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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cleveland Sends Message to Boston: We're Still the Eastern Conference Champions

All 82 games count the same in the standings but they don't all feel the same--and Cleveland's 109-104 overtime victory at home over Boston definitely had a playoff vibe to it. It seems like everyone wants to crown Boston and bury Cleveland but the shorthanded Cavaliers--who are without the services of holdout Anderson Varejao and the injured Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall--showed that the three pronged formula that carried them to the 2007 NBA Finals still works: team defense and rebounding plus the brilliance of LeBron James. Cleveland held Boston to .430 field goal shooting and won the rebounding battle 47-40. James held up his end of the bargain by scoring 38 points, including 11 of Cleveland's 17 in overtime. He also had 13 assists and four rebounds. Cleveland's other two frontcourt starters also had big games: center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 15 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots and power forward Drew Gooden contributed 24 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 11-15 from the field, including 8-8 in the third quarter. With 77 points, 31 rebounds and 18 assists, Cleveland's starting frontcourt outperformed Boston's more heralded "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who ended up with 64 points, 18 rebounds and 15 assists. Allen had 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists but he missed two key free throws near the end of regulation. Pierce shot just 5-15 from the field, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists. Garnett, touted by many as an MVP candidate, had 19 points, five rebounds and five assists; when the game was on the line he did plenty of trash talking but James' actions spoke much louder than Garnett's fiery words.

The Cavaliers jumped out to an 11-2 first quarter lead. James did not score until he converted a fast break dunk more than seven minutes into the game but he had three assists during that opening salvo--and he should have had four, but Ilgauskas' dunk attempt was blocked by Garnett on Cleveland's first possession. Garnett showed his range as a defender on that play, sliding forward to stop James' drive and then dropping back to nullify Ilgauskas' shot after James passed the ball. Cleveland led 19-7 after James' first basket and Celtics' Coach Doc Rivers took his second timeout of the first quarter at the 4:58 mark. The two starting centers, Ilgauskas and Kendrick Perkins, each went to the bench at that time and Boston went on a 13-7 run to finish the quarter; Cleveland did not score for nearly three minutes after Ilgauskas sat down. James has evolved into a very vocal leader, both on the court and in timeout huddles. He picked up Boston point guard Rajon Rondo outside the three point line on Boston's last possession of the quarter and screamed repeatedly at his teammates, "Stay home!" In other words, James was accepting the defensive challenge and did not want anyone to leave someone open by coming over to help. James stayed in front of the very quick Rondo and forced him to miss a tough fadeaway jumper as time ran out. Cleveland led 26-20, in no small part due to a 14-6 advantage on the glass; Ilgauskas shot 4-5 from the field and had eight points and six rebounds, while Allen had nine points as Boston shot 4-4 from three point range.

In the second quarter, Cleveland got into the bonus early but failed to drive to the hoop enough to take advantage of this. Instead, the Cavaliers turned the ball over and took some questionable shots and Boston outscored Cleveland 29-20 to take a 49-46 halftime lead. James scored 12 points and had five assists in the first half but he shot just 3-11 from the field and only had two rebounds. Ilgauskas had 12 points and nine rebounds, while Garnett produced this fairly quiet line: eight points, one rebound, two assists and three blocked shots.

In the opening moments of the third quarter it looked like Boston was about to take control of the game as the Celtics went ahead 53-46. Gooden answered with a driving layup at the 10:37 mark, the beginning of a remarkable stretch in which he made eight straight shots, ranging from outside jumpers to inside moves. His 16 third quarter points helped Cleveland to retake the lead and set up a great fourth quarter as Cleveland clung to a 74-72 advantage heading into the final 12 minutes. "This is more like a playoff game," said Cavaliers' TV analyst Austin Carr during the third quarter. "You don't see many fast breaks at all. All you see is that every possession is a grind it out situation."

Boston began the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run but the Cavaliers answered with a 7-0 run of their own--with James scoring six of the points--to go up 81-79 at the 8:34 mark. Cleveland maintained a small lead for a little over three minutes until two Pierce free throws put Boston up 88-87. An Allen jumper made the score 92-89 Boston with just 2:02 left but neither team scored for more than a minute until James drew two defenders and whipped a pass to Daniel Gibson who swung the ball to Sasha Pavlovic in the left corner for a big three pointer. Pavlovic was called for a reach in foul on Allen with 23 seconds left but Allen, one of the best free throw shooters in NBA history, missed both free throws. Cleveland had the last possession of the game but did not make very effective use of it. James dribbled the ball for about 18 seconds before firing a long jumper that clanged off of the rim. After James missed the shot, Carr declared, "You've got to run a play in those situations. You can't just sit there and sit there (dribbling) and then shoot over the top. You must run a play." As great as James is, with 20 or so seconds left in a game I'd still prefer to have the ball in Kobe Bryant's hands: Bryant understands that he must attack the defense, which would lead to him scoring a layup, drawing a foul, using his dribble to create an open jumper or commanding a double-team that would leave one of his teammates wide open. Two other reasons to prefer Bryant over James in such situations are that Bryant is a better three point shooter and a much better free throw shooter.

At the start of the overtime, James did what he should have done on the final possession of regulation: put his head down, drive to the hoop and dare the Celtics to stop him without committing a foul. His power layup gave the Cavaliers a lead that they never relinquished. Anyone who believes the talk that Boston has a star power edge over Cleveland should watch the tape of the overtime period; look closely and you will see that there is only one true superstar on the court and he took over the game.

Coming into the season, the main questions about the Boston Celtics concerned the point guard and center positions, the bench, the team's defense and who would take control down the stretch in close games. Boston's defense has been outstanding so far, the bench has been productive and starting point guard Rajon Rondo and starting center Kendrick Perkins have been at least adequate. Assuming that the Celtics do not suffer slippage in those areas, the big lingering question concerns how this team will function down the stretch in close games. So far this season, the Celtics have been winning so easily that they have not been in many close games but that does not lessen the importance of this issue because in the playoffs it is vitally important to be able to win close games: think of how many times the Jordan-Pippen Bulls or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won games with last second shots. Cleveland's offensive plan in such situations is well known but not easy to stop: James has the ball, probes the defense and either creates an open shot for a teammate or takes the shot himself. This game indicated that in pressure situations Boston's plan is for Allen to inbound the ball, after which either Pierce or Allen will try to create something with dribble penetration. Garnett is largely an afterthought; his last made field goal was a jumper with 3:30 remaining in overtime and he only made two shots in the last 7:38 of the game. He drew a foul with 2:07 left in overtime and the Celtics only down 96-94 but he spent so much time riling himself up and trash talking various Cavaliers that the usually reliable free throw shooter only made one of his two attempts. On the next possession, James delivered a dagger three pointer that put Cleveland up 99-95.

James takes too many three pointers (he shot 2-8 from long distance in this game) and at times he drains too much of the shot clock by dribbling the ball without going anywhere--but it is also clear that he is a killer: he makes big shots and big plays and this season he has taken a very obvious interest in playing defense. It is downright scary to think about how good he could be if he improved his shot selection a little bit because he is already almost impossible to guard; as Carr noted, Boston "tilted the court" toward James by having two and sometimes three defenders watching him but this did not work any better for the Celtics than it did for Detroit in last year's playoffs.

This was just one game and the Celtics may very well win the rematch in Boston on Sunday. However, we can draw some conclusions from not only what we saw in this game but what has happened in the early going this season. Boston's reconfigured team has jelled very quickly, is playing somewhat better than I expected so far and will win more than 50 games barring injuries to key players. However, although "The Big Three" of Garnett, Pierce and Allen is formidable it is hardly unbeatable. Despite his ability to put up numbers in many different statistical categories, Garnett is more like a very productive, versatile role player than a true superstar; as Scottie Pippen once said of Garnett, "He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on (winning) the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." That may seem unfair or unduly harsh but I firmly believe that there is a lot of truth in what Pippen said--and until I see Garnett repeatedly make big plays down the stretch I will continue to believe it. The Cavaliers often double-teamed Garnett during the game, which sometimes led to open shots for other players. It is interesting that Garnett had opportunities to either spin away from the double-team and shoot or to make a quick move before the double-team arrived but he rarely did either of those things; players like Shaquille O'Neal in his prime, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and now LeBron James not only pass out of double-teams but also sometimes look for their own shot in such situations by spinning away from pressure. Garnett gives the appearance of a player who does not really want to take the shot in such situations. If I were coaching against Garnett, I would consider not double-teaming him at all, in effect forcing him to take those shots (the effectiveness of such a strategy of course depends on having at least a decent defensive power forward). On the other hand, Pierce and Allen are certainly willing to take pressure shots but if they could carry a team like Bryant or James then they would likely not have been watching the playoffs at home last season (yes, I realize that Pierce and Allen each missed a lot of games due to injury but their teams were hardly world beaters even with them on the court). In a matchup between Boston and Cleveland, James is going to have the upper hand on Pierce virtually every time. Allen will win his matchup with Pavlovic but not necessarily by a bigger margin than James will beat Pierce. Ilgauskas has an edge over Perkins, so the Garnett-Gooden matchup may tip the balance. Garnett is of course a better player than Gooden but Gooden knows his role and is good at it: he rebounds, he defends and he makes open shots. In this game, Gooden not only did those things but he actually outscored and outrebounded Garnett. I think that a lot of people have made the mistake of looking at names on jerseys and resumes in record books while failing to consider how these two teams actually function on the court. Charles Barkley went so far as to say that Cleveland would struggle to make the playoffs. I maintain that the Cavaliers will still prove to be the team to beat in the East by the time the playoffs roll around. The Celtics are not some juggernaut team that is going to blow out the Cavaliers if the two teams meet in the playoffs; the games will be close, so the question really boils down to this: Late in a close game, who would you fear most with the ball: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or LeBron James?

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:57 AM


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At Wednesday, November 28, 2007 1:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The message sent is Cavs had to play near perfect to beat a mediocre effort by the Celtics at home. Celtics win this game if Ray didn't miss a couple of free throws. Celtics are still 11-2. Celtics are still the better team.

At Wednesday, November 28, 2007 4:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Or...the message is that Cleveland, minus three of the top eight players in its normal rotation (Hughes, Varejao, Marshall) beat a Boston team that has been playing better than any other squad in the league so far.

The proper context to consider here is twofold: (1) many people have prematurely written off the Cavs and (2) this Cavs team will be much better in May than it is now. As noted in one of my previous Cavs' recaps, Coach Brown explicitly said that they are using the regular season as preparation for the postseason run, the same approach that they had last year. Perhaps Boston will also be better come May, but Cleveland already looks pretty good for a team that Barkley and others have suggested will not even make the playoffs. Even if Allen makes the free throws, the Celtics still have to stop LeBron on the last possession--and if the Cavs are down two then LeBron likely does what he did on the first play of overtime. LeBron is better than any one of the Celtics' "Big Three" and, unlike those guys, he is still improving. If these teams meet in the playoffs, most of the games will likely be close, so it comes back to my final question in the post: at the end of a close game, which player is most likely to deliver the goods?


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