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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cavs Silence Thunder, 117-82

Cleveland opened with a 13-0 run, led 33-14 after the first quarter and completely dominated Oklahoma City in a 117-82 victory. Even in the most lopsided blowouts the losing team usually makes some kind of a run but Cleveland led by at least 29 points for the entire second half. The easy win enabled LeBron James to play a career-low tying 17 minutes but he made the most of his limited court time with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and one steal. Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 17 points and seven rebounds. Chris Wilcox paced Oklahoma City with 14 points. Kevin Durant scored 13 points on 6-16 field goal shooting and only had one rebound and one assist.

The Cavaliers set three franchise records in this game:

1) Their 12-3 record is their best start ever, surpassing 11-3 marks set in 1976-77 and 1988-89.

2) Their 34 point halftime lead tops the previous mark by two (set on April 20, 2001 versus Orlando).

3) The 35 point margin of victory is their largest win ever over the Thunder/Sonics franchise.

It is also worth noting that all 12 Cleveland players scored at least one point for the second game in a row, the Cavs have not trailed at all in their past three games and their .608 field goal percentage is their best single game mark in that category since March 21, 1996.

Oklahoma City was playing the second game of a back to back but so was Cleveland. The Cavs are obviously very good but it takes nothing away from Cleveland's performance to acknowledge that the Thunder look like an expansion team--and a bad one at that. I can't recall seeing in person an NBA team perform worse than they did; they reminded me of the 12-70 1986-87 Clippers, the 11-71 1992-93 Mavericks and the 15-67 2000-01 Bulls. On press row we spent the first half debating whether the Thunder are more atrocious on offense or defense but did not reach a definitive verdict; they finished the game shooting .354 from the field--with 10 of their shots being blocked--and, as mentioned above, they helped the Cavs shoot .608 from the field by all but escorting them to the hoop. At halftime I mentioned something to Sam Amico of Pro Basketball News that bears repeating: none of the individual stats from the second half of this game will be significant because that whole 24 minutes is nothing but garbage time but at the end of the season those numbers will be factored into various team and individual statistical rankings, including per minute stats that will be skewed by gaudy, misleading totals such as Tarence Kinsey's 11 points on 3-3 shooting in nine minutes. There is certainly value in tracking every possible statistic and having those numbers available for analysis but without placing numbers in a larger context they can often be not only meaningless but outright deceptive.

In his postgame standup, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown very tactfully alluded to Oklahoma City playing the second game of a back to back and being a team in transition (with Scott Brooks recently taking over as coach for the fired P.J. Carlesimo). As for his own team's efforts, Brown said, "I thought our guys entered the game with the right mind frame, the right focus. They came out and did what they were supposed to do on both ends of the floor. That's good to see because one of the things we're preaching is developing good habits." He singled out Delonte West for praise: "He did a nice job of running the ball club and trying to get guys the ball on time and on target. Another thing we say is 'pass on time, pass on target' and Delonte's passes were on time and on target."

Coach Brooks said, "The lesson to be learned is you have to come with it every night...the biggest thing we will talk about on Friday will be, when we play against a good team you have to be prepared to take their first hit." Prior to the game, Coach Brooks mentioned that the number one problem he saw with the Thunder so far this season is that the players did not play hard all the time and that comment turned out to be very prophetic (see Notes From Courtside for a fuller exploration of this issue).

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

I arrived at Quicken Loans Arena two hours before tip off and Durant was already on the court working on shooting drills; I did not get to count all of his attempts but this is what I observed: he made nearly every elbow (free throw line extended) jumper that he took and he shot the ball with a fluid, effortless motion. He seems to have gotten taller and longer; when he took one dribble from the three point line he covered a large area before shooting midrange jumpers that he also rarely missed. I only saw him miss two free throws (he shot these before he moved from one spot on the court to another as he practiced his jumpers from various locales) and he again displayed a very nice shooting motion. However, when he shot from behind the three point line his motion did not look quite as smooth and his percentage dropped noticeably, though he still shot well overall (keep in mind that he was close to 100% on his midrange jumpers, so a big drop off behind the arc still means he made close to half of the threes I saw him try). When I spoke to Durant just a few minutes later he candidly admitted that he is not nearly as comfortable behind the three point line as he is with the midrange jump shot.

Durant's shooting motion is much smoother and more consistent than the shooting motion that LeBron James demonstrated when I watched him do shooting drills prior to Cleveland's home opener versus Charlotte. That said, James has improved his free throw shooting so far this season (see below) and he is better than Durant in every skill set area other than pure shooting, which is why James is a legit MVP candidate and Durant is not yet an All-Star caliber player.

***

Coach Brooks played for Cleveland for part of the 1997-98 season, when Ilgauskas was a rookie. They were roommates back then, so during Brooks' pregame standup he good-naturedly made fun of Ilgauskas' driving skills and how much of a "slob" he was that time before adding on a serious note, "He's a terrific guy, first and foremost. That guy is a quality, quality person and Cleveland is lucky to have him for all the years that he has played. He's a good player, an All-Star multiple years."

***

During his pregame standup, Coach Brooks said that a major reason for the Thunder's poor record is "I don't think we played hard enough. It's important to play hard. It's very important to me that we play hard. It's important that our players realize how important it is to leave it on the floor every night. I've stressed to them that it just doesn't happen on game nights. You have to do it on the practice floor. That's the only way I know. I was one of those guys who loved practice. I believe that is how you get better. You can't all of a sudden work on this shot or I'm going to work on this move or I'm going to work on this defense in the middle of a game and expect the other team to participate in that. You have to prepare yourself in game-like situations in practice."

He then addressed some other subjects but the first time I had a chance I asked him this followup: "You mentioned the team not playing hard. When that happens what do you think is the cause of that and as a coach what can you do if you see a certain player or group of players not playing hard?"

Coach Brooks answered, "I don't think that players mean not to play hard. As you go through an NBA season, most players play hard but what you really want them to do is play really hard. There is a difference; it's a little bit of a difference but it is a difference. Guys don't do it on purpose. You just have to figure out which ways to motivate players and it takes different ways to motivate different players."

I then asked, "Is it true sometimes--particularly with younger players--that maybe they don't really know what it really means to play hard at the NBA level? Maybe college was kind of easy for them, that based on talent they just did certain things but the NBA game is a little bit different so that is part of the adjustment?" I meant for this line of inquiry to focus more on the true nature of "playing hard" and not so much on "young players" but Coach Brooks either perceived the question differently than I meant it or else simply wanted to make a point about his team when he replied, "No, I've been around a lot of veteran players who don't play hard. On paper that sounds good--you like to blame it on the young guys--but I don't buy into that at all. I think you want high character guys who understand that we are all here to play hard and whether you are young or a veteran guy you need to have that responsibility."

Rather than reask my question again--I'm not Mike Wallace jumping out of the bushes on 60 Minutes--I followed the train of Coach Brooks' thought process and said, "So that is part of the speech already, 'We're not using it as an excuse that we are young.'"

Coach Brooks answered, "I've never told the guys--not one time--that we're not ready because we're young. We are learning ways to win and it is a process. Not one time have I ever told the guys that we are not playing to win . We are playing every game to win and that's our message: Play hard and find ways to win."

***

LeBron James did not attempt any free throws during his cameo appearance against Oklahoma City but he is shooting a career-high .786 this season, so after the game I asked him what he is doing differently. He replied, "Free throws are all about maintaining focus and going up there and knocking them down. First of all, you have to get some type of routine and then consistently go up there and do that. I found that touch."

I asked James if he changed his routine this year and he answered, "Yes, I changed it but once I found a comfort level that I could go up there every time and do the same thing every time I stuck with it."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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At Thursday, November 27, 2008 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

I didn't see this game (and apparently I didn't miss much) but on the evidence of this season Cleveland seems to finally have the pieces around LeBron to be a legit title contender. There isn't really another All-Star-calibre player (Ilgauskas and Williams are borderline) but they do have:

- numerous spot-up shooters (West, Williams, Gibson, Szczerbiak, Pavlovic, Ilgauskas)
- a couple of good ballhandlers to take pressure off LeBron (West, Williams)
- bangers in the paint (Varejao, Wallace)
- a defensive mentality instilled by Mike Brown

They could still use an athletic big who can score in the paint, and they might be able to get one with a package built around Szczerbiak's expiring contract.

LeBron might still decide to leave for New York, but you can't say the Cavs haven't held up their end of the bargain in terms of building a competitive team around him...

 
At Friday, November 28, 2008 6:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I agree that Danny Ferry has done a very good job of putting the right pieces around LeBron in order for the Cavs to be a legit championship contender.

 

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