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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cavs Use Ball Movement, Balance to Topple Celtics

LeBron James and Delonte West had 21 points each to lead a balanced scoring attack as the Cleveland Cavaliers routed the Boston Celtics 108-84 to cut Boston's lead to 2-1 in their second round playoff series. Joe Smith added 17 points on 7-8 field goal shooting, Wally Szczerbiak scored 16 points and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 12 points, eight rebounds and a playoff career-high six assists. Ben Wallace, whose playing status was uncertain until right before game time due to allergies and an inner ear infection, contributed nine points, nine rebounds and a lot of high energy hustle plays that do not show up in the boxscore. West and Smith each tied their playoff career-highs in scoring. Kevin Garnett led the Celtics with 17 points and nine rebounds but his All-Star sidekicks Paul Pierce (14 points, five assists, 3-8 field goal shooting) and Ray Allen (10 points, four assists, 4-12 field goal shooting) had very quiet games. Pierce and Allen should be happy that James' poor shooting is grabbing all the headlines because they are shooting .343 and .308 from the field respectively in this series.

James shot 5-16 (.313) from the field in game three but even though that is an improvement over his 8-42 shooting (.190) in the first two games he now holds the dubious distinction of posting the worst field goal percentage by any player in three consecutive postseason games since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. The flip side of that, as James noted in his postgame remarks, is that he can contribute in many ways besides scoring: James had eight assists, five rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots in game three and he is averaging 7.7 apg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 spg and 1.7 bpg versus Boston. James also had just two turnovers after coughing up the ball 17 times in the first two games. After the game, he candidly admitted that he made some "lazy" passes in those games because he did not give enough respect to the Celtics' defense. The fact that Cleveland can blow out a 66 win Boston team even when James shoots poorly and scores nine points less than his league-leading regular season average puts the lie to Stephen A. Smith's claim that James is surrounded by "trash." The Cavs have 10 legitimate rotation players, which means that some guys who can play don't get much run unless someone gets hurt or is in foul trouble; in addition to starters James, Wallace, Ilgauskas, West and Szczerbiak, the Cavs have quality reserves in Smith, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson, Devin Brown and Sasha Pavlovic. Gibson was a playoff hero last year, Varejao's defense, rebounding and energy are valuable, Brown can score, Smith can score and rebound and Pavlovic started for last year's team that made it to the NBA Finals. Any NBA coach is happy if he has an eight player rotation that he trusts and none of those 10 players even come close to deserving the "trash" designation. The two negatives about Cleveland's rotation are that the Cavs do not have a second star player--former All-Star Ilgauskas comes closest to fitting that bill--and that the Cavs are still getting used to playing together in the wake of a season filled with holdouts, injuries and the big trade; that lack of continuity probably goes a long way toward explaining why this team can look terrible one night and great the next night.

Although Boston scored the first four points of the game, Cleveland quickly took over by playing with aggressiveness at both ends of the court; the Cavs were very active defensively and on offense they did a great job of passing the ball crisply, probing for weaknesses and then making open shots. After the game, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said of Boston, "They're a very good strong side defensive team. We've emphasized from day one that you've got to get that ball from one side of the floor to the other. You've got to move that defense and when you're moving it you've got to move it with a purpose. I thought our guys were poised and patient and did that tonight."

Cleveland used 14-0 and 9-0 first quarter runs to build a 32-13 lead after 12 minutes. James had just five first quarter points, scoring on a fast break dunk and a three pointer, just his second made field goal outside of the paint in the first nine quarters of the series. All five Cleveland starters scored in the first quarter; Szczerbiak led the way with seven points, while Wallace took advantage of the fact that the Celtics largely ignore him, scoring six points on 3-3 shooting just by being active near the front of the rim. The Celtics shot just 6-19 (.316) from the field and committed five turnovers, while the Cavs shot 13-20 (.650) and had no turnovers.

The Cavs achieved their biggest lead of the game, 26 points, after a wild sequence early in the second quarter. James drove to the hoop only to be clotheslined by James Posey, a player who has a history of committing flagrant fouls. While James lay on the ground trying to collect himself, Varejao got right in Posey's face. Posey and Varejao were each given technical fouls and Posey was also called for a flagrant one foul, which does not entail automatic ejection; the severity and nature of the contact (a blow to the head and neck) certainly seemed to warrant a flagrant two foul and it will be interesting to see if the NBA upgrades that foul and further penalizes Posey; ESPN announcers Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy thought that the flagrant one call was sufficient because, in their opinion, Posey was trying to simply wrap James up but when James went low Posey's arm connected with his neck. My understanding is that the officials are supposed to make their flagrant foul rulings based on windup, impact and follow through regardless of what they think a player's intentions were and based on those factors I think that a flagrant two is warranted in this case, though on seeing some replays I do understand Jackson and Van Gundy's point--but I still disagree with them. James made both free throws and Szczerbiak scored on a short jumper to put Cleveland up 43-17 but the Cavs did not score for the next 3:22 and by halftime the Celtics had cut the lead to 52-35, a significant but by no means insurmountable margin. Szczerbiak was the only player from either team who scored in double figures in the first half (14 points on 4-5 field goal shooting). James had seven points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

James electrified the crowd early in the third quarter with one of the best blocked shots you will ever see; Rajon Rondo seemed to have a clear path for a fast break layup but James caught him from behind and pinned Rondo's shot to the backboard Rucker Park-style, wiping the glass with the ball. That led to a West three pointer that made the score 60-41, Cleveland. The Celtics never got closer than 12 points the rest of the way and the Cavs closed the game with an 11-4 run to open up their biggest lead since the second quarter.

I've seen James up close before and after a lot of playoff games and he does a pretty good job of living by Rudyard Kipling's maxim to meet "Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same." Win or lose, James always has an air of quiet confidence; he does not get too elated in victory nor does he get discouraged by defeat--and if you can avoid being discouraged (at least externally) after shooting 8-42 in two losses then you are pretty strong mentally. Last year, the Cavs lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to Detroit before winning four straight games. Someone asked James if this game reminded him of what the Cavs did last season; he correctly noted that last year's game three win was very close (88-82) and added that he could not really answer that question until he sees how the Cavs do in game four this year. James has had a lot of shots go in and out and even though outside shooting is his weakness, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way that he is shooting now (see Notes from Courtside for more details about this), so the Celtics have to be a bit concerned that James is due for a 40 point explosion at some point.

While James exudes a confidence that surely must be a boost to his teammates, Garnett and Pierce entered the postgame interview room looking like someone had just died. They spoke in monotone whispers and Garnett testily admitted that he has no explanation for why the Celtics are playing so poorly on the road in the playoffs after being one of the better road teams in the league during the regular season, saying that if he knew the reason then he wouldn't be sitting in front of the media talking about another loss.

I wonder what Garnett and Pierce's teammates think when they see the team's leaders look so downtrodden. Keep in mind that the Celtics still lead 2-1 and they enjoy homecourt advantage in this series. Garnett and Pierce certainly have every right to be disappointed by this loss but the correct message to send to their team is that they expect to win game four; they mouthed those words, talking about watching film and making adjustments, but their body language said something else, projecting a message that should be alarming to Boston fans. Perhaps I am reading too much into this but it seems like this loss shook the Celtics' confidence; they seemed genuinely surprised by how badly they got beaten. This is why I definitely think that Cleveland missed a golden opportunity in game one, because snatching homecourt advantage from the Celtics right off the bat would have been a big blow to a team that has not been through the playoff wars together. Cleveland has to win a game in Boston to take this series but a James-led Cavs team may very well be more equipped to win in Boston than a Garnett/Pierce-led team is to win in Cleveland. If the Cavs win game four then the Celtics will face a lot of pressure in game five.

Notes From Courtside:

Former Ohio State standout Chris Jent, who was a member of the Houston Rockets' 1994 championship team, has held the title of Assistant Coach/Director of Player Development for the Cavaliers since November 2006. You can see him on the court a couple hours before every game working out various Cleveland reserve players to improve their skills and their understanding of Cleveland's game plan. He also has been working with James to improve his outside shot and his free throw shooting. James seemed to have made strides in those areas as far back as last summer during the FIBA Americas Tournament but, obviously, his outside shot has not looked good in the first three games of the Boston series.

Prior to game three, I spoke with Jent not only about James' problems but also in general about the process of coaching players to become better shooters:

Friedman: "When you work with players to try to improve their shooting, what are some of the technical aspects that you focus on and that you try to get them to change?"

Jent: "First of all, I think that more than (focusing on) how they are shooting the ball you try to get them to shoot more shots and to take pride in the fact that it needs to be worked on in order for them to improve."

Friedman: "You mean more practice shots?"

Jent: "More practice shots, just to create a muscle memory. Obviously, then you start to talk about the things that they need to do properly in order to create good habits."

Friedman: "Do you focus a lot on form? A guy like Reggie Miller had an odd looking release but he could shoot well. If a player has an odd looking form do you try to change that or do you look more at whether or not the shot is a functional shot that is being released the same way each time?"

Jent: "I think that jump shooting sometimes is a lot like personalities--people have their own way of doing things as far as shooting the ball goes. Maybe you just try to tweak certain things in order to make them more efficient but if they naturally shoot a certain way unless they just can't shoot you try to adhere to what they are comfortable with and how they did it originally and then you just tinker with different things that you think might help them improve."

Friedman: "Free throw shooting is one thing that players tend to improve at during their careers; if you look at rebounding and other stats that have to do with athleticism, they tend to decline as a player gets older but free throw shooting tends to improve: Magic Johnson went from about 76% early in his career to around 90%. LeBron is obviously in the low 70s as a free throw shooter. What is the difference between being a low 70s shooter and an 85-90 percent shooter and how do you bridge that gap?"

Jent: "I think that at the free throw line it is more mental. Really, I think that as you get a little bit older your mind (improves) and you are able to concentrate; you have shot more and you have the muscle memory to go with it but I think it's more of a mental maturity and a focus at the line that allows you to be a better shooter."

Friedman: "Do you have a target free throw percentage that you would like to see LeBron reach at some point that you think is a realistic goal and that maybe you have even talked to him about and said that we are trying to get to this area as opposed to being in the low 70s?"

Jent: "Yeah. We've talked all year about 80 percent being a number that was achievable and is something that he can do. There were months when he shot 80 percent, so it was just a couple games here and there where he shot poorly to kill that average, but 80 is certainly the number in mind."

Friedman: "The number that everybody is talking about right now is the 1-27 that LeBron has shot on field goals outside of the paint (in the first two games versus Boston). When you are looking at this from a technical standpoint, is he doing something different in these first two games that--"

Jent: "LeBron just has to shoot the ball. He's our guy and he's our main player, so when he's open he's got to shoot."

Friedman: "Right. No one is going to recommend that your best player not shoot but do you see a difference in what he is doing?"

Jent: "No. It's hard to put your finger on it. The most important thing--and I know that he gets tired of hearing it--is the next shot. The next shot is what matters and you have to approach the next shot like you are going to make it.

Friedman: "There have been stretches--like in the FIBA Americas Tournament last summer--when his shot looks really good and then he goes through these stretches when it doesn't look good. Do you think that from a technical standpoint he is holding true throughout those stretches?"

Jent: "I think that he's been solid. Balance was the big issue for us that we attacked this summer and he's been on balance, he's been open and they haven't been going in. It's frustrating for anyone, but as far as technically goes I think that he is spot on and I think that if he shoots the ball form-wise like he did in those first two games then every time (he shoots) I think the ball is going in."

Friedman: "When you mention balance are you talking about landing roughly in the same spot where you took off and not drifting to the side or drifting backwards?"

Jent: "He's going to move a little bit because he is such a big individual but the starting point is very important. His balance when he starts often determines if he is balanced when he finishes, just keeping his chest on the rim, feet basically squared to the rim and just giving it a chance (to go in)."

Friedman: "You talked a lot about the mental aspects of free throw shooting. Do you think that mentally it affects LeBron that first with San Antonio and now with Boston that it is pretty obvious that their defense is almost daring him to shoot the outside shot? Do you think that affects a player, not even just with LeBron but in general, do you think that it affects a player if the other team is basically daring him to shoot and is essentially saying, 'We're giving this to you'? Someone who has had as much success as LeBron has had is probably not used to a team saying that it wants him to shoot."

Jent: "The one thing that affects LeBron the most is that he is looking for angles to pass the ball. When he comes off of a pick and roll he is not necessarily thinking shot or drive. He is thinking about how the defense is playing him and where can he get the ball on this possession--unselfishly thinking about passing the ball. When people put bodies in front of him and take away those lanes and make it so that he can't drive the ball and basically has one option it's hard, because shooting is a secondary option (from James' point of view). The bottom line is that he has to take the space (that the defense is giving him) and shoot the ball."

Friedman: "If I understand what you are saying would it be correct in a sense to say that they are almost using his unselfishness against him? They know that he wants to pass as a first option, so they are getting into the passing lanes and not letting him do that."

Jent (smiles): "I'm not in their locker room, so I don't know their philosophy."

Friedman: "Right, but they are taking away something that he wants to do."

Jent: "The way that they are playing him has been effective but he has gotten very good looks. Typically, he knocks those down and we fully expect--and I'm sure he fully expects--to knock those down tonight."

Friedman: "Would it be right to say that tonight if he comes off that pick and roll play against that same kind of defense where they are giving him that shot that he is just going to shoot immediately and not even look to pass and get into situations where he is committing turnovers?"

Jent: "I hope so."

Friedman: "That is what you are looking for as a coaching staff?"

Jent (smiles): "Well, I'm not saying that as the staff but just talking as an individual I'd like to see him take the space that is being given and knock the shot down and shoot it with confidence. Do everything with confidence and it will work out for him."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:00 AM


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