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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

LeBron Takes Over Down the Stretch as Cavs Beat Bulls, 112-102

LeBron James authored another masterful playoff performance while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 112-102 victory over the Chicago Bulls in game two of their first round playoff series. James scored 40 points--including 15 in the fourth quarter, 11 of which came in a stunning outburst that took less than three minutes--grabbed eight rebounds, dished off eight assists, blocked two shots and delivered a thunderous dunk that is sure to be replayed countless times. Antawn Jamison chipped in 14 points, four rebounds and three assists, while Mo Williams struggled from the field (2-8) but made all eight of his free throws to finish with 12 points plus six assists and no turnovers. Jamario Moon provided a huge boost off of the bench with 12 points on 4-5 shooting (all of his shots came from behind the three point line), three rebounds and two blocked shots. Shaquille O'Neal produced eight points and seven rebounds in just 15 minutes but he also had four turnovers and did not return to action after going to the bench with his fourth foul at the 7:33 mark of the third quarter; the Cavs went to "The Big Bill Cartwright" early in the game with mixed results: sometimes he scored or drew fouls but overall he seemed to be moving a bit slower than he did in game one. After the game, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said that he originally had planned to put O'Neal back in the game in the fourth quarter but then he decided that he liked what he saw with the group that was on the court so he elected to keep them in the game. Coach Brown has repeatedly noted that he has slotted O'Neal for 28-32 minutes per game but that matchups, foul trouble and other factors can cause him to alter that plan. O'Neal's importance to the Cavs--much like Cartwright's importance to the Bulls--will not ultimately be measured in minutes, points or rebounds but rather in overall impact: when O'Neal is in the game he must either command double teams or else score in the post and he must be a factor defensively in the paint. So far in the first two playoff games O'Neal has done those things. If/when O'Neal faces Dwight Howard, O'Neal does not have to match Howard stat for stat but he simply has to reduce Howard's effectiveness and thus minimize the need to double team Howard, just as Cartwright used his savvy to make things tough for New York's Patrick Ewing back in the day.

The Bulls won the rebounding battle 37-36, outscored the Cavs decisively in the paint (56-38) and had three players score at least 20 points: Joakim Noah tallied a playoff career-high 25 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds, Derrick Rose notched 23 points and eight assists and Luol Deng recorded 20 points, six rebounds and five assists. The Bulls also got solid production off of the bench from Ronald "Flip" Murray (14 points in 29 minutes). Why did the Bulls lose? They shot just .441 (41-93) from the field and, even more importantly, they had no answer for James down the stretch. Regarding the latter, the first thing they might try is closing their collective mouths: anyone watching the game could see that James said something in the direction of the Bulls' bench after a few of his late game shots but what was not apparent if you did not have a courtside seat is that James had not initiated the conversation--he was in fact responding to repeated Chicago taunts. After the game, James explained, "They were telling me I can't make jump shots. They asked me to shoot a jumper so I did that. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again." At one time, it was indeed true that James could not consistently make jump shots and that skill set weakness is one reason that James' Cavs fell short in playoff battles versus elite teams in the 2007 NBA Finals (San Antonio Spurs) and the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals (Boston Celtics)--but, as I noted in my recent article about the 2010 NBA awards, from the 2009 season to the 2010 season James improved his accuracy in six of the eight midrange shooting areas that are tracked by NBA/com/Hotspots. After the game, James said that he has worked very hard to improve his shooting because "if I become better as an individual then our team automatically becomes better."

James shot 16-23 (.696) from the field (including 2-4 on three pointers) and made all six of his free throws; James headlined a strong shooting performance by the Cavs from all three ranges: they shot 40-71 from the field (.563, the team's best mark in a playoff game since May 17, 1992), 10-20 from three point range and 16-17 (.941) from the free throw line (remarkably, the teams combined to make their first 21 free throws and shot 38-41 overall). That efficiency was vitally important for the Cavs in this game, because the Bulls fired up 22 more field goal attempts than the Cavs, a disparity largely created by Chicago's advantages in two categories, offensive rebounding (13-5) and turnovers (Cleveland committed 11 turnovers, which is not an exorbitant number but not good enough on a night when Chicago had only four).

The Bulls played with tremendous energy right from the start, getting two offensive rebounds in the game's first 2:36 and building a 10-6 lead--a marked contrast from game one, when the Bulls trailed for virtually the entire contest. The Cavs quickly bounced back to go ahead 19-14 and Chicago Coach Vinny Del Negro inserted rookie James Johnson into the lineup to play some bump and run-style defense against LeBron James, who decided to use Johnson's activity and enthusiasm against him, resulting in a tremendous dunk at the :59 mark of the first quarter: "I felt that I could just slow down and counter his energy by reading the defense and getting around him and once I did that I was in attack mode to the rim." Someone later asked James what goes through his mind during such plays and James replied, "I'm gifted; I thank the man above for giving me some God-gifted abilities and leaping ability is one of them. I just try to take full advantage of it. So, in that situation, when I turn the corner and I see the rim, it doesn't matter if there's a guy in front of me or a guy behind me, I'm going to attack the rim at it's highest level. And that's what I did tonight. I knew I got around him and I didn't believe he was going to jump. But once I saw him out of the corner of my eye, I decided to jump just a little higher.'' The way that James finished the play is a perfect illustration of why I called James a stylistic heir to Julius Erving: "Erving soared high above the hoop and delivered an assortment of one handed jams with his arm fully extended, buggywhipping the ball over hapless defenders, much like James does now. The full extension of Erving's arm--made possible by the fact that his hands are so huge that he palmed the ball effortlessly--during his driving dunks is quite distinctive but James does something very similar." James' jam over Johnson looks much like a vintage Erving dunk.

It is difficult to fully convey what it feels like to watch live and in person when someone uncoils such an explosive and powerful move--you can almost sense more than 20,000 people simultaneously getting goosebumps and gasping in shock a millisecond before they begin roaring in thunderous appreciation. Fans, media members and players alike look around in shock, joy and disbelief and a palpable energy buzzes through the arena.

The Cavs rode that energy wave to push their advantage to 28-18 but the Bulls proved to be remarkably poised and focused, scoring on a possession that included three offensive rebounds and then capitalizing on a James turnover to net a coast to coast drive by Murray right before the quarter ended. Murray's bucket trimmed Cleveland's lead to 28-22.

Chicago did not commit a single turnover in the second quarter and outscored Cleveland 28-24 to cut the Cavs' advantage to just two points at halftime. It seemed natural to expect that the more talented and deeper Cavs would turn it on at some point and pull away like they did in game one but instead the Bulls continued their scrappy play in the third quarter and knotted the score at 77 heading into the final 12 minutes. With 4:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cavs only led 96-93 and the Bulls seemingly had a golden opportunity to steal a road game and grab homecourt advantage--but then James took over, hitting a long three pointer over Noah, connecting on two free throws, spinning in a tough left handed layup and then burying two long two point jumpers to put Cleveland up 107-98 at the 1:36 mark. Two Deng free throws cut the margin to seven but then Moon delivered the fatal blow, a three point shot that killed any chance of a Chicago comeback.

The postgame press conferences focused on the way that James took over the game at the end. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown did not even try to pretend that the Cavs did anything fancy when the game was on the line: "The fun and exciting thing about it was that in the playoffs everybody knows what play is coming. A lot of times, it's about can you stop the players on the other team. We didn't do anything tricky. We just came down and threw him the ball and he made plays in crunch minutes."

Jamison almost sounded like an awestruck fan as he described his perspective on James' late game scoring binge: "It's a sight to see. To see how close the game was and for him to take over, you just have to realize that you are witnessing history. To be able to take over a game like that and put your team on top, there are only a certain amount of guys who can do that."

Del Negro admitted that there are no easy answers to the question of how to defend James: "He's so effective with his vision and the way they shoot the ball. If you come with the double too quick, they spread you out. You have to pick your spots. We have to do a good job on everybody. LeBron, I thought, took the game over like stars do in the league. We single covered him and tried to force him baseline a little bit. Then we came with the double team a couple times and they moved the ball to the weak side."

Another topic of discussion after the game was Moon's timely contributions in a reserve role after logging just seven minutes in game one. Coach Brown said, "I said it earlier when I first came out here (to talk to the media before the game), I said it all year, I said it to our guys: everybody's got to stay ready. At any given time, somebody's number can be called and they may contribute significant minutes to us."

Coach Brown's biggest concern is that the Cavs decisively "did not win the possession game," allowing the Bulls to launch far more field goal attempts than the Cavs did. "We have to clean that up," he declared, candidly admitting that the Cavs threw many "sloppy passes" that did not become turnovers only because the Bulls merely deflected them instead of actually stealing the ball. He also said that the Cavs will make some adjustments to try to prevent the Bulls from having a points in the paint advantage, a multifaceted issue that includes post defense, the transition game and screen/roll defense.

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Notes From Courtside:

Rose scored 28 points in game one on 28 field goal attempts and he had 23 points in game two on 24 field goal attempts; in contrast, James scored 24 points in game one on 19 field goal attempts and he had 40 points in game two on just 23 field goal attempts. A big part of the story of this series so far is that Cleveland's star player has been much more efficient offensively than Chicago's star player has been. This is not just a reflection of the fact that James is a better and more complete player than Rose but also that Cleveland's team defense is better than Chicago's: the Cavs are guarding Rose without fouling and without giving up an undue number of layups/points in the paint, while James has had his way with the Bulls so far.

During his pregame standup, I asked Coach Brown, "Doug Collins often talks about the value of holding the opposing team's star to a point per shot or less. In the first game, Derrick Rose scored 28 points but it took him 28 shots. What guideline do you have as a defensive-minded coach in terms of a ratio of points per shot attempt when you are looking at trying to hold down the other team's star player when you know that in the playoffs he is going to take a lot of shots?"

Coach Brown replied, "I've never really had a guideline. I look at if we are playing good team basketball and winning the game then it doesn't really matter to me if one guy is taking a ton of shots. Now, if one guy is taking a ton of shots and has a chance to beat you by himself or beat you with those shots then I am not necessarily worried about how many points per shot they're getting but now it's a matter of let's try to get the ball out of his hands and make somebody else beat us."

Later, I asked Coach Brown, "Do you expect Derrick Rose to take a similar number of shot attempts in this game or do you think that the Bulls will make an adjustment to be more balanced? What is your expectation?"

Coach Brown answered, "I really don't have any expectation. I'm not sure if he will or if he won't. It will just be a matter of how he feels, I guess. You'd have to ask (him)--he knows better than I do."

I followed up by asking, "From a game planning standpoint I was wondering what you are thinking."

Coach Brown still kept his cards close to the vest: "We've just got to keep making him work for his shots."

Coach Brown always emphasizes the importance of not giving up middle penetration and shots in the paint and his game plan for this series in particular seems to involve letting Rose and other non-jump shooting threats shoot contested two point jumpers while trying to wall off the paint but also not giving up open three point shots to credible three point shooters. Coach Brown does not want to provide any potential bulletin board material but I suspect that he is pleased that Chicago's point guard is taking the bulk of his team's shots without living in the paint or on the free throw line; Rose has had some success driving to the hoop but that success has usually come on contested shots with a high degree of difficulty and it simply is not possible to completely keep Rose out of the paint.

***

I asked Coach Del Negro a couple questions during his pregame standup:

Friedman: "Would you prefer for Derrick Rose to not have quite as many shot attempts, to have a little more balance in the offense?"

Del Negro: "It's easy to say that but if he went, like 26 for 28, everyone would say that he should have taken 35 shots because he was so hot. You know what I mean? It's ridiculous. So, we need him to score but there has to be a good balance. He can't get to the (free throw) line twice. He needs to start getting to the line more but if he takes 28 shots I have to believe he was fouled more than once, so we have to pay attention to that a little bit. His assists and his floor game and all of that, his defense and everything go into it (evaluating how well he played) but the other night I thought that maybe he forced a couple shots of the 28 but I thought that (mostly) they were good shots. He got his floater going, he didn't settle, he was aggressive and we need him to play well--obviously--like he has all year. When he does get in the lane, make plays in terms of finding guys and then guys have to step in and make shots to take some pressure off of him as well. There is a difference between taking 28 shots that are forced and out of character and just taking 28 shots that are in the flow of what he's doing."

Friedman: "You mentioned that other guys have to step up and make shots. Did you feel like some guys were hesitant, maybe they had open shots but did not take them?"

Del Negro: "I don't think anybody was hesitant. You can't rely on the jump shot all the time. You have to realize when you are not knocking shots down how you can be effective, taking things off the dribble, getting to the basket, getting your rhythm at the free throw line and putting some pressure on people. If you are struggling to shoot the basketball and you keep on shooting jump shots then you take some pressure off of the defense and bail them out. It makes the game easier for them. You want to put pressure on people all the time."

***

The Cavs have won their last seven first round playoff games by at least 10 points.

The Cavs are 24-7 in home playoff games since 2006.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:03 AM

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