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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Butler Does It: Last Second Shot Staves off Elimination for Wizards

Caron Butler scored a playoff career-high 32 points--including the game winning layup with 3.9 seconds remaining--as the Washington Wizards escaped Cleveland with an 88-87 victory that cut the Cavaliers' lead to 3-2 in their first round best of seven series. Butler shot 11-22 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds and led the Wizards in assists (five), three pointers made (four) and steals (two). DeShawn Stevenson, a previously nondescript player whose incendiary comments have thrust him front and center in this series, backed up his words with solid play, at least to some extent: he was the Wizards' second leading scorer with 17 points but he shot just 5-14 from the field. Antonio Daniels, who got the start at point guard because Gilbert Arenas has been shut down for the duration of the playoffs due to his balky knee, was Washington's only other double figure scorer (12 points). Antawn Jamison had a subpar offensive game (eight points on 3-10 field goal shooting) but he did snare a game-high 11 rebounds. As usual, LeBron James did everything for the Cavs, leading them in minutes (44:05), points (34), rebounds (10), assists (seven) and blocked shots (two). He even shot uncharacteristically well from the free throw line (15-18); the only slight blemish on his otherwise sterling stat line is that he shot 8-21 from the field. Zydrunas Ilgauskas played very well (19 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, six rebounds, a +17 plus/minus rating that was easily a game-high number); it sometimes seems like the nights when he shoots well he does not get a lot of shot attempts, though that probably has more to do with the flow of the game than anything else--James has the ball most of the time and if he does not have a driving lane or an open shot then he passes to the open man and since the Wizards focused more attention on Ilgauskas that meant that the Cavs' three point shooters were open. The Cavs shot 9-25 from three point range, which is a very acceptable percentage (.360) but after the game a lot of conversation--at least among the media members who covered the game--centered around the idea that 25 three point attempts out of 75 total field goal attempts seems like too high of a ratio. Neither James nor Cleveland Coach Mike Brown necessarily agreed with that assessment; James insisted that other than one bad three pointer late in the game most of the long range attempts were good, open shots that resulted from drive and kick plays and Brown echoed that argument (subject to further review after he watches a tape of the game). The Wizards' defense is designed to slow down James and force the Cavs to make outside shots; if the Cavs pass up those shots then they may end up with shot clock violations or closer shots that are more heavily contested. Although there is some merit to both sides of this debate, I tend to agree with Brown and James that more significant than the total number of three point shots attempted is whether those shots are contested ones or whether they are open looks that resulted from drive and kick plays or ball reversals.

When--and at this point perhaps the correct word is "If"--Arenas becomes 100% healthy it will be interesting to reexamine whether or not the Wizards are better off replacing him players who are more coachable and more defensive minded/team oriented. However, in his current state when he is physically limited but still wants to be the center of attention there is no doubt that the Wizards play better without him. A group of us talked about this very subject in the media dining room before the game and I reiterated my assertion that the best thing that happened to the Cavs in this series is when Arenas came out hot in the first game, because he has been chasing the mirage that he is hot ever since then and that has resulted in missed shots and turnovers. Someone countered by bringing up the big-time shot that Arenas made near the end of game four. That is true, I conceded, but even that shot, like the long three pointer that J.R. Smith made against the Lakers late in game four of that series, was a bad shot: Arenas took a low percentage shot with plenty of time on the shot clock; it happened to go in but it still was a bad shot and the more he is on the court the more often he will take--and usually miss--bad shots.

In the first quarter, the Wizards outscored the Cavs 23-16 while shooting 9-14 from the field, led by Butler's 14 points on 5-6 shooting. The Wizards would likely have had an even bigger lead but they committed seven turnovers. Arenas' supporters often say that the statistics do not bear out that the ball movement is better without him, citing the team's lower assists numbers when he does not play. Indeed, the Wizards had just three assists in the first quarter. Nevertheless, the ball did in fact move around, all of the players were involved in the offense in some fashion and that is just a better way to play than standing around watching Arenas and waiting to see if he is going to shoot, pass or just keep dribbling. As Chris Webber said about the drawbacks for Denver players who are teammates of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, when one player monopolizes the ball the other guys don't know what to do or when to do it because they never know when they are going to get the ball. You can accumulate assists and still be a selfish, losing ballplayer--just look at Stephon Marbury for a prime example of that. Anthony has never won a playoff series, Iverson had his most postseason success when Larry Brown moved him off the ball (which minimized the problems that I am describing here) and Arenas has won exactly one playoff series in his entire career. Consider that in this series Washington's two wins are a blowout in which Arenas only played 10 minutes while uncharacteristically passing more than he shot and tonight's game that Arenas sat out entirely. After a while it becomes tiresome to even try to explain basketball to Arenas' supporters because it is like arguing with members of the Flat Earth Society. My position now is simple: talk to me when Arenas is the main player on a team that wins 50-55 regular season games and/or at least two playoff series in one season. Until then, Arenas is a higher scoring version of Marbury who happens to have a popular blog and a dedicated fan club.

Of course, no Cleveland-Washington playoff game this year would be complete without the obligatory incident featuring extracurricular contact and jawing by Wizards' players, with both the contact and the jawing generally directed at James. This time, Darius Songaila made a backhand slap to James' face after Songaila had already fouled him on a driving move. James simply rubbed his jaw and moved away but players from both teams congregated around each other and started woofing and posturing. For no apparent reason, Stevenson slapped down Anderson Varejao's arm. After the officials sorted everything out, Songaila, Stevenson and Varejao received technical fouls.

James steadfastly refuses to allow hard fouls and/or dumb comments to distract him from the task at hand. Asked after the game to describe what happened between him and Songaila, James said, "Nothing." That is one of the big differences between James and Arenas; James stays focused on doing what he has to do help his team win, while Arenas often creates and/or partakes in sideshows that cause unnecessary distractions both for him and for his teammates. If Arenas had been involved in such a play he most likely would say something "clever" that would draw more attention to it--and thus draw attention away from doing the things that have to be done to win games. By not commenting about Songaila, James effectively defused the situation. James knows that in this series he is the best player on the court and that on most nights if he does what he is capable of doing then Cleveland will beat Washington and that is all that matters to him.

The Cavs chipped away at Washington's lead in the second quarter as Ilgauskas scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting. Washington led 45-43 at halftime. Butler had 16 points on 6-10 shooting, Ilgauskas had 12 points on 5-6 shooting and James had only 10 points on 2-8 shooting. I joked that the Cavs should send their training staff to the Wizards' locker room and patch up Arenas just enough so that he could play in the second half.

Cleveland used a 9-0 run to take a 59-53 third quarter lead. It seemed like the Cavs were about to take control of the game and the series but that turned out to be Cleveland's biggest lead of the game. A Jamison layup, a Butler put back and three pointers by Jamison and Butler helped the Wizards tie the score at 63. By the end of the quarter, the Wizards were up 69-65. Down the stretch of that quarter, the Cavs missed open shots that they normally make, including three layups (two by Varejao, one by James) and a jump hook by Joe Smith.

The fourth quarter was tightly contested, with neither team leading by more than six points. Cleveland seemed to be in control after James blocked Butler's layup attempt and West raced downcourt to score a layup, draw a foul and complete a three point play. That put the Cavs up 87-82 with just 1:47 left. The Cavs just needed two or three defensive stops and perhaps one more score. Instead, James and Gibson sandwiched missed three pointers around a Butler put back. After Daniels sank two free throws to cut the lead to 87-86, the Cavs definitely needed a score but Smith missed a short hook and after Ilgauskas was unable to tip it in Butler controlled the rebound and the Wizards called a timeout with 11.2 seconds left. Washington Coach Eddie Jordan designed a nice play in which Jamison received the inbounds pass with the option of creating on his own or passing to Butler at the top of the key; Jamison's read convinced him that Butler had the better opportunity, so he passed the ball to him. Butler sized up James and drove to the hoop, scoring on a contested layup with 3.9 seconds left. Butler later admitted that he considered shooting a jumper but with the season on the line he did not want to have to look back and think that he bailed out the defense. If Arenas were playing the Wizards would not have run such a nice play with multiple options; they would have given Arenas the ball in a 1-4 set and let him go one on one.

Of course, everyone in the building knew that James would get the ball on the Cavs' final play. He drove past Stevenson, got into the lane, made some contact with Songaila and lofted a shot that rolled around and dropped out. A couple Cavs almost tipped it in but their efforts fell short and time expired. Cleveland fans naturally wanted a foul to be called on Songaila but there was some contact on both Butler's drive and James' drive and the officials deemed this contact to be marginal in both instances.

At first, James deflected a question about whether he was fouled on the last play by saying that Cleveland is a no-excuse team and that this one play is not why Cleveland lost. Pressed again to say whether or not he thought that he was fouled, James looked the questioner in the eye, simply said, "Yes" and did not elaborate.

In his postgame remarks, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown mentioned two of his tried and true mantras ("We're a no-excuse team" and "One day, one game at a time"). Asked about whether he thought that James was fouled on his last shot, Brown replied, "That's up to the referees to make that call. We're a no-excuse team. We know we're better than the way we played tonight. You've got to give Washington credit for doing what they needed to do to come in here and get a win. We've got to lace 'em up and get ready to go for game six."

Someone asked Brown if he thinks that the Cavs are still in control of the series. Brown said that he does not think in those terms: "For us it's one day, one game at a time. It doesn't matter if we're down 0-3 or if we're up 2-1, we've got to take the next game as its own separate entity and go out there and play the right way in order to win."

After a game like this it is easy to fall back on cliches and say that the Wizards played with desperation in a do or die game while the Cavs played with less urgency but that is not the overall impression that I got from watching the game in person. While the Wizards certainly displayed the concentration and focus that you would expect from a team fighting to avoid elimination, the Cavs also played hard: the rebound battle was virtually even and the turnover battle was a dead heat. Washington had six steals and three blocks, while the Cavs had five steals and seven blocks. There simply is neither an image nor a stat from this game that suggests that the Cavs played without effort. Make no mistake: they did not play well--but that is not the same thing as not trying. As many coaches are fond of saying, this is a make or miss league. James missed a point blank shot at the end and several Cavs missed shots late in the game that they normally make; if any of those shots go down then this series is over and the importance of this game would not be magnified in order to find out exactly what the Cavs did wrong. The bottom line is that neither team shot well and Butler nearly matched James shot for shot on this night, with the deciding factor being that Butler's last second shot went in and James' last second shot rolled out--that is what happens in a make or miss league.

All that matters now is what happens in game six. You may recall that I predicted that the Cavs would win this series in six games. After game four, someone asked James if he thought that Washington could come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. He replied simply, "No." Naturally, after this loss someone asked James if he is as confident about that statement now as he was previously--and James quite naturally replied, "Yeah, of course. Why not? As long as I am on the court we have a good chance to win--matter of fact, we have a great chance to win. So of course I am confident."

Notes From Courtside:

Last year, the Cavs lost game five at home to the Nets in the second round before closing out the series with a road win in game six. During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him if he specifically reminded his team about what happened versus New Jersey or if his remarks to the team focused primarily on the specific game plan for playing against Washington. He replied, "The focus is on this year and the Wizards. What happened last year in game five will hopefully benefit this year's team in this game five but we still have to go win it."

Well, if the Cavs ever face this situation again now they have two home losses in game fives from which they can try to learn something and benefit.


In game four there were a few plays in which James passed the ball to Ben Wallace, who then immediately reversed the ball to an open shooter; that is a pretty effective way to make sure that the defense has to account for a player who has limited shooting range. I asked Coach Brown if those passes from James to Wallace and from Wallace to the shooters were specifically in the game plan or if they were just spontaneous reads by those two players. Brown answered, "We've said it before: they're not guarding Ben and they're not really guarding Andy (Anderson Varejao), so we've got to get those guys as close to the basket as possible. They're really paying a lot of attention to LeBron by shifting their defense over to him when he has the ball. When those guys do touch the ball they either have to finish or if they're moving and working behind the basket and the defense loses vision (of where they are) then all of a sudden when they catch the ball everybody collapses (into the paint to prevent an easy layup) and it is just (a matter of) making the right pass. So it is by design that we have them down by the rim a lot of times but in terms of Ben being open it is just that the Wizards choosing to leave him open and he is making the right pass." In other words, Coach Brown is placing Wallace and Varejao in certain positions on the court based on their both their skills and their limitations and then the players are making the correct reads on the fly based on whatever the defensive coverage happens to be.


After hitting the game-winning three pointer in game four, Delonte West was asked about his big shot and he replied, "Hands down, man's down." There has been a lot of discussion since then about what exactly West meant by this but--as far as I know--no one actually bothered to go up to West and ask him directly. So, I approached West in the locker room before he was about to go out to do his pregame shooting and asked him to clarify the meaning of this phrase. He told me, "It means that if a guy comes out to you short or comes out to you with his hands down, man down, you know?"

Trying to make sure I understood, I replied, "Kind of like a knockout punch in boxing--if his hands are down, then you are going to knock him out by making the shot."

"Yes, uh huh," West immediately agreed. "That's exactly what it is--you come out with your hands down, you get man down. You run at a man with your hands down then you are going to get knocked out."

I then asked West, "Is that a philosophy that you take in reverse when you are on defense in terms of running out with your hands up to make sure that you don't get knocked out?"

"Yeah," he said, before adding shyly and almost apologetically, "It's just a saying. It wasn't anything too serious. It's just that I was feeling the excitement from the game and I needed a statement to go with the shot, you know what I mean?"


During a brief, informal ceremony in the locker room prior to the game, Cavaliers guard Damon Jones received the Austin Carr Good Guy Award. According to a press release from the Cavs, this honor, previously bestowed on Larry Hughes (2006) and Drew Gooden (2007), recognizes a Cavs player "who is cooperative and understanding of the media, the community and the public." Local members of the Professional Basketball Writers Association voted to determine the winner. Branson Wright, the Cavs' beat writer for the Plain Dealer, presented a plaque to Jones, who then spoke briefly to several media members who had gathered around him; Jones thanked everyone for voting for him, said that he understands and respects the jobs that the media members do and that they have treated him fairly, which is all he can ask for from them. He alluded to having a rocky start with the local media but said that since then everything has gone smoothly. He credited his parents for helping him to have the ability to effectively articulate his thoughts.


James now has 15 double doubles in 38 career playoff games. He is just the fourth player to post at least 34 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in back to back playoff games. The other three are Larry Bird (May 11-13, 1984), Oscar Robertson (April 6-7, 1963) and Dolph Schayes (March 29-April 1, 1959).

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:30 AM



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