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Friday, October 31, 2008

Cavs Cruise Over Bobcats in Home Opener

LeBron James nearly had a triple double (22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) in just 30 minutes of action as the Cleveland Cavaliers improved to 1-1 by winning their home opener versus the Charlotte Bobcats, 96-79. Daniel Gibson scored a game-high 25 points, shooting 10-14 from the field; if he had not uncharacteristically missed three straight free throws in the fourth quarter after being fouled on a three point shot then he could have matched or exceeded his regular season career-high of 26 points. Mo Williams contributed 17 points, seven assists and four rebounds while only committing one turnover. Ben Wallace was a major force in the paint with 10 rebounds and five blocked shots. Jason Richardson led Charlotte with 24 points. Adam Morrison was Charlotte's leading scorer in the first half with seven points but he only scored two points in the second half.

As is often the case with Cleveland, rebounding and strong defense played a major part in this victory; the Cavs outrebounded the Bobcats 46-34 while holding them to 33.8% field goal shooting. The Cavs led 25-16 at the end of the first quarter and were up by as many as 19 in the first half en route to a 50-33 halftime lead. One lingering issue for the Cavs is that they often play very sloppily in the third quarter and that was again the case in this contest. Charlotte cut the lead to 62-57 at the 1:58 mark of the third quarter but the Cavs closed the quarter with a 6-2 run and then outscored the Bobcats 28-20 in the final stanza.

Although James shot a respectable 7-15 from the field he again struggled to consistently connect on attempts fired from outside of the paint; he did most of his damage in close with an assortment of excellent drives and dunks plus a few very nice postups. He shot 8-12 from the free throw line, right in line with his typical mediocre percentage. His speed, power and agility in the open court are breathtaking and his ability to fill up a boxscore in multiple categories is most impressive but the next step for James in his quest to lead the Cavs to an NBA title is to shore up his shooting stroke from 15 feet (the free throw line) and beyond (this subject is covered in greater detail in Notes From Courtside).

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown singled Williams out for praise after the game, saying that when Charlotte closed to within five points, "Williams did a nice job of getting our team to believe that we had to get stops in order to get the win." Williams had not been known as a great defender prior to coming to Cleveland, so the fact that he has already bought into Brown's defensive philosophies to the extent that he is an on court leader in that regard is a great sign for the Cavs; defense starts with the point guard position, so Williams can play a crucial role in make Cleveland an even better defensive team than they have been in recent years.

After the game, someone asked James about the value of having a player like Williams who can create his own shot and create shots for other players, particularly in situations when James is on the bench resting or in foul trouble. James made a very shrewd reply, first stating that it is not up to just one player to pick up the slack when he is out of the game but then immediately adding that Williams is "a special player" who plays an important role on the team. The reason that I say that James' answer is shrewd is that he simultaneously gave credit to other players on the team while also acknowledging Williams' worth. Maybe that seems like a simple or obvious thing to do but in a similar situation Donovan McNabb completely blew it a few years ago; after Terrell Owens got hurt, McNabb emphasized that the Eagles could win without the All-Pro receiver, but neglected to mention that Owens is valuable or special--and that slight played a big role in all of the turmoil that later followed, culminating in Owens playing at an All-Pro level for a division rival. I have been present in pregame and postgame media standups with James since his rookie year and I have always been struck by his poise; he is able to make his point without denigrating his teammates or his opponents and without being nasty to reporters, even those who ask questions that he may not appreciate. He just seems to have an innate sense of what to say and how to say it. His answers may not always offer profound insight but that is not his job; his job as a team leader is to make sure that everything he says reflects positively on himself, his teammates and his organization.

Charlotte Coach Larry Brown succinctly broke down why his team lost: "They just killed us on the boards and they got every loose ball and every hustle play. Their guards played great and their whole team is so unselfish. And it starts with their best player (James). He tries to make everybody better and that's a huge factor." Brown added that his team shot too many jumpers and that when his players drove to the hoop they went in too far and got their shots blocked as opposed to collapsing the defense and then passing to open shooters the way that Cleveland's players did. Coach Brown always emphasizes the importance of playing the right way and he obviously has many reasons to be disappointed about just how wrongly his team played on this occasion.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

In my recap of Cleveland's 90-85 opening night loss to Boston, I mentioned a key play that happened near the end of the game:

...the Cavs had a defensive breakdown: after the Celtics broke the initial trap, James rushed up to attempt to foul Pierce near midcourt but that left the hoop unprotected and Pierce passed ahead to Leon Powe, who dunked the ball just as Varejao raced back and fouled him. Without talking to the coaches, I don't know if the breakdown here is the fault of the guards, if James blundered by rushing forward or if Varejao (or someone else) was supposed to be the last defender at the hoop.

After Coach Mike Brown completed his pregame media standup and the rest of the media horde had scattered, I approached him and said that since I was not at the first game I did not know if he had already addressed this issue but I am curious to know exactly what went wrong in that sequence and what the Cavs were supposed to do. Coach Brown indicated that no one had asked him about this and then he told me, "It was a mixup in our press defense. We did not get matched up and he got free and got the dunk." I followed up by asking if a certain player was supposed to be protecting the rim and Coach Brown said, "It's not one person's fault; it's all five--whoever is on the court, plus me. You can hold me accountable. It's all my fault. We were trying to deny Ray Allen with two guys--the man guarding the inbounder plus the man who was guarding him. We didn't get matched up, so we didn't know who was guarding who, so we had three guys guarding Allen, which left two guys open plus the inbounder. They made the right pass and got the dunk." I asked Coach Brown if that was something that the players should have known how to handle on their own or if it was an issue that had to be covered in the next practice. Coach Brown answered, "Oh, no, no. That's my fault because I didn't do a good job communicating to the guys the matchups. We went over it the next day."

This exchange points out two things very clearly:

(1) Good defense truly requires having five players acting as one--"on a string," as coaches like to say.
(2) Regardless of what Coach Brown may have said to his players in the huddle or in practice the next day, for public consumption he is very careful to say, essentially, "The buck stops here" and not throw any player or players under the bus for missing an assignment. That fits in with the "no excuse team" culture he has created.

***

After LeBron James' pregame media standup, I went up to him to personally thank him for his part in bringing the Olympic Gold Medal back to the United States--not that he is waiting for me to validate the accomplishment but rather because I feel fortunate to be in a position where I can personally thank him for doing something that I consider to be significant not just for him but for basketball in this country in general. I told James how much I enjoyed watching the team play and how glad I am that Team USA won the gold. James slapped five with me and told me that when he was in Boston a Celtics fan had said something very similar to him. James said that this reaction from a fan on the road "shocked" him but I replied that I hope and expect that fans in every road city will respond to him that way with regard to the Olympics, even if they fervently root against James and the Cavs once the game begins.

***

After talking with the media, James did his pregame shooting routine; when the pregame standup ended earlier than usual, James told us he was happy that he would be able to get some extra shots up. He obviously is aware of his weaknesses--free throw shooting, outside shooting--and he is working hard to improve in those areas. I've watched James shoot before in pregame warmups but never really charted his makes and misses; my general impression has always been that he shoots in practice like he shoots in games: he can get on a roll and make several in a row but he also will miss several in a row, something that great shooters rarely if ever do in warmups. The two best shooters who I have ever seen warm up in person are Reggie Miller and Steve Nash and after you watch them for even a short time you are surprised when they miss and really surprised if they miss two in a row. James started out by shooting jumpers from the right baseline just inside the three point line. He had already begun before I got to the court, so I did not count those shots. Next he went to the free throw line, where he shot 4-9; he grimaced after one of the misses and did not seem happy at all with the overall performance. Then he made 5-8 three point shots from the right wing. He followed that by shooting 5-6 from the free throw line. Then he shot three pointers from the left wing but my count got messed up because several players were shooting at the same time on the same rim. James made a couple threes from the left baseline and shot a couple runners from the left baseline before returning to the free throw line, where he shot 9-11. This seemed to please him and he left the court with a bounce in his step.

Here are the impressions I formed from watching the whole routine:

1) James alternated game shots (three pointers or jumpers) with free throws, which is a good way to simulate game situations; in a game you will have worked up a sweat and then have to calm down, center yourself and shoot free throws. If you just go in a gym with a normal heart rate and shoot free throws you are not really preparing to shoot free throws in a game, though you are at least working on perfecting your form.

2) James shot 18-26 (.692) overall on his free throws. The cliche is that you play like you practice and, unfortunately, that percentage almost exactly matches his free throw percentage from last year. If James is going to become an .800 free throw shooter in games then he obviously needs to be able to shoot .800 in practice; realistically, he needs to shoot .850 or .900 in practice to be an .800 shooter in games.

3) Last year, James worked on his shooting with assistant coach Chris Jent but this time James was on his own, other than having someone (not Jent) retrieve the basketball for him; Jent was working with Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao. I don't know if there is any significance to Jent not being involved or if this was just a coincidence (I did not get a chance to ask anyone but will try to find out at some point).

4) Without Jent overseeing things, James' routine was a bit haphazard; he did not have the same amount of makes or attempts at each location, so it was not clear to me how he decided to move from one spot to the next. I suspect that James was not even counting at all, but simply going by feel.

5) James' shot release and technique is pretty consistent, though sometimes he fades away and sometimes his shooting elbow flies out slightly. I noticed two possible issues with his free throw shooting: he looks at the ground until right before he releases the shot and he tends to shoot a bit stiff legged instead of bending his knees. I may not be a shooting guru but I can consistently make 8 out of 10 free throws in a practice situation and I was always taught that it is important to focus on the rim throughout the entire shot preparation and it is important to bend your knees to provide the power so the shot does not devolve into a pushing motion.

My conclusion is that until James has a slightly more organized shooting routine in practice and until he tweaks his free throw motion as I described that his shooting percentages from the free throw line and from outside the paint will not improve significantly, though he will still have some games in which he gets hot and makes a very good percentage.

***

While the Bobcats shot around more than an hour before tipoff, Larry Brown sat on the sidelines and schmoozed with various people, several of whom (including Cavs assistant coach John Kuester) have some kind of North Carolina connection. Brown seems so happy to be back on the court again, though of course that may change after a few more losses like this one. Brown is a teacher at heart, one of those coaches who has frankly admitted that he enjoys practices more than games because in practices he has the chance to give out instruction and help players develop. Larry's brother Herb, an assistant coach for Charlotte, was working on post moves with rookie Alexis Ajinca while Larry was shooting the breeze but then all of a sudden Larry stood up and said, "No, Herb, no" and then walked over to Ajinca to correct something that Ajinca was doing with his elbow while he was shooting. Ajinca listened intently, then caught a pass from Herb Brown and executed the move according to Larry Brown's specifications. Larry Brown nodded approvingly and sat back down to resume his conversation. It has been said of Larry Brown that he can watch a play in a game or in practice and instantly recall where all 10 players were and what they did, a kind of athletic photographic memory perhaps akin to the way that a chess grandmaster can process numerous possibilities instantly because he has memorized thousands of standard positions/move orders. If the young Bobcats listen to their teacher and heed his guidance they should improve a lot--eventually.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 AM

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