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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Huge Effort by Hughes Lifts Cavs in Season Opener

When I interviewed Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan last season, he said, "Larry Hughes is a multidimensional player...He is also a calming influence, a very 'Steady Eddie' kind of guy." Hughes demonstrated both of those traits on Wednesday night, producing 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals in Cleveland's 97-94 season opening win over the Washington Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena. Hughes shot 11-15 from the field, was largely responsible for holding Gilbert Arenas to 2-12 field goal shooting and did not commit a turnover. LeBron James had 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots but missed four of his six free throw attempts and had five turnovers. Drew Gooden had a solid double double for Cleveland (14 points, 11 rebounds). Caron Butler led the Wizards with 23 points, while Antawn Jamison scored 20. Arenas finished with seven points, 11 assists, five rebounds, five fouls and four turnovers.

Washington led 28-26 after the first quarter, largely because of scoring nine points off of eight Cleveland turnovers. The Cavaliers shot .600 (9-15) from the field but the Wizards took advantage of the turnovers and five offensive rebounds to fire off 25 shots.

Neither team shot well in the second period, but Hughes played all 12 minutes, made all four of his shots and scored nine points in the quarter, helping Cleveland to take a 47-45 halftime lead. Hughes and Butler each had 13 points in the first half, while Arenas missed all five of his field goal attempts. James had 11 points in the first half. Cleveland's starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas only made one shot all game, a backwards tip in with 3:40 remaining in the second quarter. It looked like he was flailing wildly and did not even know that the ball was there, but his hand connected with it and guided it over his head into the hoop.

Hughes scored eight of Cleveland's points in a 21-12 run to open the third quarter. It seemed like the Cavaliers might pull away but Washington called a timeout with 3:42 remaining and on the ensuing possession Arenas made his first field goal. The teams traded baskets for the next couple minutes, with Cleveland's lead bouncing between nine and 11 points, but Washington closed the quarter with a 6-1 run and only trailed 75-69 heading into the fourth quarter.

Cleveland led 84-76 with 6:16 remaining in the game when Hughes went to the locker room with leg cramps. When Hughes returned to action at the 2:59 mark, the score was tied at 89. He had a driving left hand dunk and a key defensive rebound as the Cavaliers outscored the Wizards 8-5 down the stretch. Washington missed two open three point shots in the last 18.2 seconds, one by Jamison and one by Jarvis Hayes.

In his postgame standup, Coach Brown said, "The first thing that I have to mention is the crowd. The crowd was unbelievable and they kept us in the game at times when Washington went on a run or we stalled out a little bit on both ends of the floor. The electricity in the building was unbelievable. They stayed into it the entire ballgame, for 48 minutes, and that's what I need to continue to try to get my team to do. Guys gutted it out and we feel fortunate to get this win."

Brown mentioned three problem areas that cropped up for his team in the preseason: free throw shooting, turnovers and allowing too many fast break points to their opponents. The Cavaliers performed poorly in all three categories against the Wizards, shooting 15-30 from the free throw line, committing 17 turnovers (including 12 in the first half, leading to 15 of the Wizards' 45 points) and getting outscored 19-8 in fast break points. How did the Cavaliers win despite these deficiencies? Cleveland outrebounded Washington 50-33 and shot 8-19 (.421) from three point range compared to Washington's 2-13 (.154) three point shooting. Hughes sank three of his four three point shots and James made two of his four.

Brown praised Hughes' all-around performance: "Larry was terrific. He shot the ball well, he stayed within the offense extremely well and at times when we were a little rattled he kept us going. The thing that I am most impressed with is that here is a guy who is not the thickest guy in the world in terms of girth but he came up with nine rebounds."

Notes From Courtside:

I wrote on October 25 that the preseason means different things to different teams. That point is reinforced by something that Coach Egan mentioned when I spoke with him prior to the game. He said that last year the Cavaliers approached the preseason really trying to win games because the coaching staff and players were trying to establish the team's identity. This year, coming off of a good playoff run with the team's nucleus intact, the Cavaliers' focus during the preseason was to rest key players and avoid injuries. Consequently, Egan told me that tonight's game would be the coaching staff's first chance to really see how the players will respond to the challenge of being considered a good team. Egan added that the coaching staff has talked to the team about how this year will be different because teams will be coming after them but that regardless of how much this is discussed that the players will only be able to learn how to deal with it by experiencing it for themselves.


James has repeatedly spoken of the challenge of being a "hunted" team this year as opposed to being an underdog, so during his pregame standup I asked him what he thought of the dismal opening night performance of the defending NBA Champion Miami Heat. James replied, "I think that Miami is hunted, also. They are going to be one of the teams that everyone wants to beat because they are World Champions. I know that was a performance they didn't like--and I didn't like watching it--but I think they will bounce back. They are a veteran team and they know what to do."


Before James did his post game standup in the locker room, the Cavaliers' training staff put him through an extensive series of stretches focusing on his back and legs. His standup was actually a "sitdown" as James iced some of his aching joints, a fairly common sight in an NBA locker room. Still, James mentioned that he is starting to feel older, so after he was done answering questions one media member good naturedly kidded James that if he feels old now wait until he is 42. James laughed and said that he wanted to clarify that he feels "older," not "old," and that his fans shouldn't panic. He added that by the time he is 42 he will be long gone from the NBA. I told James, "That's what Jordan said when he was your age but then he came back after he was 40 to play with the Wizards." James smiled and replied, "I'm not Jordan."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM


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At Thursday, November 02, 2006 10:50:00 PM, Blogger Bill Fitzgerald said...

I saw this one a little bit differently, if you care to take a look. I was a big Hughes fan when he was with the Wizards, but I think Butler is tougher if not quite as good a shooter or steal guy. Don't think Hughes can be Scottie to LeBron's MJ until he get through a healthy season.

At Friday, November 03, 2006 2:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'm not quite sure how you are defining "tougher." Hughes is more versatile because he can play three positions defensively--pg, sg, sf--and he can score, rebound, defend and pass. Butler is mainly a good scorer; he is the best wing defender on the Wizards now that Hughes is gone but the competition on the team for that title is not very strong. There is no question that Hughes is a better complement for LeBron than Butler would be because Hughes can play multiple positions while Butler is strictly a sf and not a ball handler. The Cavs improved by 8 regular season wins after adding Hughes and the Wizards regressed by 3; the Cavs advanced to the second round after not making the playoffs while the Wizards lost in the first round after making it to the second round in '05. Granted, both teams made some other changes and Hughes did miss a lot of time, but I think that the Cavs are very happy about the move. The benefits for the Wizards have yet to be seen.

As for being LeBron's "Scottie Pippen," Hughes is not good enough to do that even if he stays completely healthy; Pippen is one of the 50 Greatest Players and Hughes has yet to make one All-Star appearance. Nevertheless, the Cavs can go very far with LeBron as option one and Hughes as option two.

At Friday, November 03, 2006 5:25:00 PM, Blogger Bill Fitzgerald said...

I think you saw his toughness in getting that big fourth quarter rebound among larger players, something he does regularly, and I would argue the point that Hughes is a better rebounder or defender. Butler took him right to the basket from the left wing late in the game. Last year, Butler got a cut on his head, shot free throws with a temporary bandage, and returned to the game after getting stitched up. I give Hughes credit for coming back after cramping up but his injury history lends itself to a perception of fragility. Maybe it's not fair to compare the two directly because they do play different positions, but Butler gives the Wizards inside strength you need when Antawn Jamison is your power forward. Also I think the Cavs progress last year had as much to do with LeBron's maturation as anything else. I agree they'll go far with their top two, maybe to the conference finals, but I was surprised they didn't make any significant offseason changes.

At Saturday, November 04, 2006 2:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Butler is listed at two inches taller and close to 50 pounds heavier than Hughes but on a per minute basis their career rebounding rates are nearly identical. Since Butler is a small forward and Hughes is mainly a shooting guard, I would give Hughes the edge as a rebounder--he is an above average rebounder for his position, while Butler is an average or below average rebounder for a small forward.

Butler is not a bad defensive player and he certainly puts forth a good effort at that end of the floor, but Hughes can defend multiple positions and made the All-Defensive First Team in 2005.

I would distinguish between being injury prone and being tough. Gale Sayers had a lot of injuries but I doubt that anyone would question his toughness; likewise with Eric Davis, who battled back from multiple injuries and a bout with cancer. Hughes has missed a lot of games during his career but I think that is more because of his style of play, slender physique and happenstance (last year's big injury was a severely broken finger that is still not completely straight, something that could happen to anyone) than any lack of toughness on his part.

The Cavs did not make major offseason changes in part because of their salary cap situation. They did extend LeBron's contract, which is fairly significant :) Other than Z, most of the key players are young, so they expect that the team will continue to grow and develop.


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