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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Celtics Ring in New Season With 90-85 Victory Over Cavaliers

Paul Pierce scored a game-high 27 points as the Boston Celtics earned a hard fought 90-85 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on "ring night"--the season opening game before which the Celtics received their 2008 NBA Championship rings. Pierce openly wept when he got his ring and held it over his head as he waved to the cheering Boston fans. Once the game began, though, he had his emotions completely under control and he played very well, looking lighter, faster and bouncier than he did even when he won the Finals MVP. The Celtics are very fortunate that Pierce was the best player on the court, because the other two members of the "Big Three"--Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen--were largely invisible; Garnett finished with 11 points and six rebounds while shooting just 5-15 from the field, while Allen had eight points, four turnovers and just one assist while shooting 2-9 from the field. Rajon Rondo (14 points on 4-5 shooting, six assists, five rebounds, three steals) and Leon Powe (13 points on 5-7 shooting) picked up the slack for the two struggling All-Stars.

LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 22 points and six assists in addition to having seven rebounds and two steals but it was not a great performance for last season's scoring champion; he shot 9-21 from the field--missing most of the shots that he took outside of the paint, including all four of his three point attempts--and 4-8 from the free throw line, including 2-6 in the final 6:44 when the game was up for grabs. He showcased his breathtaking athleticism with several unbelievable dunks but in order to lead the Cavaliers past elite teams he must develop a consistent jump shot and a reliable free throw stroke; it would also be beneficial if he had a game on the post beyond simply overpowering defenders, a game based on footwork, finesse and positioning--you don't have to be big and athletic to be effective on the block, as guys like Gary Payton and Sam Cassell have shown over the years, and if James added those low post skills to his already formidable game it would make him and the Cavs even better.

As usual, the Cavs did a good job on the boards, outrebounding the Celtics 41-36, and the Cavs also played very well defensively, particularly in the first half when they held Boston to 41% field goal shooting (the Celtics shot 44.6% from the field overall). Zydrunas Ilgauskas contributed 15 points and eight rebounds and Anderson Varejao scored nine points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds. In his first regular season game as a Cav, Mo Williams scored 12 points and passed for two assists but he had five fouls and four turnovers.

Season opening games sometimes have an awkward feel to them and that is doubly true of "ring night" games; often the defending champions come out flat, while their opponents are fired up, and a little bit of both of those elements was evident in this game as Cleveland raced to a 14-4 lead. In the early going, the only things clicking for the Celtics were Pierce's offensive game--he had 11 first quarter points--and Kendrick Perkins' energy on the offensive boards. Pierce repeatedly drove by James and/or rotating defenders to get into the lane and either score or draw fouls. The Cavs really had trouble staying in front of him. Eventually the Celtics got some more players involved and by the end of the first quarter Cleveland only led 28-22.

With James out of the game for the first portion of the second quarter, the Cavs actually extended the lead to 41-30 as they continued to play good defense but by halftime the margin was back down to single digits, 50-43. Cleveland led for the entire first half but the tide turned early in the third quarter: Pierce and Allen drilled back to back threes, Perkins made a layup and then a Rondo layup put the Celtics ahead for the first time; Cleveland only scored two points (a Ben Wallace put back dunk) in the first 4:42 of the quarter. The Cavaliers briefly went up by as many as four points in the third quarter but the Celtics held the advantage the majority of the time the rest of the way.

A James alley oop dunk off of a Williams feed pulled the Cavs to within 83-80 with 2:11 remaining in the game but the Cavs squandered several opportunities at both ends of the court in the last couple minutes. After Garnett's jumper put the Celtics up by five, James bricked a three pointer with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock. It is questionable whether the Cavs even needed to take a three pointer at that juncture but James simply has to do one of two things: improve his jumper to the extent that it is a bona fide late game threat or else use his ability to draw defenders to create an opening for one of his better shooting teammates to shoot that shot. James is obviously the best player on his team but that does not mean that he should be the guy shooting late game three point shots.

Garnett split a pair of free throws after Ilgauskas committed a loose ball foul and on the ensuing possession the Cavs ran a much better offensive set: Varejao set a great screen for Williams, who buried a three point shot to cut the lead in half, 86-83.

Varejao made a very good defensive play after the Celtics ran a screen/roll with Pierce and Garnett; James switched on to Garnett, while Varejao forced Pierce to miss a tough fadeaway jumper. James outbattled Garnett for the rebound and the Cavs called timeout with 15.5 seconds left. That sequence demonstrates Cleveland's impressive defensive flexibility, as a backup power forward/center successfully guarded a top flight small forward while a small forward--albeit a "large" small forward--outrebounded one of the league's top rebounding power forwards.

As Mike Fratello correctly noted, the Cavs still did not have to take a three point shot; getting a quick score and then fouling the Celtics is the high percentage play. Obviously, James is the best candidate to try to get a quick score but the problem in such situations--particularly against the elite teams--is James' balky free throw touch. James may simply drive and dunk against the mediocre teams (or the Cavs may be ahead by enough against such teams that this situation won't arise too frequently) but smart teams are simply not going to let James score down the stretch, preferring to foul him if they cannot keep him out of the paint. James only made one of his two free throws and then the Cavs had a defensive breakdown: after the Celtics broke the initial trap, James rushed up to attempt to foul Pierce near midcourt but that left the hoop unprotected and Pierce passed ahead to Leon Powe, who dunked the ball just as Varejao raced back and fouled him. Without talking to the coaches, I don't know if the breakdown here is the fault of the guards, if James blundered by rushing forward or if Varejao (or someone else) was supposed to be the last defender at the hoop. All I do know for sure is that the combination of missing one free throw and then giving up a layup sealed the Cavs' fate in what was a very winnable game. Powe missed his free throw but then James again only made one out of two free throws, leaving the margin at four with just four seconds left. Ray Allen closed out the scoring by sinking two free throws.

We did not see the best out of either team on this night but we did see two teams that define themselves by rebounding and playing good defense. The Cavs brought in Mo Williams and re-signed Daniel Gibson and Delonte West in order to provide offensive support for James, so it would be a good idea to incorporate those players into the offense to a greater extent: James attempted 21 shots while Williams only attempted 10 shots and no other Cav shot more than eight times. Although James is a playmaking small forward, his offensive game is primarily based in the paint, so to balance things out the Cavs need to be able to make some outside shots. Those shots do not necessarily have to be three pointers; they can be 15-20 foot jumpers. With Williams running the point now, it should be possible to create higher percentage shots for James and his teammates than the ones that the Cavs took during this game (the Cavs shot 42.6% from the field).

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:22 AM



At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 8:58:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Not to bash LeBron, but this game clearly underlined the skill deficiencies that make him just a notch below Kobe right now. I have to say it's somewhat frustrating as an NBA fan that he hasn't really improved his jumper, free-throw shooting, or post game after all this time. The only area where he is clearly better than he was 2-3 years ago is at the defensive end (although you couldn't tell the way he guarded Pierce in the first half). People are quick to attack LeBron's teammates but the fact is that the flaws I mentioned (which you have pointed out on many occasions) make him and Cleveland easier for the elite defensive teams to deal with. In all honesty Paul Pierce is a more complete scorer than LeBron, even if he doesn't have the King's freakish athleticism.

At some point LeBron has to diversify his offensive game so that he doesn't have to rely so much on bulldozing his way into the lane. His stats are always going to look gaudy regardless, but I just find it hard to crown a swingman who shoots 70% from the line and struggles to hit the midrange J as the best in the game.

At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 4:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I noted in the post, this was not LeBron's best performance, so his overall value has to be judged on his complete body of work, not just one game. The amazing thing about LeBron is that he is so good at what he does well--driving to the hoop with speed/power, passing the ball, rebounding, playing the passing lanes--that even with his skill set weaknesses he is still the second best player in the NBA. However, it is disturbing that after several years the only weakness that he has noticeably improved is his defense and one begins to wonder if he ever will become a good free throw shooter and a reliable jump shooter; if he does not improve those skills this season or next, it would be reasonable to assume that he never will.

Although Pierce outplayed LeBron in this particular game, overall I would still take LeBron over Pierce. Keep in mind that when Pierce did not have HoF teammates his on court performance--while still good statistically--did not have quite the same impact that it does now, his defensive effort was often not good and his attitude was questionable at best. So, I give Pierce credit for taking full advantage of his team's roster upgrades and I recognize that he faced a difficult task during Boston's lean years, but if I had to choose I would still take LeBron over Pierce.

At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 5:15:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...


Don't get me wrong, I would take LeBron over Pierce in a heartbeat and never look back. I just think Pierce as a scorer (post game, jumpshot, free-throw shooting, triple-threat position, etc) has a more complete skillset. I'd say the same for Carmelo, who is also not in LeBron's class as an all-around player.

At Thursday, October 30, 2008 12:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

lebron doesnt have great form thats like telling mike tyson in his prime box rather than knocksomeone out his strenght is his driving and power he 23 he will improve outside shot. jordan and kobe didnt master game in sixth season he the king and the truth. cleveland will be right there for the title paul is good but it;s clevland la time

At Thursday, October 30, 2008 11:10:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...


I don't know about MJ (before my time), but I think Kobe had a much better jumper than LeBron at 23. I'm just disappointed we haven't seen more improvement from him in that area given everything else he's done so far.

Anyway, I agree Cleveland can make the Finals but they have to find a way to fully utilise Mo Williams' offensive skills. He can't be wasted as a spot-up shooter like Szczerbiak, Gibson, or Pavlovic.

At Thursday, October 30, 2008 10:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

lebron at 23 and kobe 23 lebron run circles on him kobe was better late 20 2006 and 2007 we never seen kobe that young without shaq i know people will say but kobe is better know then he was then kobe a better natural shooter than lebron magic was never a great shooter but got 5 rings i think joel he will improve his shot everybody and be best player in league for next decade jordan was never the greatest jumpshooter was he? no he was good enough and i think lebron will be good enough shooter kobe is better now but lebron will have his time let him fully develop skip baylesses

cavs is finals rep no doubt best team in east with boston

At Friday, October 31, 2008 9:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


LeBron is 23--he'll turn 24 during the season--but he is in his sixth season. When MJ was 23 he averaged 37.1 ppg and shot .857 from the free throw line. His midrange J was already very good and he did not use the three pointer very much (few players did during that era). When MJ was in his sixth season he averaged 33.6 ppg, shot .376 from three point range and shot .848 from the free throw line. Either way you look at it--by age or by season--MJ was ahead of LeBron as a shooter.

At Friday, October 31, 2008 9:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Pierce and Melo are both better shooters than LeBron but I would not say that they are better scorers or better offensive players. After all, LeBron led the league in scoring and also ranked among the league leaders in assists, outdistancing both of those players in those categories.

At Friday, October 31, 2008 3:18:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...


LeBron might be more prolific as a scorer but I don't think he has as many different ways to score as Carmelo or Pierce. I wasn't really considering assists in my statement as LeBron blows both players out of the water as a passer.

At Friday, October 31, 2008 3:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My views on LeBron are not even remotely similar to Skip Bayless'. I think that LeBron is the second best player in the NBA, while Bayless constantly denigrates LeBron.

MJ had a much more reliable midrange game than LeBron does. I think that this plus free throw shooting are even more important than three point shooting; LeBron simply has to be able to consistently make a midrange jumper.

At Friday, October 31, 2008 3:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Pierce and Carmelo have more diverse scoring options than LeBron does but LeBron's ability to use his athleticism to create high percentage shots in the paint gives him the edge over those two in my opinion. LeBron is pretty much unstoppable except for when the Cavs face one or two elite defensive teams (Celtics, Spurs the past two years) and even those teams have to use extraordinary measures to try to contain him. Obviously, Pierce and Carmelo are also great scorers but I'd rather have to come up with a scheme to deal with them than try to contain LeBron. LeBron did take a team to the Finals without a current All-Star, while Carmelo has never been out of the first round and Pierce benefited greatly from playing alongside two other future HoFers.

At Friday, October 31, 2008 4:20:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...


As I said before, Pierce and Carmelo are not in LeBron's class by any stretch. Carmelo in particular has a nasty habit of stepping down (or whatever the opposite of 'stepping up' is) whenever the playoffs roll around. Does anyone remember when people were trying to convince us that he and LeBron were on a similar level?

At Saturday, November 01, 2008 6:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Right after Carmelo led Syracuse to a national title and before LeBron had actually played against anything above high school competition it was reasonable to compare the two players--but as soon as LeBron set foot in the NBA it rapidly became apparent that he is a better player than Carmelo.

At Sunday, November 02, 2008 9:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

lebron is erratic because he is so strong and get to the basket so easy to where micheal didnt have that option he had to have midrange game because he is not as strong as lebron is lebron needs to be better shooter in playoffs not regular season he will i believe and lead his team to finals, mj and lebron totally diffrent players lebron doesnt use much midrange he takes more outside shots.

At Sunday, November 02, 2008 10:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A big, post up center like Shaq does not need a midrange game because he can catch the ball on the block and shoot .600 from the field (or at least he could in his prime). LeBron is a small forward--a wing player. No matter how big and strong he is, it is wrong to assert that he does not need a midrange game. It is true that because of his size and talent he can more than get by in the regular season with his current skill set but in the Cavs' playoff losses to San Antonio and Boston the past two years we clearly saw that it will be difficult for him to lead Cleveland to a title with brute force and raw talent alone. Also, LeBron must improve his free throw shooting.

It is a copout to attribute LeBron's erratic shooting touch to his size and strength. Yao Ming is 7-5 and 300+ pounds and he shoots better than .800 from the free throw line. Karl Malone improved from a .481 free throw shooter as a rookie to almost .800 in some seasons by the end of his career.


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