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Friday, May 29, 2009

Brilliant Performance by LeBron James Lifts Cavs Over Magic in Game Five

LeBron James added yet another chapter to his book of impressive playoff performances, authoring a huge triple double (37 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists--numbers no player has matched in the same playoff game since Oscar Robertson had 41-15-12 on March 21, 1963) and completely dominating the fourth quarter as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Orlando Magic 112-102 in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. James had already compiled a triple double with more than 10 minutes remaining in the game but he only made five of his first 13 field goal attempts in the first three quarters before he scored 17 points on 6-11 field goal shooting in the final stanza, adding four rebounds and four assists and not committing a turnover while playing all 12 minutes. For most of the fourth quarter, the Cavs used a small lineup featuring James, one big and three perimeter shooters; they isolated James at the free throw line or the top of the key area with a live dribble while the perimeter players spotted up behind the three point line and the big waited to dive to the hoop along the baseline if Dwight Howard went to trap James. This set looked stagnant initially as four Cavs stood around while James faked, jab stepped or backed down his defender but inevitably James would either break free for a score and/or a foul or else he would draw another defender and pass to a cutter or a three point shooter. James accounted for 32 straight Cavalier points with his scoring or passing from the :39.9 mark of the third quarter until the 1:07 mark of the fourth quarter.

There is so much talk about Orlando's mismatch advantages versus Cleveland but the reality is that in any series between quality teams each team has a set of strengths and weaknesses relative to the other team. The biggest mismatch in this particular series is James versus anyone Orlando uses to guard him; Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said after game one that he has no answers for James and that was not a matter of hyperbole or trying to butter up the opponent-- he was speaking the truth: James is averaging 41.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 8.2 apg in this series while shooting .500 from the field. He made an incredible shot to win game two, hit two pressure-packed free throws to force overtime in game four and has scored at least 35 points in all five games. James is putting together one of the greatest performances in NBA Conference Finals history.

In game five, James finally received some help from his teammates. All-Star Mo Williams broke out of his dreadful shooting slump to tie his playoff career-high with 24 points, shooting 7-14 from the field and 6-9 from three point range. If the Cavs had received just a mildly subpar performance from Williams in the first four games then they probably would have already won this series; even including those excellent game five numbers he is shooting just .353 from the field and .333 from three point range versus Orlando, well below his regular season averages (.467 and .436 respectively). Delonte West had another solid game with 13 points and three assists, though he suffered a hip pointer that caused him to miss some action; he will be evaluated by the team's medical staff after the flight to Orlando. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 16 points and six rebounds before fouling out and Daniel Gibson provided a huge boost off of the bench with 11 points in 22 minutes, including 3-4 shooting from three point range.

Hedo Turkoglu led Orlando with 29 points. He also had six rebounds but he passed for a series- low two assists as the Cavs did less crossmatching and double teaming, opting instead to stay at home on Orlando's three point shooters (the defensive strategy that I advocated before the series began). Dwight Howard scored 24 points on 8-10 field goal shooting and had 10 rebounds but even before he fouled out with 2:22 remaining and the Cavs leading 101-93 it was obvious that the Cavs were much better off having him shoot free throws (he shot 8-13) and contested field goals than forcing him to give up the ball to proven three point shooters; the Magic made a team playoff record 17 three pointers in game four but shot just 8-25 (.320) from three point range in game five. Rashard Lewis finished with 15 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, while game four hero Rafer Alston suffered through a miserable shooting performance (1-10, three points). Mickael Pietrus again performed well in a reserve role (13 points on 3-5 shooting in 23 minutes).

The Cavs took a 32-10 lead in the first 8:57 of the game and they seemed completely unstoppable; even though they repeatedly squandered double digit leads earlier in the series this time they appeared to be in total command at both ends of the court but barely two minutes into the second quarter the Magic had slashed the lead to single digits and after Lewis drained a three pointer just before the halftime buzzer the Cavs were only up 56-55. I cannot recall ever seeing a series that repeatedly featured such dramatic shifts in momentum in such short periods of time within games. The Magic have an uncanny ability to take advantage of Cleveland's missed shots/turnovers by making three pointers and the Magic also play very confidently against the Cavs even when nothing is going well for them; most teams crumble sooner or later in the face of Cleveland's swarming defense but the Magic simply continue to quickly rotate the ball, fully expecting that they will resume making shots. After the game, Williams talked about Orlando's resiliency and ability to go on big scoring runs, admitting, "We haven't seen that a lot throughout the season. So first couple games when it happened, we (were) kind of shell-shocked. We kind of held our heads and we (were) kind of looking for answers...this is a damn good basketball team over there...When they score, let's get the ball out, let's go."

The Magic opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run to take a 64-56 lead and the sun seemed to be rapidly setting on Cleveland's season. This time, though, the Cavs answered Orlando's rally in kind, starting with a turnaround jumper by West and a three pointer by Williams. A few minutes later, a jumper by James put Cleveland back on top. The rest of the quarter was a seesaw affair, with Gibson's three pointer off of a feed from James cutting Orlando's lead to 79-78 heading into the fourth quarter.

It is well known that teams that use a full court press do not like to play against that defense. Similarly, the Magic are adept at feeding the ball to Howard in the post and then spreading the defense too thin by spotting up shooters all over the perimeter but we found out in the fourth quarter that they do not like to defend against that kind of attack: instead of putting James in the low post, the Cavs stationed him in the middle of the court and he started most possessions by catching the ball with his back to the basket as if he were posting up. James either backed his man down, faced him up and drove or if the Magic sent an extra defender toward him he fed the ball to a cutter or an open three point shooter. A Pietrus three pointer put Orlando up 90-89 with 6:44 left but then Cleveland went on a 13-3 run featuring a three point play by James, a turnaround jumper by James, a Gibson three pointer assisted by James, a jumper by James and another three point play by James.

After the game, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown and Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy both talked about how difficult it is to trap a great player in the middle of the court, particularly when that player passes as well as James does. Van Gundy hinted that he has some ideas about how Orlando can counter that tactic in the next game but if James' teammates continue to make open shots there really is not a whole lot that the Magic can do; they can alter the timing of the double team and they can obviously choose who they want to leave open but if the Cavs execute properly then they will consistently obtain open shots out of this set. I would expect that in game six the Cavs will start out using their normal motion offense--that attack has consistently provided them double digit leads--but if things bog down later in the game then the Cavs will almost certainly use the James high post isolation set down the stretch. That is a matchup problem that the Magic simply cannot solve--with the important proviso that James' teammates must make shots in order for this to work.

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

The Magic rely very heavily on three point shooting and some people remain skeptical that a team can win a championship playing that way. In his pregame remarks, LeBron James noted that the traditional saying is "Live by the jumper, die by the jumper" but that the Magic have found a way to keep living by the jumper. Someone asked Coach Van Gundy before the game if his team could force people to take a different view of this issue if Orlando goes on to win a championship. He replied, "As a coach what you do is look at the personnel you have and you have to play the style that fits them best. I think that one of the tried and true things in the NBA playoffs--especially down the stretch in games--is you have a great perimeter player like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and you give him the ball, you isolate him and either they make a play one on one or a double team comes and then they make a play. That's great that this is a proven way to win but if you don't have a guy like that you can't play like that. You can't just take a page out of a book and say this worked for Team A so we are going to play like that. You have to fit it to your personnel and I think that the way we play--I could be wrong, people can be critical and have their opinions--is the best style of play for our team to have a chance to win."

Although several Cleveland players are shooting well below their regular season averages during this series, Coach Van Gundy said before the game that he is not pleased with his team's defensive effort: "I don't think that in this series we have really come into any game with a good defensive mentality. I think that we have relied on our offense. We have shot the ball well. I am happy for that--I will take wins any way that I can get them--but I think that it is dangerous when you are going into a series against a quality opponent like this and relying on your offense and your shooting."

After the game, Van Gundy emphasized that point again: "We are going to have to defend better." He also said, "I think it is really good that we'll continue to fight and dig out of holes but I think we've proven to the nation that we have mental toughness and that we'll fight back enough. Okay? We don't need to keep trying to prove that by being down 20-plus points at the start of games. It takes a great deal of energy to dig out of those holes every night."

***

Before the game, I asked Coach Brown, "The pattern in this series so far has been that you take big first half leads and then generally Orlando has outscored you in the second half. When you look at the film, what are you seeing that is happening differently between the first and second halves?"

He replied, "In general, if I had to pinpoint one thing I would say turnovers. In the first two games I would say that they made some adjustments in their pick and roll coverage that hurt us in the second half but looking at all four games the one area (that has hurt us) in the second half is turnovers."

The Cavs had no turnovers in the fourth quarter of game five and that played a major role in helping them secure the win.

***

There is an old saying that if you saw how your food was prepared you would not want to eat it. Something similarly dire could be said about the way some organizations gather news and the qualifications of the people they hire. During Coach Brown's postgame press conference, Vincent Thomas from Slam Magazine (he also writes for ESPN.com and NBA.com) asked a weird, rambling question in which he asserted that Cleveland's fans are like a "support group" for Daniel Gibson but that Gibson would be without that "support group" on the road in game six so does Coach Brown still have confidence that Gibson will be productive in game six and, if so, why does he have confidence in him. Coach Brown answered simply, "Yes. I'm confident that he can because I trust him." After Coach Brown left and we waited for Dwight Howard to arrive, one pressroom wit whispered what any sensible writer had already thought: "That was a crackhead question. 'Support group'? What is this, psychotherapy?" Another writer said that this idiotic question reminded him of the dumbest question he had ever heard in a press conference, when a young reporter asked legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno what it was like to coach a white wide receiver. I am well aware that the people at Slam think that they are reinventing journalism with their "cutting edge" ways and that their loose style is superior to the "what-when-how-where-why" format but the reality is that to reinvent anything you must first actually master the basic fundamental skill sets in a given field; there is a big difference between being unorthodox yet innovative and simply being undisciplined/incompetent--and Slam has provided several examples of the latter characteristics.

Along those same lines, the postgame press conference also "featured" a question from the disembodied voice of NBA TV's Andre Aldridge, who asked Van Gundy what it felt like as the opposing coach when James took over the game in the fourth quarter--which is kind of like saying to Mrs. Lincoln, "Other than that, how did you like the play?" Van Gundy replied, "I guess you can pretty much guess how that is."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 AM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Friday, May 29, 2009 10:49:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

slam used to acutally be decent. but im not surprised about their ignorance. 99 percent of these sportswriters have ignorant opinions or ask ignorant questions. its like they dont watch the game.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 12:39:00 PM, Anonymous Millionaires Of Genesis said...

That's as dominating a 4th quarter as I've ever seen. He had his hand in almost all their points and did exactly what he wanted against an elite team. Amazing.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 1:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Cleveland's strategy here. Orlando essentially plays 4 perimeter guys and one (very) big, so the counter to that is 4 perimeter guys and one big for Cleveland. Orlando lives and dies by Turkoglu down the stretch so I would play Lebron on him. Also, I like Wallace on Rashard at times because Rashard does not like physical play and Wallace can slow him down by bumping him of his cuts.

Also, anyone who thinks that Cleveland can't run that play with LBJ isolated at the foul line over and over with success must have missed Boston's run last year, this is the same play that the Celtics run with Paul Pierce when they really need a bucket.

Game 6 will be great, if Mo Williams plays like Mo Williams and Rafer Alston plays like Rafer Alston, I think the Cavs have a good chance at forcing game seven.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 2:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Cavs are in trouble. You know James will have yet another amazing game, but will his teammates help him enough to win Game 6 on the road? I don't think it's an overstatement to say James won this game single-handedly... by either scoring or creating chances for his teammates. You can't rely on one player, however great a player he is, to win the series for you.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 4:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I agree with you that Slam, like many other publications, has gone downhill in recent years.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 4:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you that there is no reason that the Cavs cannot continue to use the attack that they featured in the fourth quarter. As I said in the post, I don't even think that they have to do it all game. They can use their regular offense at the start, because that has generally been good enough to build a lead. Then, if things bog down later in the game, they can switch to the alignment featuring LeBron in the midpost flanked by shooters and one big cutting on the baseline.

Based on a whole season's body of work, one would expect Mo Williams to play better than Alston in game six.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 4:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It will be tough to win game six on the road and I expect another photo finish but I disagree slightly with your contention that James won this game single-handedly. While his performance was certainly amazing, nearly half of the points the Cavs scored in that remarkable third/fourth quarter run were scored by other players who made open shots or cut to the hoop. Yes, James created those openings but those players still had to knock those shots down and if they continue to do so then the Cavs are in good shape; the main problem for Cleveland in the first four games was not Orlando's mismatches as much as the fact that several Cleveland players--most notably Williams--shot much worse than they normally do.

 
At Friday, May 29, 2009 7:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that when the Cavs need to score, they go to the "let's watch LeBron" play. A play, I might add, that gets Mike Brown criticized for being unimaginative.

Although I would like to see this set started off the catch instead of off the dribble.

Z

 
At Saturday, May 30, 2009 3:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

There is a difference between what the Cavs did in the fourth quarter--getting the ball to LeBron with a live dribble inside the top of the key while he is flanked by three point shooters plus a big running the baseline--and simply having LeBron dribble, dribble, dribble outside of the three point line. The alignment that the Cavs used in the fourth quarter forced the Magic into making the unpleasant choice between letting LeBron play one on one in a scoring zone or else doubling him and opening up a three point shooter (or even a layup for Varejao or another big running along the baseline). This set will be very, very difficult to stop if LeBron's shooters make shots.

 

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