Cleveland's Mettle Will be Tested NowWhen a player who has just produced 28 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists correctly terms that performance "probably my worst game of the season" you know that player is very good. LeBron James, who also had a season-high eight turnovers and shot just 8-28 from the field--including a career-high 13 straight misses--put up those numbers in Cleveland's 102-93 overtime loss at Chicago on Thursday night. While those are uncharacteristically poor shooting numbers for James, it is important to remember that his excellent field goal percentage this season is largely built on the strength of the phenomenal amount of points in the paint that he scores; he still is an erratic shooter outside of that area and a lot of his misses versus the Bulls were jumpers, including a potential game-winner as time ran out in regulation. Later in the TNT broadcast, Ernie Johnson noted that during his career James has shot just 3-22 from the field in game-winning situations in the last five seconds of regulation or overtime. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of those misses were jump shots. However, James is the least of Cleveland's concerns; he was slowed by the effects of a cold and will surely be playing at an MVP level again very soon.
The Cavs have one of the deepest rosters in the league but they have won just four of their last seven games as attrition is rapidly taking a toll that would be difficult for any team to withstand. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has missed the last six games and will be out of action for several more weeks with a broken foot, starting power forward Ben Wallace has missed the past two games with an intestinal virus and starting shooting guard Delonte West will likely be on the shelf for a few weeks after suffering a nasty fall late in the first quarter versus Chicago. West jumped to block Derrick Rose's shot and landed on the baseline with a sickening thud, banging his head hard enough to open up a gash that required stitches to close and fracturing a bone in his right (non-shooting) wrist. West had already scored 11 points on 5-7 shooting in 11 minutes, taking advantage of the smaller, defensively challenged Ben Gordon on the post.
Obviously, being without three starters really hurt Cleveland down the stretch versus Chicago but the real problem when so many key guys are out is not even so much what the new starters will do but rather what kind of production the team can squeeze out of the players who are added to the rotation. With Anderson Varejao and Lorenzen Wright moved into the starting lineup last night to replace Ilgauskas and Wallace, the Bulls' bench outscored the Cavs' bench 40-17 and outrebounded them 18-13.
Early in the season, Cleveland enjoyed the luxury of having James sit out most of the fourth quarter in many games as the Cavs' reserves held or even expanded leads that had been built by the starters; James is averaging a career-low 36.9 mpg this season. James played more than 44 minutes versus Chicago and he has exceeded 40 minutes in five of the last eight games. Of course, he is a young, well conditioned player who can certainly handle the expanded work load without suffering much--if any--decline in his efficiency but ideally the Cavs would like for him to have as much fuel in the tank as possible for what they certainly expect to be a long, grueling playoff run this summer.
The Cavs face the New Orleans Hornets at home tonight and then head out west for games against the league-leading 31-7 L.A. Lakers, the young and upcoming Portland Trail Blazers, the run and gun Golden State Warriors and the always tough Utah Jazz. The Cavs are just a few percentage points ahead of Boston and Orlando in the East and it will take strong performances from James and company to not drop to third in the conference standings by the end of the upcoming road trip.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 PM