Jamison, James, O'Neal and West Lead the Way as Cavs Edge Bulls 96-94Antawn Jamison scored a team-high 25 points and LeBron James fell one assist shy of a triple double (19 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls 96-94 and eliminated the Bulls four games to one. Shaquille O'Neal had his best game of the series (14 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, eight rebounds and three assists in 26 very efficient and productive minutes) and Delonte West provided a huge lift off of the bench with 16 points, four assists and tremendous defense. Starting point guard Mo Williams had five assists but he scored just seven points on 2-13 field goal shooting, bringing back memories of his poor performance versus Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. We have seen that Williams can be a very productive player during the course of an 82 game regular season but the Cavs need for him to provide timely outside shooting during the playoffs.
Derrick Rose led the Bulls with a game-high 31 points and a team-high six assists but Cleveland's defense hounded Chicago's young point guard into 12-27 field goal shooting, including 4-14 in the second half when West and then James handled most of the one on one duties versus Rose. Luol Deng produced 26 points and six rebounds in a game-high 46 minutes. Joakim Noah had his worst game of the series--eight points, nine rebounds and seven turnovers. Kirk Hinrich added 12 points, four rebounds and four assists. Each of those four Bulls played at least 43 minutes as Coach Vinny Del Negro used only two reserves (Ronald "Flip" Murray and Jannero Pargo) for a combined total of just 21 minutes.
The Cavs made a concerted effort to establish O'Neal in the post and this paid dividends early in the game and then again in the fourth quarter, when O'Neal's activity created a defensive three second violation plus two foul calls against Brad Miller, sending Miller to the bench in favor of Noah, who promptly got his fourth foul while trying to guard O'Neal; in the next sequence, O'Neal caught the ball in the post versus Noah, wheeled toward the middle and dunked right over him to put Cleveland up 76-75. When I dubbed O'Neal "The Big Bill Cartwright" this is exactly the kind of performance that I had in mind: 14 points and eight rebounds would have been an average half or a very good quarter for O'Neal during his prime but his impact now for this particular team goes well beyond those numbers because he can get the opposing team in foul trouble while putting the Cavs in the bonus. The Chicago Bulls used to regularly go to Cartwright in the paint early in games precisely for those reasons and also to force opposing teams to reveal their hand defensively so that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen would see exactly the best way to attack, much like LeBron James is doing now.
O'Neal was also in fine form verbally; in his postgame press conference he explained that for the past several weeks he has been so limited by his thumb injury that he could not even "wipe my" and then he paused before saying "furniture"as the assembled media members chuckled. Thumbs are very important, O'Neal added earnestly, and he is very glad that he now once again has full use of both of his thumbs.
The Bulls are certainly scrappy and considering the talent disparity between these two teams they deserve a lot of credit for fighting down to the wire on the road in an elimination game. If they keep their current nucleus intact and manage to add a legit big to pair with Noah plus a wing player who can create shots for himself and his teammates to complement Rose then they could really make some noise in the East in the next few years. Of course, all indications are that their front office is in turmoil and that Coach Vinny Del Negro will be fired, so at this point the Bulls may be just as likely to become Clippers East as they are to become contenders--and perhaps all of this organizational turmoil is some kind of karmic payback for the gleeful haste with which Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause prematurely broke up a championship dynasty so that Krause could try to prove that "organizations win championships." Krause is now a scout for the Chicago White Sox and the Bulls have won just one playoff series since Krause dismantled the 1998 championship team.
The three staples for Cleveland's success in the past several years have been defense, rebounding and LeBron James' brilliance but in this game the Cavs only displayed those three characteristics sporadically. The Bulls shot .512 from the field in the first half, though the Cavs cut that number down to .461 overall by the end of the game. The Bulls also narrowly won the battle of the boards, 39-37. James had the kind of quiet first half--three points on 1-3 field goal shooting, five assists, four rebounds--that would spur endless questions/debates/criticism if authored by Kobe Bryant, though James contributed 16 points, six rebounds and four assists in the second half. However, James provided a huge scare to the sellout crowd of 20,562 after he was fouled with just 7.8 seconds remaining in the game and the Cavs clinging to a 95-92 lead. James calmly swished the first free throw but then he missed the second attempt badly while shooting left-handed due to a balky right elbow. James wanted to call a timeout between free throws to get some quick treatment but with the crowd roaring in anticipation of victory James and Coach Mike Brown had some kind of miscommunication on the sidelines regarding how many timeouts the Cavs had left, so James shot the free throw with his off hand to avoid putting any additional strain on the elbow until the medical staff could examine it. After the Cavs won, James noticeably avoided using his right hand when high fiving his teammates.
While waiting for James to make his postgame appearance in the press conference room, some members of the media engaged in gallows humor, suggesting that based on Cleveland's post-1964 drought in terms of professional sports titles this season could end up becoming known as "The Elbow," taking its place in local sports infamy alongside "Red Right 88," "The Drive" and "The Fumble." One wag said that with Cleveland's luck, James will blow out his elbow, the Cavs will lose to the Boston Celtics in the next round and then James will leave town once he becomes a free agent this summer.
It turns out that James has had a problem with his elbow off and on for several weeks; this--and not "rest"--is presumably the real reason that James sat out the last few regular season games. James claims that he does not remember exactly when or how he sustained the injury and he says that doctors are not even sure exactly what the injury is, which is the thing that concerns James the most; all James knows is that periodically his arm goes numb as if he has hit his funny bone. James admitted that during the off day after game four he had an MRI and X-rays but that the test revealed no structural damage. James fielded many questions on this topic before declaring that he does not want to make any excuses, that if he is on the court he should be considered healthy and that Cavs fans have nothing to worry about because he will be ready to go versus Boston. Until proven otherwise, we have no choice but to take James at his word but it would certainly be ironic if after Kobe Bryant hobbled his way through most of this season that the 31 year old, 14 year veteran turns out to be healthier during the stretch run of the playoffs then the young, seemingly indestructible James. Hopefully, both Bryant and James end up being healthy enough to carry their respective teams into a dream NBA Finals matchup of established champion versus hungry heir apparent.
Notes From Courtside:
During the game I sat next to Jim Chones, a 10 year pro basketball veteran who started his career in the ABA and then spent five seasons with the Cavs before being a key player for the Lakers' 1980 championship team. Chones is currently involved with several business and media ventures, including doing live in-game chats with fans at Cavs.com. It is fascinating to hear his opinions about past and current players. Chones told me that the three smartest basketball players he has ever seen are Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--who Chones played with and against--and LeBron James. Chones said that right from the beginning of James' career he has marveled at just how deeply James thinks about the game. I said to Chones that what I respect most about James is how methodically he has attacked his skill set weaknesses (outside shot, free throws, defense, postup game) and I contrasted James with Carmelo Anthony, a player who--in my opinion--has not substantially expanded his skill set or minimized his weaknesses since coming into the league. Chones agreed with me, although he gave Anthony credit for improving his conditioning level.
Chones mentioned that in order to play basketball well you must understand angles. I replied that it seems to me that this kind of understanding is what enables crafty veterans to outdo younger, more athletic players who lack such knowledge--the crafty veterans know "shortcuts" to get to where they need to be on the court and thus they don't expend needless energy. Chones agreed, adding that the greatest compliment he ever received as a player was when then-Lakers General Manager Bill Sharman told Chones that he could see that Chones really knew how to play because Chones had defended three different players on one possession simply by taking advantage of correct angles/body positioning.
Chones' teams relied on him to defend centers, power forwards and even small forwards at times. Chones told me that the great Bernard King presented a particular challenge because King was so explosive that even though Chones enjoyed a four inch height advantage King would simply get to his spot and elevate right over him.
Chones said that when Michael Jordan was breaking the Cavs' hearts in the 1980s, Hall of Fame Coach Pete Newell--then a scout for the Lakers--marveled that he had never seen a player who was so good that even when you knew that he was going to drive straight to the hoop you could not stop him. I mentioned that Paul Silas once told me that prior to the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game his former teammate Zelmo Beaty had told him that rookie forward Julius Erving "wasn’t a good shooter but he just went by everybody. He just took up the slack, penetrated around and dunked on everybody." Silas was incredulous but he became a believer after Erving stole the ball from him and proceeded to dunk from the foul line during the game! Chones agreed that young Erving, like young Jordan, could get to the hoop at will even though defenders knew that this was what Erving was going to do. Chones shook his head when he told me about trying to guard Julius Erving during Dr. J's ABA prime: Chones did everything by the book--playing Erving physically in the paint, conceding the perimeter shot when Erving was on the wing, shading Erving to his left hand when he drove--and Erving still scored at will. I asked Chones if he agrees with me that there is a great stylistic/aesthetic similarity between Erving's dunks and James' dunks and Chones said yes, adding that James likely saw highlights of Erving's moves and copied them: like Erving, James extends his arm straight up in the air when he swoops to the hoop and he dunks with great power and ferocity. Chones noted that even though Erving was lean he was strong and he dunked with force over much bigger defenders.
Early in the game when O'Neal was whistled for an offensive foul, Chones grunted in disgust and lamented that many referees do not truly understand basketball, particularly in terms of post play. Chones told me that O'Neal did not commit a foul and he demonstrated--gently--to me what O'Neal did, acting as if he were holding a ball preparing to shoot and then brushing his forearm against my chest in a shooting motion. Chones contended that O'Neal did not extend his elbow--which would legitimately be a foul--but merely went through a normal, strong big man post move. I said that I thought Adrian Dantley made a career out of doing a similar move but that when the 6-4 Dantley did this maneuver the defenders were frequently whistled for fouls; on page 142 of the 1987 book Hoops!, Dantley called this the "bump fake," advising that a post player should "Go up strong and bump him (the defender) a little with your shoulder or forearm to keep him from blocking your shot." Of course, when the 6-4 Dantley did this against bigger players it looked like a foul by the defender, whereas when O'Neal initiates contact it may seem like he is committing a foul even if he has established a legal position.
Mike Brown now owns a 40-25 career playoff record. He is just the sixth coach to achieve 40 playoff wins in 65 or fewer games, joining Phil Jackson (55 games), John Kundla (55), Pat Riley (56), Billy Cunningham (64) and Chuck Daly (65). Each of Brown's five predecessors in this category won at least one NBA championship and all of them are Hall of Famers (Cunningham earned induction as a player--though he certainly also merits consideration as a coach--while the other four were each inducted as coaches). Brown's critics may be tempted to counter that Brown only has so many playoff wins because he coaches LeBron James but keep in mind that Jackson has coached Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (plus future Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant), Kundla coached several Hall of Famers (including George Mikan, who was voted as the greatest player of the first half of the 20th Century), Riley coached Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy (plus future Hall of Famers O'Neal and Dwyane Wade), Cunningham coached Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone and Chuck Daly coached Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. You cannot win in the NBA if you don't have the horses but there are some coaches (who shall remain nameless) who have had the horses but somehow managed not to win as frequently as they should have.
Brown has started his coaching career in very impressive fashion.
In game four of this series, LeBron James became the first player since the NBA began using the three point shot in 1979-80 to have a playoff game with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and six three pointers made. James finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and six three pointers. That was James' second career playoff triple double with at least 37 points; Oscar Robertson is the only other player to have at least two such playoff triple doubles.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:58 AM