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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cavs Build 22 Point Lead, Coast to 96-83 Win Over Bulls

Several Cavaliers set career playoff highs in various statistical categories as Cleveland used a balanced attack to defeat Chicago 96-83 in game one of their first round playoff series. LeBron James led the way with a game-high 24 points on 9-19 field goal shooting plus six rebounds, five assists and a playoff career-high four blocked shots but he had a lot of help: Mo Williams added 19 points, a playoff career-high 10 assists and four rebounds, while Anderson Varejao scored eight points and grabbed a playoff career-high 15 rebounds. Antawn Jamison had a double double in his first playoff game as a Cav (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Shaquille O'Neal was aggressive right from the start and he had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in 25 efficient and productive minutes--an excellent box score line for a 38 year old center who had not played in nearly two months after suffering a thumb injury that required surgery. The Bulls' offense was pretty much the Derrick Rose show: the dynamic second year player produced 28 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds but he also turned the ball over seven times and fired up 28 field goal attempts, a large number for a point guard; Rose shot a solid percentage (13-28, .464) but he only earned two free throw attempts, which means that the Cavs defended without fouling, forcing Rose to work very hard to create shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. Joakim Noah spent most of the game in foul trouble--and he wasted a lot of energy complaining about that; he finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Small forward Luol Deng was Chicago's only other double figure scorer (12 points) but he shot just 5-15 from the field and he had little impact during his 39 minutes of action. Flip Murray pumped in nine points in just 11 minutes, a ratio that he likely could not maintain if given more extensive playing time. The other Bulls were interchangeably invisible for most of the game.

The two big questions about the Cavs coming into this game were how effective O'Neal would be after his long period of inactivity and whether the team in general would be rusty after turning the latter part of the regular season into a second preseason. It did not take long for the Cavs to prove that their fans have no need to worry about either issue--at least not against an opponent as completely outmatched as the Bulls are. Although James missed his first two point blank shot attempts and O'Neal's initial layup attempt also went awry, the Cavs soon asserted their dominance over the Bulls in a variety of ways, taking a 32-18 lead by the end of the first quarter. Jamison got off to a fast start with nine points and five rebounds but O'Neal set the tone with seven points, three rebounds and one assist as the Cavs outscored the Bulls 16-4 in the paint in the first 12 minutes; O'Neal's tremendous presence distorted the Bulls' defense like a badly broken accordion, as the smaller Bulls collapsed into the lane to try to deal with O'Neal and then watched the Cavs use good ball movement to repeatedly create open shots for players left unguarded in the wake of the swath of destruction that O'Neal left.

The Cavs led 56-41 at halftime before scoring 10 points in the first 2:30 of the second half and eventually establishing a 22 point bulge. It seemed like the Cavs could simply name the final score as the Bulls could neither stop the Cavs from scoring nor find a way to get their anemic offense going but then the Cavs began getting sloppy, committing careless turnovers and settling for too many jump shots: in the second half the Cavs shot just 16-39 from the field (.410) after blistering the nets at a .511 clip (23-45) in the first half--and during one extended second half stretch the Cavs shot 9-27 (.333) as the Bulls battled back to trim the lead to 78-71 with 7:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. In theory, that is a quite workable margin for the trailing team with that much time left but the reality--as I mentioned in my series preview--is that the Bulls will struggle to score 85 points against the Cavs so by that stage the Cavs were in effect just a few made baskets away from essentially putting the game out of reach regardless of what the scoreboard said; sure enough, jumpers by Jamison and Williams plus a Varejao dunk increased the Cavs' point total to 86 by the 4:47 mark and then James iced the game by awaking from his fourth quarter slumber (he did not score in the first 9:31 of the final stanza) with a three point play followed by a long jumper at the 1:28 mark that proved to be the final basket of the game for either team.

In his postgame press conference, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown did everything he could to avoid creating bulletin board material for the Bulls and to try to ward off overconfidence by his team; Brown praised the Bulls for being a "good, gritty team that competes real hard" and he emphasized a point that he made before the game (see below in Notes From Courtside) about how well the Bulls "shrink the floor and make the paint look crowded," which is part of the reason that the Cavs took 23 three point shots and experienced a second half offensive drought.

Chicago Coach Vinny Del Negro said that his team committed too many first quarter turnovers and got overpowered on the boards (Cleveland outrebounded Chicago 50-38) but he saw a silver lining because "our guys fought back in it."

O'Neal was not as lively as he has been in some press conferences but with a straight face he offered up some quirkiness/dry humor: first he declared that the exaggerated way that he ambles down court after a particularly impressive dunk is his "Diesel truck with no brakes" move--his message to opponents to get out of the way or get run over; then, O'Neal said that the Cavs are "LeBron Incorporated" while he is just "an unorthodox CEO who has been hired as a consultant." I still think that "Big Bill Cartwright" is a very apt description of O'Neal's current role: a 33 year old Cartwright averaged 9.6 ppg and 6.2 rpg in 28.8 mpg (ranking fourth on the team in scoring and third in rebounding) as the Bulls' starting center in 1990-91 when Michael Jordan won the first of his six NBA titles; this season, O'Neal averaged 12.0 ppg and 6.7 rpg in 23.4 mpg for the Cavs, ranking fourth on the team in both scoring and rebounding.

James and Williams shared the stage for their postgame media availability and a very serious looking James was quieter than usual, often deferring to Williams to answer questions that were addressed to both players. James' most extensive response addressed a question about how deep and talented the Cavs are now; James noted that Jamison is a player for whom opposing teams must specifically create a game plan--something that was not true of Cleveland's previous starting power forwards--and he said that the Cavs can now wear down opposing teams by virtue of the number of skilled big men that they have.

The Cavs are so deep up front that two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas--who is still a quite skilled pick and pop player in addition to being a good rebounder--played just nine minutes, J.J. Hickson--a very productive young player who started 73 games for the league-leading Cavs this year--played just 40 garbage time seconds and Leon Powe--a rotation player for the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics who has battled back from knee surgery--was not even on the active list for this game. Thus, depending on matchups, foul trouble and other considerations, the Cavs could literally send out an entirely different wave of three good big men than the crew that wreaked havoc against the Bulls in game one.

Notes From Courtside:

The Cavs dropped their last four regular season games as Coach Brown "rested" LeBron James and various other key players. In addition to the "rest versus rust" debate there a number of other issues associated with the practice of benching healthy players, including the effect that this has on the league's integrity/competitive balance and the impact that it has on fans who may have only bought one ticket all season long and thus missed the chance to see their favorite player(s) in action (it is easy to say that such fans should have "known better" and thus purchased tickets for earlier games but that option may not have been available for any number of reasons). I am not sure when it became a standard and somewhat accepted policy for healthy players to not play; I may be wrong but it seems to me that when I was a kid some players may have sat out the very last game of the season and/or had their minutes reduced in the final few games but I cannot recall teams deliberately putting an inferior product on the court for several games in a row.

During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him about this: "It seems that in the past more teams played the season out all the way to the end but at some point it became more of a fad or a trend to rest players like you did. When do you think that changed and why do you think that changed?"

Coach Brown replied, "I don't know; I know that when I was in San Antonio (as an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich) from 2000 to 2003 Tim Duncan, at times, or David Robinson, at times, might not have been hurt--this is in the regular season, not just at the end--and Pop would just say, 'Hey, we're going to rest this guy for this game or that game.' So, I've always been around that situation in terms of resting guys whether they are hurt or not hurt. That is since 2000-03. I can't remember when I worked with Bernie (Bickerstaff) or Dan Issel and guys before that if that happened before 2000-03. It might have, it might not have, but I know some of what Popovich has done since I was with him from 2000 on in terms of resting guys."

I then asked, "I was thinking historically in terms of teams that have won 68, 69 or more games; the Bulls won 72 games--those teams had obviously wrapped things up before that last win but they still kept playing their players. Is there something that changed between the 70s, 80s, 90s and now? Or because some of those things happened before you were in the league are you not sure exactly when things might have changed?"

Coach Brown answered, "I got in the league in '92, so I'm not sure what happened before then. I didn't look into it, so I don't know."

For the record, here are some interesting facts and figures about some of the winningest teams in NBA history--none of which rested key players who were not hurt and each of which won the championship:

1) The 1967 Philadelphia 76ers set a league mark with a 68-13 record and won the regular season conference title by eight games but five of their top six players played in all 81 games.

2) Four of the top five players for the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks team that went 66-16 played all 82 games even though the Bucks won the regular season conference title by 15 games.

3) The 1971-72 L.A. Lakers set an all-time wins record--69-13-- that stood for 34 years and won the regular season conference title by six games but four of their top five players played at least 80 games and Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich played in all 82 games.

4) The 1995-96 Bulls went 72-10 and won the East by 12 games but Michael Jordan played in all 82 games and in the final game of the season Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc each played at least 24 minutes in a "meaningless" 103-93 win over Washington.

5) The following year, the Bulls went 69-13 and won the East by eight games but Jordan and Pippen each played in all 82 games and they logged 39 and 38 minutes respectively in a "meaningless" 103-101 loss to the Knicks in the 82nd game.


Before the game, Coach Brown listed two main strengths of the Bulls, a team that he said has "a record (41-41) that doesn't really speak on how good they are (because of the) injuries and distractions that they had this year." Brown said that the Bulls' best attribute offensively is their ability and willingness to repeatedly drive and kick the ball until they get an open shot, while Brown said that defensively the Bulls do an excellent job of "shrinking the floor" and "making that paint look crowded"--i.e., forcing opposing teams to shoot contested jumpers outside of the paint.


The next time you read or hear some foolish person spouting off about Coach Brown's supposedly bizarre player rotations during the regular season, keep this quote from Coach Brown's pregame standup in mind:

"A lot of the things that we do during the regular season--we might not say it to our players or publicly--are for the big picture, which is come playoff time. Because we feel we are a championship caliber team, we make sure we use the regular season to get better for the postseason."

So, when Coach Brown takes out your favorite bench player and inserts a bench player who you do not like this does not mean that you know more about how to allocate minutes than Coach Brown does; sometimes, he uses the regular season as a sort of chemistry lab to test out different combinations of players--and this does not mean that he is not trying to win the game in question but rather that he is trying to ultimately put his team in the best possible position to win in the postseason.

Just minutes after Brown made the above remark, James said that he and Coach Brown talked about this very issue before the season began and they reached an understanding that even if it cost the Cavs some wins early in the season it was worth it for Coach Brown to get a better understanding of which lineups were most effective and which lineups were not as effective. I'd say that Coach Brown's laboratory experiments have worked out pretty well in the past few seasons: best record in the NBA two years in a row, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances (2007, 2009) and one NBA Finals appearance (2007).


Prior to this game, James had averaged 29.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 7.3 apg in 60 career playoff games. No other player in NBA history who has participated in at least 20 playoff games has averaged at least 25 ppg, seven rpg and six apg.


The Cavs have posted the best record in the NBA for the past two years. Since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, only five other teams have had the league's best record for at least two years in a row: the 1980-82 Celtics (tied with the 76ers in 1981), the 1984-86 Celtics, the 1987-88 Lakers, the 1996-98 Bulls (tied with the Jazz in 1998) and the 1998-99 Jazz (tied with the Bulls in 1998). Except for the Jazz, each of those groups won at least one NBA title.

Just leading the Eastern Conference in wins for consecutive seasons is impressive; the only other teams to do that since the merger are the 1980-82 Celtics (tied with the 76ers in 1981), the 1984-88 Celtics, the 1989-90 Pistons, the 1993-94 Knicks (tied with the Hawks in 1994), the 1996-98 Bulls, the 1999-2000 Pacers (tied with Miami in the lockout-shortened 1999 season) and the 2006-07 Pistons. From that elite group only the Knicks, the Pacers and the latter Pistons crew failed to win at least one championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:51 PM



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