Celtics Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, Cavs Begin Long and Challenging Offseason"I'm a big boxing fan. I like reading and watching body language. Right now looking at the Cavs, they look like a boxer whose will has been taken away."--ESPN's Mark Jackson describing the listless Cavaliers near the end of Boston's 94-85 series clinching win over Cleveland
"This smells to me of quitting. You've given up."--Jackson expressing disgust as the Cavaliers do not even try to commit a foul as time runs out on their season
A proud and disciplined former champion--the Boston Celtics--just dismantled the number one overall seed in the NBA playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers. As ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy noted right after Boston's 94-85 game six victory, while the result itself is more surprising than shocking it is certainly shocking how indifferent the Cavs seemed and how poorly the Cavs played at home in this series after being nearly invincible at Quicken Loans Arena for the past two seasons. Kevin Garnett led the Celtics with 22 points and 12 rebounds; after spending the greater part of this season dragging his surgically repaired right leg up and down the court, Garnett proved to be a real X factor in this series: Boston Coach Doc Rivers stated from the outset that his offensive game plan involved posting up Garnett to get him at least 20 field goal attempts per game and the Cavaliers never found an answer for Garnett's turnaround jumpers nor did they exploit the fact that he still lacks lateral mobility defensively. Rajon Rondo had another excellent performance, finishing with 21 points, 12 assists, three rebounds and five steals. Paul Pierce (13 points on 4-13 field goal shooting) and Ray Allen (eight points on 2-8 field goal shooting) did not contribute much but bench players Rasheed Wallace (13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting, including two three pointers) and Tony Allen (10 points, three steals) picked up the slack. The Celtics led most of the way, built a double digit cushion in the second half and held off a half-hearted Cavalier rally that consisted of nothing more than back to back three pointers by LeBron James to pull the Cavs to within 78-74 with 9:34 remaining in the fourth quarter; time and score suggested that the Cavs had an opportunity to win the game but anyone who watched this game with understanding--particularly if you had also watched Tuesday's debacle--knew that the Cavs were through. It was Cleveland's "Rope a Dope" moment and the Cavs were the "dope"; during that famous boxing match, right before Muhammad Ali knocked out the champion George Foreman he asked Foreman "Is that all you got?" and Foreman later recalled that he thought to himself, "Yeah, that's about it." The important difference between Foreman and the Cavs--other than the fact that Foreman actually won a championship--is that Foreman wore himself out by trying so hard to knock out Ali, while the Cavs played hard sporadically for a few moments versus the Celtics before apparently deciding that this playing hard business is too tough, after which they packed it in and prepared for summer vacation.
LeBron James authored the most confounding, least impressive and ultimately meaningless triple double that I have ever seen:
*James scored a game-high 27 points--but he shot just 8-21 from the field.
*James grabbed a playoff career-high 19 rebounds--but, as Jackson repeatedly noted, instead of pushing the ball full bore up the court after most of his 16 defensive rebounds James was content to either walk the ball up the court or else give the ball up without even being pressured by Boston defenders.
*James dished off 10 assists--but he was a one man fastbreak for the Celtics, committing nine turnovers, most of which would be classified as "unforced errors" in tennis terminology.
Scottie Pippen scored just four points in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals and yet teammates and opponents alike declared that he dominated that contest; in contrast, James stacked up all kinds of numbers in game six versus Boston but he neither seemed to dominate the game nor did he have much control over the outcome: it was like he was putting up statistics in a vacuum while the Celtics were focusing on what they had to do to actually win the game. With every Cavalier not named Mo Williams (22 points on 8-18 field goal shooting) struggling to make a shot, the team desperately needed James to drive to the hoop with abandon, but he only did so sporadically. Jamal Mashburn made a very interesting point at halftime that he reiterated after the game: a major difference between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is that Kobe Bryant attacks double teams quickly and efficiently and he is able to make one dribble and two dribble pullup jumpers, while James too often hesitates in the face of double teams and seems to need to take multiple dribbles before making a play; also, although James has improved his jump shot he still does not have the one dribble and two dribble pullup jumpers in his repertoire. During some earlier NBA TV and TNT telecasts, Chris Webber has also noted that casual fans may not understand just how deadly a weapon those one dribble and two dribble pullup jumpers are for Bryant; Webber asserts that those are the shots--in combination with Bryant's other weapons, of course--that make Bryant so difficult to guard.
After the game, James said, "The fact that it's over right now is definitely a surprise to me. A friend of mine told me, 'I guess you've got to go through a lot of nightmares before you realize your dream.' That's what's going on for me individually right now." Read that last sentence again: "That's what's going on for me individually right now." James did not mention what his team is going through or the agony that the long-suffering Cleveland fans are experiencing. No, this whole experience really is just about LeBron--at least, from LeBron's perspective.
Now begins the long summer of discontent for Cavalier fans. The Boston faithful--spurred on by ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons--taunted James by chanting "New York Knicks!" when James shot free throws but James has only himself to blame for that; James could have muted all of the noise about free agency by either re-signing with the Cavs--much like Kobe Bryant quietly re-signed with the Lakers months ago--or else insisting that he would say nothing about this subject because his sole focus is on winning a championship in 2010. Yes, I know that James eventually refused to take questions about free agency, but he waited to take that stand until the story had developed a huge life of its own. This became a distraction for his team and may have ultimately resulted in the front office making hasty moves for presumed short term benefits instead of constructing the roster for the long haul; the Cavs have been bending over backwards for James for years while he has refused to commit to staying with the team. James' comments and general demeanor in his postgame press conference hardly offered any comfort to Cleveland fans, nor did it seem promising that the quickest move that James made all night was ripping off his Cleveland jersey after the game and tossing it to a locker room attendant as if he were throwing out garbage. Until recently I thought that James was far too smart to leave a 60-plus win team with a defensive-minded coach in order to start over with a lesser team--but until recently I also could not have imagined that James would sleepwalk through an embarrassing 32 point home defeat in a pivotal game five.
I have no idea what James plans to do come July 1 and right now I am much more interested in watching/analyzing the four remaining playoff teams than in speculating about who the ringless "King" will play for next season.
Meanwhile, the revisionist historians are already out in full force, so here are some preemptive strikes regarding the mythology that is already being created about LeBron James and this playoff series:
1) I don't want to hear anything about the alleged impact that LeBron James' alleged elbow injury had on this series. Everyone who watched ESPN's pregame show saw James standing at half court repeatedly shooting half court shots with his right arm, using both an underhand and an overhand delivery. In other words, his elbow is not impairing his strength or range of motion--which is what I have been saying all along. Will I change my tune if, as some have speculated (with no apparent concrete evidence, since the MRI of James' elbow revealed no structural damage), James has offseason elbow surgery? No, I will not; if James' elbow is hurt that seriously then why the hell would he shoot half court circus shots before playing in an elimination game? This elbow injury is either fake drama--the unnecessary left handed free throw versus Chicago, the rubbing of the joint when the cameras are focused on him, the black sleeve being worn and then being taken off--or pure foolishness, which is the only way to describe shooting half court shots with a serious injury (if that turns out to be what James did). My firm belief--until proven otherwise--is that James has exactly what the MRI revealed: a bruise. James is hurt but he is not injured to the extent that he cannot function (in contrast to Kobe Bryant, who has a broken finger on his shooting hand and a troublesome right knee that kept swelling up after every game toward the end of the regular season).
2) I don't want to hear about Cleveland's supposedly deficient supporting cast. I have heard some people say that the Cavs had the best player in this series but that the Celtics had players 2-4. Well, I've got news for you: the Celtics had the best player in this series and his name is Rajon Rondo. Rondo dominated the action at both ends of the court throughout this series. Furthermore, although his numbers were not overwhelming, you could make the case that Kevin Garnett was the second best player in this series; he certainly provided more consistent effort and production than LeBron James did, even though James put up gaudier statistics. The sad reality for Cleveland fans--and the Cleveland franchise--is that James not only was not the best player during this series but he could not even find it within himself to play hard all of the time. James' shooting was erratic and he (mis)handled the ball like his name is Edward Scissorhands. The Cavs have an All-Star point guard, an All-Star power forward, a future Hall of Fame center who made the 2009 All-NBA Third Team, a two-time All-Star center coming off of the bench, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who made the All-Defensive Second Team, a reserve guard who ranked third in the NBA in three point field goal percentage in 2010 and several other reserve players who could start for many of the league's playoff teams.
All-time greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan played for sub-.500 teams when they legitimately had no help. Are we really supposed to believe--after back to back seasons of 66 and 61 wins--that LeBron James is so much better than Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan that he actually carried a worthless roster to the best record in the NBA while notching two wins this season over the reigning NBA champions?
Is Cleveland's roster perfect? Of course not--but no roster in the league is perfect. The Celtics are aging and injury prone; the Magic lack frontcourt size other than Howard and Gortat; the Lakers have the least productive starting point guard among the playoff teams plus a bench that is so unreliable Coach Phil Jackson said that watching them play makes him want to throw up.
Most people picked Cleveland to beat Boston precisely because the Cavs have a better team than the Celtics.
3) I don't want to hear that Mike Brown does not know how to make in game adjustments. I already addressed this subject at length, so here is the Cliffs Notes version: great coaches do most of their work in practice, preparing their players for what most likely will happen in the upcoming games; so-called in game adjustments are, in many cases, simply the application of a previously determined plan when a given situation (foul trouble, different matchup scenarios, etc.) happens. A good coach does not have to come up with some totally new plan in the middle of a game. The real problem that Brown faced during this postseason--an issue that I mentioned in March but that the Cavs initially seemed to overcome--is that injuries and midseason transactions prevented him from establishing a set player rotation and letting that rotation develop good chemistry. Every player on the Celtics knows his role and has a good idea how much playing time he will get, but Coach Brown never had the time to reach that comfort zone with this team. Coach Brown has been criticized for essentially benching J.J. Hickson after Hickson was a starter for most of the year--but if Brown started Hickson over Shaquille O'Neal or Antawn Jamison and the Cavs failed to win the championship then what would Brown say to owner Dan Gilbert and General Manager Danny Ferry? Gilbert did not spend millions of dollars on former All-Stars to have them riding the pine. This is not just a matter of money or office politics, though; O'Neal provides low post scoring that Hickson does not, while Jamison is the "stretch four" that everyone thought the Cavs needed to deal with Garnett and with Orlando's Rashard Lewis. Hickson thrills fans with his energy level and his dunks but he also makes a lot of mistakes defensively.
James' looming free agency placed great burdens on Gilbert, Ferry and Brown, each of whom clearly felt the need to appease James in the short term even at the possible expense of the team's long term future. Ferry broke up a team that made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and then he broke up a team that advanced to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. While Ferry's moves improved the roster on paper, it would have been interesting to see how either of those squads might have performed if they had been given the opportunity to play together for one more full season but Gilbert and Ferry clearly believed that if they did not constantly turn over the roster then James might take his ball and go home (or, leave home, to be precise). The ironic thing is that the 2009 team was built to face Boston (Ben Wallace matched up well with Garnett) but lost to Orlando, while the 2010 team was built to face Orlando (O'Neal was brought in specifically to deal with Dwight Howard, while Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Antawn Jamison were supposed to help Cleveland match up with Orlando's perimeter players) but lost to Boston. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy rightly said during the game six telecast that the Cavaliers have done everything possible to encourage James to stay. Furthermore, there is every reason to believe that if James does stay then Gilbert will continue to spend cash like there is no tomorrow and that Gilbert will replace Coach Brown if that is what James wants.
Despite the constant roster turnover, the Cavs have consistently been an elite defensive team during Coach Brown's tenure--and he has had to come up with some creative schemes to "hide" some players who are not great individual defenders, a problem that reached crisis proportions in this series when Garnett and Rondo went at Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams respectively. Given enough time, Coach Brown could have perhaps come up with a scheme of defensive rotations to provide help versus Garnett and Rondo without giving up dunks and layups but O'Neal and Jamison hardly played together during the regular season and that lack of chemistry burned the Cavs defensively on several occasions.
My only criticism of Brown this season is that he "rested" healthy players near the end of the regular season as opposed to using those final few games to set up his playoff rotation.
4) I certainly don't want to hear about how LeBron James is supposedly going to save the New York Knicks (or any other franchise). When the NBA MVP twice exits the playoffs without a championship--or even a Finals appearance--despite playing for a deep, talented and defensive-minded team that posted the best record in the NBA in back to back seasons, I become skeptical that he is suddenly going to take 2010 Draft Lottery teams--or even lower level playoff teams--to the 2011 Finals. It has suddenly become a popular notion that James may bolt to Chicago; if James cannot get to the Finals with Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson as his bigs then why should I believe that he is going to reach the Finals with Joakim Noah, Brad Miller and Taj Gibson? Add Chris Bosh to that mix and I still do not see the Bulls winning the East. Don't even get me started with the Knicks, who would likely have to get rid of their best current player--David Lee--in order to sign James. Mike D'Antoni's system would undoubtedly enable James to set all kinds of individual statistical records but if James cannot win a title with "San Antonio East" in Cleveland then he certainly is not going to win a title with "Seven Seconds or Less East" in New York.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM