." Teams certainly prefer to have Bryant shoot jumpers instead of layups--that is just common sense--but they have to be contested jumpers, not open jumpers while defenders sag into the passing lanes.

The correct defensive game plan to deal with James sounds simple on paper but it is not so easy to do on the court, which is another reason why you don't regularly see teams shutting James down. In the early minutes of game two, James was able to make some good reads and effective passes that led to scores; Cleveland took an 8-2 lead, with Ilgauskas scoring all of the points, and James played a major role in this quick start even though he did not receive a single assist: on one play, James drew multiple defenders and passed to Wallace, who reversed the ball to Ilgauskas for a wide open jumper. Wallace had two rebounds and that one assist in his limited playing time and even though the Cavs briefly extended their lead in his absence it is fair to say that they missed him at both ends of the court during the rest of the game. James got his first basket by rebounding his own miss and putting it back in and not long after that he received a lob from Anderson Varejao and converted his only dunk of the series so far. James got open on that play by faking like he was going to use a screen to cut outside and then going back door. Van Gundy said, "Poor defensive position by Pierce. You have to make him a jump shooter instead of letting him catch at the rim." James' final field goal of the first half came on a drive at the 3:00 mark of the first quarter. That gave the Cavs their biggest lead of the game, 21-9. Cassell entered the game for the first time at that point and he scored five points and had an assist as Boston went on a 19-6 run in the next 7:19; the Celtics took the lead after James Posey stole a pass intended for James and raced in for a fast break dunk and Boston never trailed again.

The Celtics held the Cavs to 12 points on 2-17 field goal shooting in the second quarter. Boston led 44-36 at halftime and broke the game open with a quick 6-0 run at the start of the third quarter. Although the Celtics had a few defensive lapses after they built up a huge lead in the second half, they are a remarkably focused and disciplined defensive team--at least at home. As Van Gundy said, they have a good game plan and they execute it. Boston did not show much as a road team in the first round versus Atlanta and James did lead the Cavs to four straight wins versus Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals after he had subpar performances in the first two games of that series, so it is entirely possible that the Cavs will win the next two games in Cleveland to set up a very intriguing game five matchup in Boston--but if James does not start converting the few layup opportunities he is getting or go on a hot streak from long distance then this could be a shorter series than anyone expected. As improbable as it may look at this moment, I still think that my prediction of a seven game series (won by Boston) will come to fruition, because I don't believe that a James-led team will fall apart the way that the Suns did in the first round after losing a close game one to the Spurs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:12 AM

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2 Comments:

At Saturday, May 10, 2008 7:40:00 PM, Blogger marcel said...

i believe lebron james is the best player in basketball his 30 8 and 7 speak for itself. the celts have done a good job on him makeing him a jump shooter and contesting his shots but hell play better tonight i expect a dominate game by the game best player.

 
At Monday, May 12, 2008 6:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

LeBron is the second best player. His skill set is not as complete as Kobe's; Kobe is a better outside shooter and a better free throw shooter and he still is a better defender, though LeBron has improved in this area.

Numbers can be affected by a player's position and his role on the team. Kobe is putting up 30-6-6 in the playoffs because that is what his team needs him to do now; if they needed that in the regular season then he could have done it then, too--but LeBron cannot go out and start consistently making jumpers the way that Kobe does.

 

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