As evidenced by last night’s scores, the playoffs are still bananas. Did anyone predict Indiana and OKC getting blown out at home? Speaking of playoffs, Yesterday, Kevin covered the Eastern Conference, in his series of glass half full/glass half empty first round breakdowns. Today I continue the series by tackling the Western Conference. We’ll pretend that Dallas and Memphis wouldn’t be top four teams in the East. Thankfully, (Glass Half Full) the Cavs play in the lesser conference. Frighteningly, (Glass Half Empty) if the NBA ever re-seeds the playoffs to ignore conferences, Cleveland could be hosed.
Editors Note: The following is a dialogue and an amalgamation of chats written over a couple of days between Tom Pestak and Nate Smith. The topic of discussion: Donald Sterling and the L.A. Clippers. As such, it was edited to include topical information, such as Adam Silver’s press conference on Tuesday. Please note that all opinions expressed are solely Tom’s and Nate’s and are independent of opinions of the rest of the CtB staff or our affiliates.
Nate Smith: I know. I know. It seems everyone who’s anyone in the NBA has a take on Donald Sterling’s racists comments to his mistress V. Stiviano and on the lifetime ban imposed by Adam Silver. The tale has it all: a ribald March-December affair, a filthy rich villain getting his comeuppance, an aggrieved fan-base, a jilted wife, and superstar NBA players caught in the middle of it all. Sterling’s comments strip off thin veneer of civility covering the ugly racial tensions just under the surface of our public discourse… It’s no wonder that the story has touched off such a firestorm. But, Tom, as anyone who’s followed the Clippers for any length of time knows, we should have seen this coming. Sterling is a sleazebag, and he has been for years. The New York Times published a litany of his years of offensive behavior, Monday.
In 2009, Sterling paid a $2.725 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department accusing him of systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned.
That racist pattern of action is much more reprehensible than Sterling’s racist comments. Multiple ex-Clippers have commented over the years, on what a D-bag Don Sterling is. Former franchise centerpiece, Elton Brand noted, Monday, that “there have been allegations for many, many years and nothing has been done.” This Deadspin article entitled, “Donald Sterling is a Sack of S**t Part 982,” details Sterling’s verbal abuse of Baron Davis during Baron’s time with the Clips, and the article is from 2010. What’s my point? It’s hard to feel bad for stars like Doc Rivers and Chris Paul who chose to work for a man known to be a racist <insert epithet here>.
There wasn’t much envy for Adam Silver’s position the last couple of days. On Saturday, TMZ dumped the audio version of a 20-pound bag of frozen shrimp that’s been left out in the sun all afternoon into the lap of the still dewey Commissioner of the NBA. Worldwide debate elbowed its way into the start of this year’s (truly, truly remarkable) playoffs as questions shifted from “Will tonight’s Thunder/Grizzlies game go into OT again?” to “Should Chris Paul and the Clippers even play?” in the wake of an ignorant stream of racist comments allegedly made by Clippers owner, Donald Sterling.
It’s “allegedly” no more now as Silver passed his first real public test as Commissioner with flying colors, suspending Sterling “for life,” fining him $2.5 million (“the most allowable” under the league’s Constitution) and calling the NBA’s Board of Governors to force Sterling to sell the team he has owned since 1981.
Momentum: the greased-up pig of professional sports. It’s the one thing losing teams can look to for signs that next year might turn out better. It’s the one thing the Cavaliers have had to play for since being eliminated from the playoff race last week. And it’s the one thing that has, with every swipe, slipped through the Cavs fingers.
Looking past overall team success, though (and, really, why would that matter in a team sport), there are some bright spots – bright, forward-moving, momentum-fueled spots on this roster that should give the team and its fans some crumbles of hope heading into a fourth straight off-season of lose … lottery… repeat.
So, who in this organization is good at putting one foot firmly in front of the other and who is standing in place?
In the words of Magnum P.I., I know what you’re thinking: “Nate is nuts.” Kyrie Irving is a 21-year-old two time All-Atar who was just the NBA All-Star Game MVP, was the No. 1 pick of the draft and rookie of the year in 2012. In the NBA, players like that are untouchable. But the dirty little secret of this Cleveland playoff push is that the Cavs may play better without Kyrie, and at the very least, they don’t play any worse. I’m actually worried about the Cavs missing the playoffs if Irving comes back. Am I a hoops blasphemer?
It’s been a strange week in Believeland. Saturday, at Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ retirement celebration, a jubilant reunion of players and figures from the Cavaliers teams of the late aughts occurred at the Q. Shortly after, Jason Lloyd, penned a piece about how, “It was all the intricate planning of the former general manager, who was the architect for this ceremony and James’ role in it months ago.” The plan? “Perhaps the first gigantic step toward James’ return to this franchise.” But in light of Chris Grant’s firing and the Cavs instability, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst posted about how the “chances he [James] suits up for Cavs again fading fast.” This comes a couple weeks after Windhorst’s an article entitled, Could the Cleveland Cavaliers lose Kyrie Irving? Forgive my diction. I’ve been hooked on True Detective and my wife has been binge watching The Tudors while I write. But, it’s enough to make my head spin, these sordid dramas of American royalty: billionaires and their exchequers trying to control the lives of millionaires. It all seems so comically overwrought
Really? That was the plan? Lure James back with a jersey retirement ceremony? God, forgive me for ever doubting Chris Grant’s genius. He’s clearly a Machiavelli in a league full of Gerald Fords. Oy. Way to put a damper on a lovely ceremony.
Seriously, if LeBron James wants to come back to Cleveland, he should come back. If Kyrie Irving wants to go play somewhere else, he should go do it, and the Cavs should find a way to make that happen. This is America, not Tudor England. One should not be required to say and do one thing, and desire another. Life is too short to waste it wading through the manure produced from all these ridiculous machinations. So this summer, when the opportunity presents itself, the team and the city should simply ask, “do you want to be here?” Of course, we and the Cavs should tout our virtues, first, and do our best to make the team and the city a fulfilling to play for, but after those efforts, the question should be simple. And once a decision is reached, everyone should move on with a modicum of expedience and dignity. Until then, please, just play basketball. I’d like to watch some good games without having to spend each possession thinking about the playoffs, the summer, the futures of all the principals, and the next four years. Life is too short. Enjoy its moments.
The Cavs began the 2004-2005 NBA season without Carlos Boozer, and with serious questions in the backcourt. They lost their first 3 games before finally defeating the (winless) Hawks. Phoenix strutted into Cleveland having won their 1st 4 games by an average of 23 points. This was the beginning of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns and they were devastating. And yet, the Cavs, behind a raucous home crowd, hung on until halftime. At some point in the 3rd quarter, Steven Hunter scored 10 billion points in about 7 seconds. It was so devastating I still vividly remember Steven Hunter. I had to look up the box score to verify my nightmares. Actually, Hunter scored 6 points (mostly on dunks if I recall) in just under 2 minutes, so, mild exaggeration, but the Suns built a seemingly insurmountable lead heading into the 4th: 85-66. But the Cavs, somehow, slowed the juggernaut offense and found a way to cut the lead to 8 with 2 minutes remaining. After Steve Nash hit 2 free throws to give the Suns a 3 point lead with 6 seconds left, this happened.
It was such a huge shot for a team struggling with its identity. In overtime, the Cavs snowballed, helped by two more buckets from Big Z. It was a dramatic momentum change for the team. They won 7 of their next 8 games, and Big Z was huge in those games as well, as this was really the prime of his career.
Around this time, it really started to appear that the Cavs were going to get back to the playoffs for the first time in years. They were 30-21, and the inside/outside punch of Z and LeBron was making up for some deficiencies elsewhere. Z averaged more than 22 and 10 (on 50% shooting) in the month of February, 2005. Maybe it was his on-court demeanor, or his soft-spoken humility, but for whatever reason, some people dismissed Z as not a “real” big man, arguing that he was too much of a finesse player. And then, he capped off an all-star month with a Chamberlain-esque performance against rival Chicago. He completely dominated the Bulls’ frontline of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. Unable to double Z in the post, for fear of LeBron, the Bulls were left with no recourse but to foul. And foul they did. Big Z went to the line 19 times. He made 17 of those, and kept the Bulls on their heels by mixing in a healthy diet of mid-range pops. He also showed the Bulls exactly what they could do with their “weak stuff”, swatting 7 shots. After the game, LeBron had this to say: “We’re the two All-Stars on the team, and we’re All-Stars for a reason. We showed why tonight.” The Cavaliers were trending upward, with their two all-stars continuing to get better and better. Management was under pressure to surround them with more talent in the wake of the Boozer incident. Nothing else was sticking, and they were willing to try anything. Here’s another post-game quote from that same game: “I’m dialing more than it’s ringing,” said Paxson, who won’t make a deal that could cut into the $20 million in salary cap space the club will have this summer to spend on free agents. “We’ll listen to anything we think could make us better, but I would not like to hurt potential flexibility.” That was from Jim Paxson. Literally minutes after that quote was printed, the Cavs dealt a 1st round draft pick for Jiri Welsch. Clearly, this move triggered the curse of Rocky Calovito to be summoned. The Cavs lost six straight games, limped back into the lottery, and Welsch was cut after 16 games featuring just 12 made field goals on 51 attempts. It was a disappointing end, and I wonder how far the Cavs could have gone in the playoffs that season with Carlos Boozer. It may be hard to remember this version of Z, the dominant big-man and all-star, since he was at his best when the Cavaliers weren’t very good. But the last time a true, low-post threat and rim-protecting center suited up in a Cleveland jersey, it was the one that’s being retired today. This game was the high water mark.
Before the Cavs’ rivalry with the Celtics materialized, there was the arguably more violent, more visceral showdowns with the Detroit Pistons. The Cavaliers demonstrated their tenacity in 2006, coming back from a loud blowout in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals and a heartbreaking loss in Game 2 to grind out 3 straight wins against the Pistons before falling in 7 games. The much-anticipated rematch in 2007 began much differently than the previous season. There would be no one-sided bullying, no blowouts, and no backing down. Both teams got in the trenches and fought. In game 1, the Cavaliers lead for most of the game, thanks to a herculean effort from Big Z. He led the Cavs in scoring and rebounding (22 and 13) and scored 8 straight points in crunch time to keep pace with a devastating parade of big shots by the Pistons. Six of those 8 points put the Cavs ahead by 1, in a half-court slugfest where every free throw’s arc cut through an air of palpable intensity. Ultimately, Chauncey Buh buh buh Billups drained one of his big shots, and the Pistons won the battle. However, with each passing quarter, you got the sense that the Cavs were so close to breaking through. And of course, they did. They won the war, en route to their first (and only) NBA Finals appearance. Zydrunas was a key player during this series. He shot 50% from the field, rebounded well, and averaged 13 and 9 (which doesn’t sound that impressive but neither team averaged even 90 points per game in the series). Game 1 was where he really left his mark. His play, especially down the stretch demonstrated that, unlike in 2006, the Cavs weren’t going to beat themselves this time around. Z made clutch shot after clutch shot in the 4th quarter of game 1, setting the tone for the rest of the series, which has gone down in history as one of the top 3 Cavalier playoff series of all time. (Miracle at Richfield and Larry Bird’s Final Season)
The final game of the 2nd series of the highly-entertaining rivalry between the Cavs and the Wizards was one of Z’s finest playoff games. You could tell the Cavs were somewhat disinterested during this series. They had already proven to be the superior team and it was hard to get worked up against a Wizards team that was missing its two best players, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas. Still, or maybe because of that attitude, the Cavs found themselves in dogfights in the last 3 games, winning all of them by less than 8 points. In the closeout game, the Wizards never let the Cavs get any momentum. They lead up until the start of the 4th quarter, when Z and the boys decided to put their collective foot on the gas. Z had 10 points in the 4th quarter, capping off a 20 point, 19 rebound effort. After the game, LeBron was quoted as saying: “We can’t win if these guys don’t play well, Z and Larry,” James said. “Simple as that. I need them every game to be a factor.” Z was the biggest factor that night, propelling the Cavs along their march towards the Finals that spring.
Despite having a feathery-soft touch, not only around the hoop but at the free throw line and on deep jumpers, Z was never much of a 3 point shooter. And that is an understatement. He made exactly 5 threes in his first 18,860 minutes. That’s Five (one two three four five) in Eighteen Thousand Eight-Hundred and Sixty (don’t count). But as the Cavaliers offense continued to evolve, Z spent less time posting up and more time flaring along the baseline, providing a nice safety valve for anyone whose dribble drive penetration was cut off.
On the left is Zs shooting zones from 2005, on the right is 2009.
And beginning in the 2008-2009 campaign, the corner 3 became a new tool in Z’s arsenal. He made 26/62 3s between 2008-2010, good for 42%. Probably the best remembered example of stretch-5 Z was an overtime game with Sacramento right before Christmas. Z hit three 3s in 2 minutes, all from the same spot, as the Cavs blanked the Kings 13-0 in overtime. It was Z’s NBA Jam moment of the season, and it gave the Cavs the boost they needed to overcome a scrappy road opponent. I remember being home for Christmas and absolutely losing it when he hit those 3s. It felt weird that this was my 2nd or 3rd memory of Z, since it happened in a regular season game in December, but back then every game was monumental. Enjoy this video. I had tons of fun listening to Fred and AC.
Z goes Coast to Coast
I can remember two separate incidents where Z led a fast break. Both are fun to watch. The first appears in this video. (Thanks to FtS commenter RoyistheBoy for finding the video.)
A young, incredibly spry Z accelerates up the court before going behind the back to avoid an incoming defender. It was a guard move by a man that stands 7’3″. It makes me wonder if Z played a decade too soon. He had troubles from time to time with the Shaqs and Yaos of the world, and guys like that are an endangered species today. He also wasn’t as much a power player on offense as a highly skilled big, and yet he was fighting in the trenches for the vast majority of his career.
The second might be a bit embarrassing to Big Z, but it was fun to watch and a smart basketball play. During game 3 of the 2009 sweep of the Pistons, Z led a fast break and found himself still with the ball even as he approached the foul line. He picked up his dribble, took two steps, and must have thought “How has LeBron not passed into my peripheral vision!?” So instead of forcing a floater from the key he turned around in the air and flipped an awkward pass to LeBron who finished.
It was the right play, something Z knew from years of playing with the greatest finisher in the history of the NBA. Z always had a soft touch as demonstrated by both of these highlights. Somewhat serendipitously, the way I found the second video was by trying to determine the game in that series from which it occurred. That brought me to a Bill Livingston article where he happened to draw a link between the two plays as well!
I was lucky enough to attend this game with my wife (fiancé at the time). It was her first (and only) NBA game and the last Cavs game I have seen in person. This game meant many things to many people and not everyone understood buyout rules and other such things to the extent that I did at the time. I never really worried that Z wouldn’t come back, and the threat that the Wizards wouldn’t give him a buyout seemed far fetched. But many fans did, so this game was a huge sigh of relief. For me, it was really just another indication of Z’s high character. He did everything the organization asked of him and never showed any ill will when they jerked him around. This was our chance as a city to reward Z for his loyalty. Unlike tonight, when Z will be showered with cheers and adulation during a disappointing season where any positive distraction is a welcome reprieve, Z’s homecoming happened during one of the most exciting times in the history of the franchise. And yet, everything was pushed aside that day, as we vanquished our vocal chords during warm ups at the first sight of Z in Cavalier garb. It was an unbelievable moment, and a very touching example of the power of the relationship between professional athletes and the people they represent.
Of course, these are just a small handful of memories. Zydrunas is the Cavaliers’ all-time leader in games played. What are your fondest memories of Z?
And it’s not as if I disagree with anything in the article, per se. Mr. Windhorst is undoubtedly one of the most respected NBA writers in the country, and even more undoubtedly, his knowledge of the inner workings of the Cavaliers and Kyrie Inc. surpasses ours. But the article raises three important questions. Why now? Why us? And is this even news?
Last Thursday, the Cavs were riding high on a six game winning streak. Today, the Cavs have lost two straight and sit five games out of a playoff spot with the toughest remaining schedule in the league looming ahead. Last Thursday, the Cavs controlled four picks inside the top forty five of the deepest draft in NBA history. Today, they have Spencer Hawes, two remaining draft picks, and a five percent chance of making the playoffs.
Last Sunday, Kyrie Irving put on a dazzling display of scoring and passing to become the second-youngest player in NBA history to be named MVP of the NBA All-Star Game. In seeing Irving explode for 31 points and 14 assists, Cavs fans finally got to enjoy a glimpse of the Irving they thought they’d see this year: a dynamic and efficient scorer who is also able to get his teammates theirs.
Now, of course, the All-Star Game bears only a passing resemblance to even the least defensively engaged regular season game, but it’s difficult to see the Cavaliers’ star have so much success as a distributor and not try to find ways to bottle even the tiniest flicker of that lighting as the games that count start back up again this week. For Irving to reach his potential as a player, he must do a better job getting his teammates involved. The more he does so, the less predictable any given Cavs possession will be and, arguably, the better the looks Irving will find for himself, as well.
Nate Smith is an Associate Editor. He grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and moved to NE Ohio in 2000. He adopted the Cavs in 2003 and graduated from Kent State in 2009 with a BA in English. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @oldseaminer on Twitter.
Tom Pestak is an Associate Editor. He's from the west side of Cleveland and lives and (mostly) dies by the success and (mostly) failures of his beloved teams. You can watch his fanaticism during Cavs games @tompestak.
Robert Attenweiler is a Staff Writer. Originally from OH, he's long made his home in NYC where he writes plays and screenplays (www.disgracedproductions.com) some of which end up being about Ohio, basketball or both. He has also written for The Classical and the blog Raising the Cadavalier. You can contact him at email@example.com or @cadavalier.
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