Cleveland Overcomes Sluggish First Half, Beats Denver, 110-99The Cleveland Cavaliers trailed 61-58 at halftime but clamped down defensively in the second half and defeated the Denver Nuggets 110-99. LeBron James, who had scored 41 points in three of his previous four games, nearly missed a triple double with 22 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Mo Williams led the Cavs with 24 points, while Chauncey Billups scored a game-high 26 points in defeat. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith each contributed 18 points--and each gave up at least that many points at the other end of the court.
Neither team played well defensively in the first half. At halftime, Billups told TNT's David Aldridge that playing in Denver is completely different than playing in Detroit because the Nuggets play at such a faster pace offensively. "We try to be hard on defense," Billups added but he could barely keep a straight face as he said that, realizing that the Nuggets are anything but "hard" defensively; the "stat gurus" may try to tell you that Denver is a good defensive team but Billups is a former All-Defensive Team member who played for a top notch defensive squad in Detroit so he knows as well as anyone exactly how many shortcomings there are to Denver's defensive effort and execution--and after being in Denver for a few games he surely also realizes that the defensive problems in recent years were not solely the fault of the player for whom he was traded, Allen Iverson; if I ever wanted to smuggle contraband past the Nuggets, I would just attach it to whoever is being guarded by Anthony or Smith and then send that player on a backdoor cut--no one would ever find that player again. Getting beaten backdoor through inattention or indifference is just one Denver problem, though. One Cleveland possession from early in the third quarter provides another example of the kind of defense that Anthony plays: he jumped in the air after a Delonte West pump fake, letting West drive right past him and then Anthony compounded that mistake by making no effort to get back in the play. West was picked up in the lane by another Nugget but he passed to Mo Williams, who missed a runner that Ben Wallace tipped in. TNT's Mike Fratello rightly noted, "It starts with the defense of Carmelo Anthony. You just can't leave your feet and jump in the air because your man picks up the ball and fakes like he's going to shoot the thing. Carmelo breaks down the first position, now everybody winds up covering up for him and then you get the tip in."
Later, after Anthony made a nice cut and dunked a lob pass, Fratello pointedly said, "It's amazing, Carmelo Anthony looks lost at times at the defensive end of the floor but he never looks lost on the offensive end of the floor. He knows exactly what to do, where to be, where to go." In other words, this all comes down to concentration and effort. Anthony's defensive mistake on the play with West is not just an isolated example; Anthony has bad defensive habits and he compounds these bad habits with a lack of effort and intensity. He is Denver's best player, the putative leader on the team, and the example that he sets at that end of the court is a big reason why Denver has been so soft defensively during his career. The Nuggets have a lot of guys who talk tough and act like they are hard but the team is soft where it counts--mental focus and self discipline.
In contrast, James has improved tremendously as a defensive player. Fratello credits some of that to James' experience as a teammate of Kobe Bryant's on Team USA. Fratello mentioned that Bryant made the commitment to shut down the top perimeter player on each opposing team and Fratello concluded, "LeBron saw that. LeBron saw the commitment that Kobe was willing to make and I think that LeBron took some of that home." In fairness to James, his defense has improved each year that he has been in the league--not just this year--but there is no doubt that he and other members of Team USA certainly were influenced by the example that Bryant set. I'm sure that Nuggets' fans wish that some of Bryant's attitude, focus and intensity would have rubbed off on Anthony.
Before the third quarter began, Aldridge reported that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown called his team's defensive effort in the first half "embarrassing." The difference between Cleveland and Denver is that Denver's first half defensive effort is par for the course, while Cleveland's was an aberration: the Cavs gave up 36 points in the first quarter but their defense got more stingy as the game went on, ceding 25 points in the second quarter, 20 in the third quarter and 18 in the fourth quarter. In contrast, Denver's defense was poor throughout the game.
Some people may believe that the Nuggets came out ahead in the Billups-Allen Iverson trade but Denver's 3-0 record prior to the Cleveland game was fool's gold: a close home win against a struggling Dallas team followed by victories over the lottery bound Grizzlies and Bobcats. I didn't expect the Nuggets to make the playoffs even with Iverson and my initial thought was that the trade would not change things that much--but after watching Denver play (not just in this game but also in the previous ones) it seems distinctly possible that the Nuggets will be worse off in the short term, never mind that their long term prospects are crippled by the poor salary cap management that made the owner feel compelled to dump Marcus Camby and buy out Antonio McDyess, two players who would make the Nuggets better at both ends of the court. Billups had a big 16 point first quarter versus Cleveland but that is an aberration--that point total matched his previous season high in scoring! The Nuggets are terrible defensively and now they don't have Camby's shotblocking to wipe away some of their miscues nor do they have the threat of Iverson going off for 30 or 40 points to at least help them outscore teams that they can't shut down. How exactly is this Denver team going to win many games against good competition? Billups can't score like Iverson and it's not like he shut down his Cleveland counterparts, either, with Williams nearly matching Billups point for point and Daniel Gibson scoring 15 points off of the bench. The funny thing is that part of why Detroit got rid of Billups is that the Pistons did not think that Billups could match up well with Williams and Gibson (who torched the Pistons two years ago in the playoffs) and, at least based on this game, that seems like an astute assessment.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 AM