Cavs Build 29 Point Lead, Coast to 94-82 Win Over PistonsThe Cleveland Cavaliers used a powerful three pronged offensive attack led by LeBron James plus stifling defense to race to a 29 point lead versus the sputtering Detroit Pistons en route to a 94-82 victory, placing Detroit in a 2-0 hole. James finished with game-high totals in points (29) and rebounds (13), adding six assists while committing only two turnovers. He thrilled the crowd with two sensational third quarter dunks: a two handed monster jam off of a slick bounce pass from Mo Williams at the 5:19 mark to put the Cavs up 61-44 and a two handed windmill fastbreak dunk that made the score 68-46 Cleveland with 3:27 left. Williams established playoff career-highs in points (21) and assists (seven), while Delonte West had 20 points and four assists, though he did commit a game-high five turnovers.
Richard Hamilton led Detroit with 17 points. Antonio McDyess grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds but only scored eight points on 3-9 shooting. Kwame Brown had the most interesting stat line of the night, accumulating more fouls (five) than points (zero) and rebounds (three) combined. The Cavs outrebounded the Pistons 43-34 and held them to .395 field goal shooting (32-81), though Cleveland only shot .424 from the field (28-66), a low percentage largely due to a 1-11 outing by Cleveland's reserves.
It would not seem like there could be much drama in such a game--many writers headed to the media room after the third quarter to get a head start on their game stories and some of the fans behind the media section asked me if I could switch one of the TV monitors to the channel featuring the Cleveland Indians game--but when James and the starters went to the bench in the fourth quarter the Pistons suddenly roared to life and cut the lead to 82-68 with 7:15 remaining. Even after James, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao rode in like the cavalry to try to save the day, the Pistons continued their rally, narrowing the gap to 84-77 at the 3:51 mark. Then the Cavs got three straight stops and James, West and Williams each made a pair of free throws to reestablish control of the game. After another Cavs stop, James grabbed the rebound and fired a perfect outlet pass to Williams, who scored a layup and got fouled. Williams missed the free throw but the Cavs enjoyed a 92-77 lead with just 2:19 remaining, so the outcome was no longer in doubt.
The Cavs opened the game with a 10-2 run and never trailed. A 23-14 first quarter lead expanded to 46-32 by halftime, 77-50 after three quarters and 79-50 early in the fourth quarter. TNT's Kenny Smith has said several times that he believes that the playoff experience of Detroit's veterans actually works against the Pistons in this series because those guys have seen enough postseason action to understand quite clearly that their team has no chance to beat Cleveland in a seven game series; Smith thinks that this explains the lackluster way that the starters are performing and maybe he has a point, because Detroit's young reserves entered the game in the fourth quarter and played their hearts out, continuing to gain ground even for a few minutes after Cleveland's starters returned to the fray. Naturally, this is a sensitive issue for Detroit and after the game when Hamilton was asked about why the starters played so sluggishly compared to the reserves he deftly deflected that question by focusing his response on how well Detroit's second unit played: "I thought the bench did a great job. I thought they came in the fourth quarter and did a lot of things that our starters didn't do. They talked. They were on a string (defensively); when one guy got beat, another guy was there. Rotations were good."
Detroit Coach Michael Curry thought that the reserves set an example that the starters should follow during the rest of the series: "I think with the second group it showed it doesn't matter what we do coverage-wise. If you go out, execute it and do it extremely hard, we'll be okay. We cover a lot of ground. We showed on the pick and rolls. We trapped. They brought LeBron back in, we trapped, rotated, covered the shooters. Physically we were able to get it done and rebound the basketball as well. That's what we take from it--things we are trying to do and the things we are talking about doing going into the game, we can do it."
Not surprisingly, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown--who received the Red Auerbach Trophy (and a much deserved standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 20,562) prior to the game in honor of winning the 2009 Coach of the Year Award--preferred to focus his postgame remarks on the first three quarters of the game: "I thought our guys played a great three quarters of basketball. First, second and third quarters we were very good on both ends of the floor. I thought we moved the ball well in terms of ball reversals. We threw the ball ahead, trying to get some easy baskets. I thought we set screens for one another. I thought we spaced the floor very well. I thought, offensively, all of our staples were there. That was great to see, fun to watch. Defensively, I thought we did things terrific, too, in the first three quarters. We shrunk the floor; we made that paint look crowded. We didn't give up a ton of middle drives. We contested shots. We kept them off the glass. We did a lot of good things in the first three quarters basketball-wise. In the fourth quarter, offensively their second or third unit, however you want to call it, did a great job. You have to give them credit. They got up into us and we didn't respond well with the guys we had on the floor, so we had to go back to our starters to close the game, which they did a terrific job of doing."
One of the most remarkable things about James is the poise that he maintains on and off the court. He does not overreact to anything and when he was asked after the game about the poor performance of Cleveland's bench players he struck just the right tone: "We did a great job offensively and defensively and we played great basketball for the first three quarters. I think that in the fourth quarter we just got a little content, which we cannot do in the playoffs. We cannot allow ourselves to get content...As starters or as guys, we are all a team, so we had no problem going back in and finishing out the game. We all win together and we all lose together. We all play well together and sometimes we don't play well together, so there is no blame for anybody. The biggest thing is that we got a win but we know that we cannot allow ourselves to not close out a game the right way."
Notes From Courtside:
Prior to the game, I had the opportunity to interview Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry. This season, I have asked both Cavs Coach Mike Brown and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich to give their thoughts about the February 13, 2009 New York Times article that described how Houston General Manager Daryl Morey uses statistics to make player evaluations. The article focuses on Morey's acquisition of Shane Battier, though the author neglected to mention that the Rockets gave up a very promising young player (Rudy Gay) in order to get Battier.
Brown and Popovich both indicated very strongly to me that they are not "numbers guys." Ferry has a reputation of being at least somewhat a "numbers guy" and it has been reported that well respected "stat guru" Dan Rosenbaum has been advising the Cavs since the start of the 2005-06 season.
Friedman: "Did you have a chance to read the New York Times article about the use of advanced statistics to analyze basketball?"
Friedman: "What did you think of that article in general? How much do you use advanced statistics?"
Ferry: "I read the article. I thought that it was a good article. I believe in using statistical analysis as part of your decision making process. Every team will look at things and do things differently based off of how they read the stats but I think it definitely has a place in studying the draft and it definitely has a place in studying in free agency and it has a place in getting ready for games."
Friedman: "You've been in the NBA a long time first as a player, then in the Spurs front office and now with the Cavs. How much has the use of statistics--and the sophistication of the statistics being used--increased during the period of time that you have been in the NBA?"
Ferry: "I think it has increased dramatically, over the past five years in particular. I think that owners, general managers and teams in general have looked at what baseball has done (with statistics) and know, obviously, that they can't recreate baseball--it's a different game with a different set up and a different structure and you look at the statistics differently--but it challenges you to think a little more analytically about the decision making process."
Friedman: "One thing that could be said to be different about baseball and basketball is that baseball is a station to station game--the pitcher throws the ball, the hitter hits it, the fielder fields it and each thing is a discrete action that can be evaluated--while in a basketball game you have 10 players in motion at once. Do you think that difference makes it more challenging to come up with accurate metrics for basketball than it is for baseball?"
Ferry: "I think that you can get accurate metrics for basketball but you also have to understand that it is a static thing and that whether it is baseball, whether it is football or anything, to just make decisions off of statistics would be a mistake but it can be an important part of the equation in basketball. I believe it can be."
Friedman: "If you are looking at either your team or at an opposing team, are there certain statistics that you consider to be very reliable to say that a given team is performing efficiently? For instance, are there numbers that you zero in on and say that if a team is doing well at this then I know that they are good defensively or that they are good offensively?"
Ferry: "You can look at points per possession, you can look at pace of play. There are a lot of different numbers--plus/minus statistics for players, adjusted plus/minus statistics for players, rebound rates. There are all different kinds of things that you can look at from a team standpoint and also from an individual player standpoint."
Friedman: "Are there certain particular stats you focus on from a team standpoint? Individual stats were going to be my next question. Are there certain team stats that you value over the others?"
Ferry: "Probably the one that we look at the most is just regular old defensive field goal percentage, because that is something the guys all see. It is also something that a statistics person would look at, beat it up and say that we are crazy to look at it but for us it is something that we can see that is right in front of our eyes and that our coaching staff is very comfortable using. Now, do we have other layers on top of that that we look at behind the scenes? Yes."
Friedman: "Can you describe--"
Friedman (laughs): "OK, I had to ask, but I understand if you can't. From an individual player standpoint, obviously you expect different things from players at different positions--a point guard has different responsibilities than a center and so forth--but when you are evaluating players in a general sense, you mentioned plus/minus before, is there a metric that you look at that you think gives you a good gauge in general on players?"
Friedman: "And again you can't say which one?"
Friedman: "OK, I understand."
Ferry: "I don't want everybody to know how I look at things, necessarily. Other people may look at things differently."
Friedman: "I have asked the same or similar questions to Coach Brown and Coach Popovich. Coach Brown said to me that he is not really a big stat guy, that he goes more by feel. Coach Popovich said the same thing. Obviously, you already know this because you have dealt with both of them a lot longer than I have but I am just indicating what my research has been. On that continuum, are you more of a stat guy than they are?"
Ferry: "I am more interested in statistical analysis than Pop and Mike but that is not saying a whole lot."
Friedman: "Well, that is interesting because it may have a different value to you than to them. Your angle has more to do with player evaluation, while they are coaching and dealing with what is going on during games. Those things are not exactly the same, although they can overlap."
Ferry: "No, but I will look at how we are playing and what we are doing as a team as well. I like looking at statistical analysis things whether I am looking at our team or looking at other teams or looking at free agents. There is a place for it but it is only a small part of the equation."
Ferry also clarified for me something that Brown and Popovich had both mentioned about P.J. Carlesimo, who looks at stats much more than they do; Ferry explained that Carlesimo--who wa an assistant coach with Brown on Popovich's staff several years ago--relies mainly on traditional boxscore statistics, such as fast break points, as opposed to the newer, "advanced" stats, so the input that Carlesimo offered in that regard would not have been of interest to either the new wave stat guys nor to coaches like Brown and Popovich who rely more on feel than they do on new or old stats. Hopefully at some point I will have an opportunity to speak with Carlesimo not only about this subject but also about why he chose to play Kevin Durant at shooting guard instead of small forward, a decision that Scott Brooks reversed (with tremendously positive results) as soon as he took over for Carlesimo as Oklahoma City's head coach.
I mentioned to Ferry that I think that he has done an excellent job of making the Cavs arguably the deepest team in the league, one of the few teams that truly has a full complement of shooters, rebounders, defenders and passers, with reserve players being more than capable of stepping in if someone gets hurt or is in foul trouble. When I said this to Ferry, I focused on the 10 man rotation and while he appreciated the compliment he made the point that in addition to those players he really likes players 11-15, particularly 24 year old Tarence Kinsey, a very talented guard who only averaged 5.5 mpg this season. Although the bench players did not play well in game two versus Detroit, they have been a real strength for the Cavs throughout the season, enabling James to completely sit out more than a dozen fourth quarters as they protected/expanded leads.
During Coach Curry's pregame standup he made some interesting comments about defending LeBron James, his experiences as a first year coach, what went wrong with the Pistons this season and what kind of team he is trying to build.
Regarding the critique that the Pistons are supposedly not defending James as well as they did in the 2007 playoffs, Curry said, "I was doing interviews yesterday and I laughed when everyone said that we are a different Detroit team than we were two years ago as far as how we defended LeBron. I had to go back and check the records: I thought we lost that series--with home court advantage--in game six, so we want to do some things better than we did in 2007."
I asked Coach Curry, "What has been the most unexpected challenge for you as a first year coach? What is something that happened in the course of the season that--as much as you prepared to be a coach--was an unexpected challenge that you faced?"
Curry replied, "Changing the team right at the beginning of the year. It was kind of tough with the point guard but, really, just the fact that we had Allen (Iverson) and Rip (Richard Hamilton) both being really established shooting guards--trying to play them together was so-so but never was great. Trying to play each one of them in a supportive role off of the bench didn't work out either. So I didn't expect that. Everything else you try to prepare for the unexpected. As I said before back in Detroit (prior to game one on Saturday), I think that everything we've tried to do this year, if he had had Dice (Antonio McDyess) the entire time it would have been better--it still was going to be tough but we really got to see the value of having someone like Antonio McDyess on your team."
I then asked, "Do you think that was the biggest factor in why your record was not as good this year, not having McDyess at the start of the season and then trying to bring him back into the fold while all of the other things you mentioned were going on?"
Curry answered, "We just didn't play good. Our record is how we played; we didn't play good enough. I just think when you talk about the biggest things we went through during the year, I'm saying that having McDyess (the whole time) could have helped the transition or with the trade that was made but I'm not using that as an excuse. Our record is what it is because that is how we played."
Curry commendably is not looking for any excuses for his team's performance but anyone who understands basketball realizes that when a team is without its leading rebounder for more than a fifth of the season that is a critical blow, particularly with so much other turmoil also happening. McDyess is also valuable offensively because of his shooting touch, plus he is probably the most respected voice in the locker room among the players.
Just like Utah Coach Jerry Sloan is frustrated that his team does not mirror the aggressive mindset that he had as a player, Curry is disappointed that his Pistons do not play the way that he did: "One thing that I've realized as a coach is--some of the things I did as a player, I'm proud of how I played the game, but trying to mold the team into performing the way that I did takes a little longer than I expected. I think that you have to have more players who play that way. Maybe over time we will add players to the mix and defend that way...I gave my body up more as a player...I took more charges, I dove for more loose balls, I gave more hard fouls. Those are things that as I continue to mold my team going forward that I want to be our signature."
Before the game, Coach Brown said that LeBron James has always played with effort on defense but that unlike Michael Jordan--who played at North Carolina for three years under the tutelage of the legendary Dean Smith--James had to make the transition from high school straight to the NBA and that was a steep learning curve for the young Cavs star.
Brown also explained how Cleveland's previous playoff experience is helpful during this postseason: "Having patience but playing with a sense of urgency is something that we have developed over the past few years."
During his pregame standup, someone asked James if his initial adjustment to the NBA was tougher on offense or on defense and he replied without hesitation, "Defense. You can get away with cheating plays and not playing defense in high school sometimes because the guys physically or athletically are not better than you, so you can get away with it. Here there are guys who are equally fast and equally strong." He later added that defense "means more to me now at this point in my career than it did to me in the past. Not to say that I just didn't care about defense but now I care as much about defense as I do about offense." He dismissed the idea that playing for Team USA spurred that change in his thought process--though Doug Collins and other observers believe that playing alongside veterans like Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd helped James become more focused on defense--instead crediting Coach Mike Brown's schemes plus his own intrinsic desire to improve. James said that each offseason he focuses on a specific goal and that his goal prior to his season was to win the Defensive Player of the Year award; earlier on Tuesday it was announced that Dwight Howard had become the youngest winner in the history of that award, with James finishing second. James did not receive a single DPoY vote last year.
Before the game I spoke briefly with Pistons broadcaster Greg Kelser, who won an NCAA title at Michigan State with Magic Johnson before averaging 9.7 ppg in a six season NBA career that was shortened by injuries. When I interviewed Kelser a while ago for an article about him that first ran in the May 2007 issue of Basketball Times, he told me that he thought he could still get 10 rebounds in a game. When I reminded him about that statement, he laughed and said since he is a few years older now he probably could only get eight rebounds.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:32 AM