Blatt's Blunders/Houston's Predictable CollapseThanks to a buzzer beating jumper by LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers won game four against the Chicago Bulls to tie their series at 2-2--but only after the Cavaliers survived some potentially disastrous coaching by David Blatt. First, Blatt almost did a Chris Webber, confidently walking on to the court and attempting to call a late game timeout when his team had no timeouts left. Assistant Coach Tyronn Lue dragged Blatt off of the court and saved the day. Then, when the Cavaliers had possession with about one second left and the game tied, Blatt instructed LeBron James to inbound the ball. James replied that unless he could shoot the ball over the backboard he was not going to inbound the ball but that the Cavs should give him the ball and he would win the game--which is exactly what ultimately happened.
Blatt's first mistake is inexcusable. A coach has to know clock, score and game situation at all times. Blatt haughtily insists that is not a rookie because he coached overseas for many years but the reality is that in the NBA he is a rookie and he is in over his head. Coaching in the minor leagues is not the same as coaching in the big leagues.
Blatt's second mistake could be debated/discussed a bit. In game three of the second round of the 1994 playoffs, the Chicago Bulls--sans the retired Michael Jordan--were set to inbound the ball with less than two seconds remaining in a tied game versus the New York Knicks. Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson, who had already won three NBA titles en route to capturing 11 championships, drew up a play for MVP candidate Scottie Pippen to pass the ball to Toni Kukoc. Pippen disagreed with the call, could not persuade Jackson to change his mind and then elected to sit out the last play. Pete Myers inbounded the ball to Kukoc, who drained a game-winning jumper as time ran out. Pippen was clearly a better player than Kukoc but Jackson later explained that since this was a catch and shoot situation he felt that Kukoc was the better option; Kukoc is taller than Pippen, is a better pure shooter than Pippen and had already hit several game-winning shots that season. Jackson emphasized that if there had been more time left on the clock then he would have definitely put the ball in Pippen's hands, which is what the Bulls tried on the previous play (the ball was deflected out of bounds by the Knicks, setting up the scenario for the final play).
LeBron James is a great player but not necessarily a great catch and shoot player--and he shot just 9-29 from the field prior to making the game-winner. It is not clear who Blatt intended to take the last shot but perhaps Blatt was thinking that a cold-shooting James is not the best option for a catch and shoot opportunity. However, since Blatt cannot even keep straight how many timeouts he has left I am disinclined to credit him with Phil Jackson-level strategic capabilities. In general, the optimum call is to give the ball to your best player and rely on him to win the game. Kyrie Irving is hobbling and J.R. Smith is inconsistent, so it is not like Blatt had Toni Kukoc waiting in the wings.
In the second game of yesterday's doubleheader, the L.A. Clippers took a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets with a convincing 128-95 win. Chris Paul is still hobbled by his hamstring injury but Blake Griffin (21 points, eight rebounds) continues to play at a high level and the Rockets made DeAndre Jordan (26 points, 17 rebounds) look like Shaquille O'Neal. The Rockets repeatedly fouled Jordan on purpose and he made 14 of 34 free throws. Even if the target of intentional fouling misses his free throws, the strategy still often backfires because it lets his team set up their half court defense and it puts free points on the board, taking pressure off of his team and putting pressure on the fouling team to make field goals. In this game, the strategy also extended Paul's minutes because he did not have to endure the strain of running up and down the court.
I think that intentional fouling betrays a lack of faith by the coach in his team's defensive capabilities. If you can just stop the other team mano a mano then why resort to a gimmick like intentional fouling? If the fouled player makes even half of his free throws then the fouling team has to average a point per possession just to keep pace and that is not necessarily going to be so easy to do in a half court set in a playoff series.
This series is being decided primarily based on the fact that Blake Griffin plus Austin Rivers/fractional Chris Paul is better than Dwight Howard/James Harden. All season long, we have heard that James Harden is a legit MVP candidate. We have also heard that the Clippers have no bench and are completely dependent on Chris Paul to create offense. This series is providing convincing refutations of all of those notions. Harden is not even close to being the best player on the court in this series (that would be Blake Griffin), let alone being the best player in the NBA. If you contest Harden's jumpers and refrain from committing silly fouls when he throws his body into the lane, it is easy to throw Harden off of his game. Harden's box score numbers in this series are not terrible but they are also a classic example of putting up meaningless statistics that are devoid of impact. Harden is supposed to be the best player on the second best team in the West but his team is getting killed by a squad with (allegedly) no bench, a one-legged point guard and a center who cannot make free throws. Furthermore, the L.A. Clippers are not exactly a team with championship pedigree; their recent playoff resume is not much better than Houston's, so it is not like an all-time great squad is pounding the Rockers into submission.
Some people might say that Harden's postseason struggles have nothing to do with the regular season MVP race but I think that the MVP award should go to either the best all-around player or the most dominant player (someone like prime Shaquille O'Neal). Harden can put up numbers in the regular season and he is obviously an All-Star caliber player but when he faces good teams in the playoffs he cannot get the job done because all of his skill set flaws are exposed. Perhaps the same thing is happening to 2015 MVP Stephen Curry in the other Western Conference series as well but Curry's Warriors still have a chance to tie the series tonight and head home for a pivotal game five. We will see how that turns out before pronouncing judgment on Curry; in contrast, Harden has three years' worth of disappointing playoff performances as an allegedly elite player for the Rockets and his team is already down 3-1, which is typically tantamount to elimination.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 PM