Energetic Celtics Outhustle Cavs, Spoil LeBron's MVP Ceremony NightOn Monday night, LeBron James officially received his 2009-10 MVP trophy from NBA Commissioner David Stern but the Boston Celtics gained the prize that they most wanted: a convincing 104-86 victory over James' Cleveland Cavaliers to earn a 1-1 split in their second round playoff series. The Celtics now own homecourt advantage as the series moves to Boston for the next two games. Rajon Rondo proved to be the most valuable player on this night, setting a record for a Cleveland playoff opponent and tying his career-high (for both regular season and postseason play) with 19 assists; Rondo's dribble penetration and precision passing shredded Cleveland's vaunted defense. He also scored 13 points on 5-10 field goal shooting while grabbing four rebounds and swiping two steals. Ray Allen led the Celtics with 22 points and he snared seven rebounds, equaling or exceeding every Cleveland player in that department. All five Celtic starters scored in double figures and most of them shot well. Kevin Garnett had 18 points and 10 rebounds, recovering from a shaky 2-9 start to shoot 8-21 overall. Paul Pierce added 14 points, four rebounds and four assists. Key reserve Rasheed Wallace emerged from his season-long hibernation with his first double figure scoring output since March 31, producing 17 points on 7-8 shooting in just 18 minutes; the only thing more improbable than Wallace's effort would be if retired legends Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish "walked through that door" (to borrow Rick Pitino's classic line) and led the Celtics to victory now.
Cleveland's side of the boxscore is littered with ugly numbers, including .400 field goal shooting, .190 three point shooting and a 43-32 rebounding deficit. No Cav distinguished himself when the outcome was actually in doubt, though a few players padded their numbers during what Mark Jackson might term a "fake hustle" comeback attempt. LeBron James had about the emptiest 24 point, seven rebound, four assist game that you could possibly imagine; he shot 10-15 from the free throw line, committed five turnovers and accumulated 12 of his points in the fourth quarter when the Cavs trailed by at least 10 points. James' late scoring outburst enabled him to preserve his streak of consecutive playoff games scoring at least 20 points, a run that he extended to 25; James has scored at least 20 points in 60 of his 66 career playoff games. James' ballhandling was shaky at times and his passing lacked his usual precision accuracy. Regardless of what the numbers may suggest, I think that this is one of the worst playoff performances of James' career in terms of his impact on the flow of the game. James now says that he will not use his much discussed elbow injury as an excuse--but he does not have to make an excuse because everyone else is readily doing so for him. The truth, as TNT's Kenny Smith mentioned a few days ago, is that no one would even know that anything is wrong with James' elbow if James had not made a big production out of shooting a free throw lefthanded right after he had swished a free throw with his normal right handed shot. Clearly there is something wrong with his elbow but after hiding the injury for weeks James seems to be trying to milk the problem for all it is worth by grimacing and rubbing his arm; he also has noticeably eschewed his usual dunking style of fully extending his right arm and unleashing a powerful jam in favor of some slams that are quite subdued by his standards.
Anderson Varejao had eight points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes before being sidelined by back spasms; he was the only Cav to have a positive plus/minus number in this game (+2). Former All-Stars Shaquille O'Neal (nine points on 4-10 shooting, four rebounds, 0 blocked shots) and Mo Williams (four points on 1-9 shooting, seven assists) struggled mightily.
Antawn Jamison finished with 16 points and six rebounds, a solid outing but less than what this particular situation required; he is supposed to be the team's second offensive option, so it is very strange that he has attempted just 17 shots in the first two games of this series. J.J. Hickson likely added to his cult hero status in Cleveland by scoring a playoff career-high 13 points in 19 minutes. Cleveland fans and some media members have become obsessed with the idea that because Hickson started 73 games this season that he must be a key member of the playoff rotation, disregarding the reality that Jamison joined the team during the middle of the season, that Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed a month and that O'Neal missed 29 games due to injury; matchups may dictate playing Hickson ahead of Ilgauskas in certain situations but during most foreseeable playoff scenarios the 96 power forward/center minutes in each game will be mainly divided between O'Neal, Jamison and Varejao, with James also getting some time at power forward when the Cavs go small.
The Cavs started the game crisply. On their first possession, they ran a nice set that culminated in a floating runner by Jamison. During his pregame standup, Coach Mike Brown indicated that even when Jamison does not score a lot of points he still has an impact because his shooting range forces his defender to guard him on the perimeter, thus opening up the paint for James and other players to drive. That is certainly a valid point but Jamison ranks just fourth on the Cavs in field goal attempts in this series; the Cavs should make a more concerted effort to involve him in the offense. For all of the talk about James' passing skills and leadership abilities it is odd that despite being blessed with a deep and talented roster he has been unable to elevate his teammates' play during most of this postseason.
After Jamison's shot, the Celtics quickly took an 11-4 lead. The Cavs then rallied and a nice layup by Varejao off of a feed by James put the Cavs up 17-16 but that turned out to be their last lead of the game. The Celtics were up 26-22 at the end of the first quarter after blistering the nets with .667 field goal shooting; that marksmanship enabled them to overcome their seven turnovers, aided by the fact that the Cavs wasted their extra possessions by shooting just .375 from the field.
Cleveland fans have become curiously enamored with Hickson and they cheered wildly when he converted a three point play near the end of the first quarter--but he was also a primary culprit defensively when the Celtics opened the second quarter with a 9-0 run in just 1:41, so Coach Brown quickly yanked Hickson in favor of Varejao. Hickson only saw brief playing time the rest of the way until back spasms sidelined Varejao at the end of the third quarter; Hickson then played the entire fourth quarter, scoring seven points in garbage time and thus undoubtedly further fueling calls from the fans and some media members for Hickson to get more playing time. Hickson is an athletic player who presents matchup problems in certain situations but a focused Wallace can use his length and guile to eat Hickson alive in the post.
With Varejao back in the game--soon joined by starters James, Jamison and Anthony Parker after they received their customary breaks--the Cavs pulled to within one point and only trailed 52-48 at halftime. At the 3:45 mark, James added another "chase down block" to his anthology of such plays--victimizing Tony Allen with a breathtaking display of leaping ability and timing--but despite that highlight James had a quiet first half overall: eight points on 2-5 field goal shooting, four rebounds and four assists.
The Cavs started the third quarter in extremely lackluster fashion and by the 5:54 mark the Celtics had pulled away to a 72-57 lead. Then things got even worse for the Cavs, who remained stuck on 57 points from the 6:09 mark until 1:53 as the Celtics broke the game open, 80-57. The sellout crowd of 20,562 seemingly could not decide whether to boo or to simply sit in stony silence.
The Celtics led 91-66 at the 9:08 mark of the fourth quarter before the Cavs showed any signs of life; in the next five minutes, Cleveland closed to within 10 points and could have cut the margin to seven if a Jamison three pointer stayed down instead of popping out. However, Celtics Coach Doc Rivers sagely told his team that they just needed to make one basket to break the Cavs' momentum and Pierce provided that hoop with a driving layup to put the Celtics up 93-81 with 3:28 remaining. The Cavs never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
The only thing more surreal than this embarrassing home performance by a team whose core values revolve around defense and rebounding was the scene in the postgame press conference room. While it was hardly surprising that Boston Coach Doc Rivers was pleased with his team's effort level and physicality, the Cleveland camp sent decidedly mixed signals. The show of effort during garbage time hardly impressed Coach Brown, who seemed to have smoke coming out of his ears as he stormed into the press conference room to make his postgame remarks. Brown declared, "Guys, tonight was real simple. For 48 minutes, we did not play with a sense of urgency...we tried the last few minutes of the game. They kicked our behind from the beginning. They got every 50/50 ball, they converted every offensive rebound into points and we did not fight back until late. We have to decide if we are going to take the fight to them and take these games. Nothing is going to be given to us at all. Ain't a (expletive) thing is going to be given to us at all in this series. We have got to come out and fight better than we did tonight...The series is one to one; we are going to see what we are made of come game three." Brown, who is usually mild in demeanor and upbeat in outlook, admitted that he is "concerned" about his team's lack of effort and poor defensive play. He usually stands up for his players when their performances are questioned or critiqued but when asked about Mo Williams, Brown bluntly stated that the Cavs simply cannot win this series if Williams continues to play the way that he has so far.
A few minutes after Brown finished, LeBron James stepped up to the podium with a demeanor and message that could not have been more diametrically opposed to Brown's. James said that he was not embarrassed by his team's performance nor was he overly concerned about the result. He insisted that there is no reason to panic and that he looks forward to playing game three in Boston.
Are Brown and James playing "good cop, bad cop" with the other Cavs? Or is Brown's message about the team's lack of intensity simply not resonating with James and the other players? We will not know the answer to that question until we see what happens in game three. It is incumbent on James to not only put up big numbers in that contest but to also play with a sense of commitment and intensity that commands/inspires his teammates to likewise display energy, focus and passion. Kobe Bryant is often criticized for harshly calling out his teammates but his leadership style has a proven track record of success: three championships won alongside O'Neal (when Bryant's burning desire and work ethic provided a necessary contrast to O'Neal's more laid-back approach) plus a Finals appearance in 2008 and a championship in 2009. If the combination of James' calm demeanor and Brown's demonstrable anger drives the Cavs to victory in game three then that is all good--but if the Cavs do not respond appropriately then there will be reason to question if James' casual response to the game two loss struck the right tone.
The elephant in the room is that the Cavs essentially spent the final weeks of the regular season in preseason mode, "resting" various players after the team clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. I have never liked the idea--in any sport--of "resting" healthy players right before the playoffs start. It has never worked for the Colts--who won their sole Super Bowl title of the Peyton Manning era when circumstances forced them to play hard for the entire regular season--and it was never tried by the Jordan-Pippen Bulls, who kept the pedal to the metal right to the end in 1995-96, setting an all-time record for regular season wins (72) long after they had clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Perhaps James was "resting" due to a legitimate--though undisclosed at the time--elbow injury but sitting out other players and not even making serious attempts to win close games has clearly resulted in some slippage in terms of the Cavs' intensity, focus and sharpness; they basically coasted through the first round against an inferior Chicago team and they have only played well in brief spurts during the first two games versus Boston.
The Cavs can silence any noise about their "resting" policy and the team's internal leadership by winning at least one game in Boston--but if they lose this series then they will have to answer a lot of pointed questions about how a team with the league's best record for two years running failed to make even one Finals appearance.
Notes From Courtside:
LeBron James received 596 more points in the MVP voting than second place finisher Kevin Durant, the second biggest margin of victory in the history of the award (O'Neal won his first and only MVP in 2000 by a whopping 799 points). As usual, some of the media voters made peculiar decisions. James was clearly the best and most productive player during the regular season, so he should have been a unanimous MVP choice but five voters ranked him second and two voters placed him third; those seven voters--some of whom have already tried to publicly justify their decisions--allowed extraneous factors and/or outright biases to impair their judgment.
The NBA's press release said that there were 122 voters (including one collective fan vote) but James received 116 first place votes plus seven other votes for a total of 123 ballots. Durant's name appeared on 115 ballots and he received four of the first place votes that did not go to James; those four "protest" votes enabled Durant to sneak past third place finisher Bryant by 10 points even though Bryant's name appeared on 119 ballots. Fourth place finisher Dwight Howard received the other three first place votes, all of which originated with Orlando based media members. In an apparently unrelated matter, one fool listed Stephen Jackson in fifth place on his ballot, a decision that is so bizarre and inexplicable that it does not even deserve further comment.
I have always said that the MVP vote should be based primarily on skill set completeness, with the only exception being if there is a big man who is dominant at both ends of the court even though he may not be a great passer and/or free throw shooter; in my book, Howard is not dominant enough offensively to rank ahead of James or Bryant. Bryant really should have finished second this year but since the media already robbed him of two MVPs (in 2006 and 2007) I am not too surprised that he slipped to third, particularly since injuries prevented him from finishing the season strongly. In the first round of the playoffs, we saw that even a hobbled Bryant can dominate a playoff series more so than young Durant can; Ron Artest's bump and run defense did not contain Bryant in last year's playoffs when Bryant's Lakers beat Artest's Rockets but this year Artest completely baffled Durant as the Lakers bested the Thunder in six games.
I understand that the MVP vote only relates to regular season performance but the point is that an observer with an informed eye should have been able to see that Durant's overall skill set has still not surpassed Bryant's. While this may not be a hugely important issue since the correct player won the award, it underlines some of the biases and limitations inherent in the current voting process.
The Celtics seemed less than impressed--or even interested in--the MVP trophy ceremony; while James received the award from NBA Commissioner David Stern and made some brief remarks to the wildly enthusiastic crowd, various Celtic players shot at their basket, wandered around at their end of the court and basically did anything but show respect for the occasion. Future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett (the 2004 NBA MVP), Paul Pierce (the 2008 NBA Finals MVP) and Ray Allen are surely tired of hearing about James' greatness and of being told that they are old and their time is past.
Commissioner Stern held a press conference prior to making the MVP trophy presentation to James. Naturally, one of the first questions posed to Stern concerned the free agency bonanza that will take place this summer. Stern explained that his preference is that the league's stars stay with their original teams throughout their careers; that is why the rules are set up so that a player's original team can sign him for more money and a longer term contract when he becomes a free agent than any rival team is permitted to offer. Stern added that this arrangement was collectively bargained years ago between the players and the owners and that it strikes a "fair balance" between players' rights to explore other options versus teams' rights to have a good opportunity to retain the services of their superstars.
On a different subject, Stern noted that the rule permitting traded players to return to their original teams after a 30 day waiting period will likely be reexamined in the offseason (this is the provision that enabled the Cavs to re-sign Zydrunas Ilgauskas after trading him to Washington as part of the Antawn Jamison deal; the Cavs were not the first team to do such a thing). Stern said that the 30 day time frame seemed like a good idea originally but now it is apparent that the time frame should be lengthened, though he declined to specify exactly what he thinks the new standard should be. That will be settled in collective bargaining, Stern noted, adding that this will likely be a much less contentious issue than some of the other items on the docket.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:51 AM