Archive for May, 2009

Heads-Up: 5 EST Chat w/ Ben Q. Rock of Third Quarter Collapse @6 EST or earlier

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Ben Q. Rock, of the fantastic and INAPPROPRIATELY NAMED Magic Blog Third Quarter Collapse, is going to come by for a chat this afternoon. I should be able to make it through. I’m trying to get the time a little earlier because I’m going to Staples tonight to cover the WCF for SLAM, so check in starting around 5-5:30 PM EST to see if anything’s going, but by 6EST there will definitely be some chatting happening. Be nice, and see all of you then.

UPDATE: 5:00 EST is the tentative start time.

Recap: (8) The Party’s Over.

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

 

Overview: Too painful to do.

I wanted it all to stop. For 8 days, all we’ve been hearing about is how great this team is, how LeBron’s coming up against Jordan, how the argument for best player alive is over, how the Cavs have a yellow-brick road to the finals and the championship. And it was too soon. All it does is make this more painful. I love it, but only after we’ve won a ring. 

Of all the painful things in this game, the worst by far is this feeling: it doesn’t count. LeBron James, the best player alive and our savior, had what may well have been the best game of his career. I will go there. It’s not just that he posted a playoff-career high 49 points on a ridiculous 70% shooting percentage against the league’s best defense in the regular season, with 6 boards, 8 assists, 2 steals, and three crushing blocks to go along with it. It’s the way he did it. His bread-and-butter drives to the rim weren’t even there in the first half. There were beautiful post-ups. Open threes over an unsuspecting defense. Getting out on the break. Breaking down the high double-traps early with beautiful passes to find cutters. That stretch in the 2nd and 3rd quarters where he simply could not miss a midrange jumper. If the Cavs could’ve pulled this one out, we’d get to mythologize this game and salivate over what we just saw for the next full day, and this would’ve gone into the record books as one of the truly amazing games of his career, which is to say one of the most amazing games of any career. 

But history is the propaganda of the victors, and the fact the Cavs came up one measly point short means this is a game that should be forgotten. Anderson Varejao bites on a rocker-step fake from Rashard Lewis and gives up a three-pointer on a man he was in position to run off of the three, and Delonte West misses an open look from the short-corner, and all of a sudden we’re forced to somehow find fault, to look at those three free throws LeBron missed in the fourth, to say that he maybe should’ve pulled up for the jumper instead of letting the double-team come and letting the ball get forced from his hands. It’s not fair. But that’s basketball, and life. This is one of the best games I’ve ever seen played by an individual. But for all history cares, he might’ve well gone 0-30. Part of me wishes he had. 

If we’d won, I’d probably do a full breakdown of just how amazing LeBron was in this game. But it just all feels like a moot point. Let’s talk about everything else. 

Good things: Andy Varejao. Having him make those back-cuts was a great way to break down Dwight cheating onto LeBron and forcing him to stay out of the paint, and it really helped that first-quarter run.

The big culprit in this game was Delonte and Mo just not making those open shots. Mo was 1-7 on threes that weren’t 75-foot buzzer-beaters (how big did those three points end up being?), and those are shots you just have to make. Delonte wasn’t much better, going 3-8 from three and only 1-5 from two-point range. We need backcourt scoring to win if it’s going to be an offensive game. It’s that simple. 

Defensively, we were just not sharp. I’m fine with what happened in the first half, with the Cavs shutting down the three and letting Dwight get his in single-coverage situations. But in the second, penetration started happening, we didn’t get a hand in the face on every three, and guys got free for open looks. You can bet that MB is going to be harping defense all day tomorrow. We fouled too much and put them on the line. 

Just by the way, Third Quarter Collapse my ass. 

This is where I’m supposed to be calming about what this all means, because it’s only the first game and all. This one is bad. It’s about as bad as a first game gets. We’ve lost some of our swagger at home. Game 2 almost becomes must-win. In close games, you either get it or you don’t. We didn’t tonight, and we’ve lost a 50-50 game. We now have to beat an elite team on the road, something we haven’t shown we can do. We wasted an absolutely phenominal performance from LeBron James. But you should be able to win on the road if you’re a championship team, and some things will even out; you can’t count on LeBron (or anybody) being that good for the rest of the series, but Mo and Delonte should get better and Rashard and Dwight should lose some of their fire. 

Really, it’s more important to chill out on a Macro level. In the fourth quarter, I was literally in physical pain. My heart rate was so bad I thought I was going into cardiac arrest. I was audibly hyperventilating. Even before the game was over, I was thinking: I’m not sure that I can do this anymore. This hurts. Bad. Some of it is “playoff basketball” and the fun of sports, but this just isn’t healthy. This team can lose. They are humans. They could well win on the road. 

According to the comprehensive source Two for the Money, gambling addicts keep gambling because they need to feel that they’re still alive  after they’ve lost all their money. On a much smaller scale, that’s the only thing approaching a positive I can take away from this. We lost. At home. In a close game. With LeBron rolling. But we’re only down a game. And there’s still a lot of series left. And my life is, if I can chill for a second and try and get out of my own head for a second, relatively the same as it would be if Delonte had made that shot. It sucks because this team especially, and LeBron, feels like we need validation, a championship on a macro level to bless the team and all it’s fans faith as worthy and a win tonight for LeBron’s performance to be truly great. But the true fans know both things are true regardless, and…God, I just want to win on Friday and for it to happen right now.

Preview Chat w/ Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

First things first: Make sure to check out both me and Zach on this morning’s NBA Today Podcast. Then watch us argue with our keyboards, the real us.

Announcement: Live-Chat @3:30 EST w/ Zach McCann

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Team Foosball
Pretty straightforward: Zach McCann of Orlando Magic Daily is going to come by for a preview chat at 3:30 EST today, May 19th. It’ll be a Cover It Live, so come by, sit back, ask questions, and be nice to our guest. See you then.

So it’s the Magic-preview, part 1: looking at the season series

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

 

Alrighty, then. I’ll try to get some Magic Illuminati around here to do a proper preview sometime in the next two days, but here’s my first crack at one:

First things first, let’s talk a little bit about Boston. I have a lot of respect for what that team did this postseason. (By the way, can we stop calling them our “rivals?” Every team that beats you in a playoff series and/or happens to be good at the same time as your team is doesn’t automatically become your rival. The only team I get more pumped up to play regardless of the implications of the game are the Wizards, and look how much has had to happen to create bad blood there. Laker fans are evil and I get more pumped up to play them, but that’s not really a rivalry, either.)

There’s not a lot of teams who could compete hard in 14 grueling playoff games coming off a championship season with a veteran team without their best player. There was no quit in that team, and they weren’t afraid to come up big in the clutch and won more than a few games that they had no business winning, and we got a “breakout” playoffs from Rajon Rondo, who’s going to be a reason to watch the NBA for a long time. 

I know a lot of Cavs fans wanted the Celtics, because they’re the more battered of the two teams and it would be a chance to avenge last year’s defeat and would have pretty much put the entire roster into destroy mode, but that team would have been far from an easy out-they play tough defense, have three guys who can take over offensively, and that crowd would have been absolutely bananas. 

Just before I get to anything else: the Boston crowd was CLEARLY louder and more energetic with their team trailing almost the entire game than the LA crowd was with the Lakers leading wire-to-wire. 

So, The Magic.

Part 1: What We Can Learn Or Disregard From the Season Series

The season series went along home-court advantage lines, with the Magic taking both games in Orlando by double-digits and the Cavs pulling off a fourth-quarter comeback aided by a LeBron 28-footer, two clutch free throws, and a controversial three-second call in the final minute to pull out a nailbiter at the Q. While regular-season series are far from perfect indicators of how things are going to go in the playoffs (see: the Cavs sweeping their regular season series with the Spurs in 2007), sometimes you can pick up on things that might manifest themselves in the playoffs or things that might have made the game an abberation. Let’s go through it:

Game 1: Cavaliers@Magic, January 29th

Here’s my recap at the time. (BTW-I have never regretted giving my recaps “kooky” sub-titles until right now)

Things that could repeat themselves:

Howard was absolutely destroying whoever the Cavaliers had on him when they tried single-coverage-people have been calling out his individual post play, and rightfully so to an extent, after the Celtics series. But remember that Perk is one of the best individual post defenders in the league, and not everyone can get Dwight that far away from the basket for his hook shots. Z doesn’t have anywhere near the lateral quickness to keep up with Dwight when he pulls a little Malone move and faces up or gives a quick drop-step or spin, Andy will get bullied, and Ben might not have enough in his knees to keep up. Dwight’s offensive prowess will be discussed at length over the next couple of days, but remember that he’s very capable of being an individual offensive force.

LeBron put up a 23/8/8 in this game, but it was one of his worst scoring games of the year. He needed 27 shots to get his 23 points, only got to the line three times, went 3-13 from outside of the paint, and was forced into taking quite a few slop shots when he tried to get to the rim but couldn’t quite get the corner.

A huge problem in all the playoff series we’ve lost has been LeBron meeting a wall in the paint when he tries to drive and being unable to deal with it-this was the best defensive team in the league in the regular season, and Dwight is the best help-side defender in the league. Whether he can do what KG, Rasheed, and Duncan did in the Cavs’ three previous playoff losses is probably the storyline to watch from an Xs-and-Os standpoint in this series.

Neither Turkoglu or Rashard was really able to get it going in this game, as the two combined for 38 points on 38 shots. 

The scaries thing about this game was that the Cavs lost fairly handily without any real red lights in the typical “variables”-they shot 7-14 from three against 11-31 from the Magic, they turned it over 6 times to the Magic’s 11, and shot 20 free throws to the Magic’s 18. This was really just the Magic fully out-executing the Cavaliers at both ends of the floor, which is a bad harbinger.

Things that probably won’t repeat themselves:

Most importantly, this was a game both Z and Delonte were injured for, which will make an absolutely gigantic difference, and Jameer went for 18 points on 11 shots. And there was no Joe Smith.  So those are things that make this game hugely different.

Mitigating circumstances: Hickson and Wally both had great games, combining for 27 points on 15 shots, and neither Gortat or Redick were in the lineup for the Magic. So those are things on both sides that bode well for the Magic in terms of who’ll be playing. 

Not only did LeBron have a terrible game, but Mo went 4-15 from the field. Mo will probably have his bad offensive games in this series, and LeBron actually might as well, but it’s unlikely both will be so off on the same night again, especially with Rafer Alston checking Mo instead of Jameer. 

Game 2: Magic @ Cavs, March 17th

My original recap for the game is here

Things could repeat themselves:

The law of averages more or less went to work on the teams’ two best players in this game-LeBron had maybe his best game of the year, getting to the line 5 times, drilling 4 of 7 threes, getting to the rack, absolutely taking over during crunch-time, and finishing with a 47/12/8 and getting 4 steals to boot. Even so, the Magic were able to entice LeBron into shooting 19 jumpers out of his 27 field goal attempts, which is a little higher than his normal proportion of jumpers, so he wasn’t quite doing whatever he wanted offensively even in this game. When LeBron is drilling his jumpers, he’s unstoppable. This we already knew. 

Meanwhile, Dwight came back down to earth; while he was great defensively and on the boards, he finished with 13 points on only 8 shots, which is not the type of effort that you expect from an MVP candidate, and was completely invisible down the stretch. 

Delonte and Z were back, but neither did that well, with each finishing with 8 points and 10 shots. Mo was also off, with 21 points on 20 shots and only three assists. 

Turk and Rashad again failed to hurt us, with 22 points on 27 shots. 

Courtney Lee and Alston were drilling everything they looked at, on the other hand, getting 42 points on 29 shots. 

No Redick again, and Gortat didn’t get a point in his 9 minutes. When did Gortat start looking so good?

Things that probably won’t happen again:

Nothing shocking except for some law-of-averages stuff; Rashard and Hedo are better than they played, and Lee and Alston are worse, and LeBron can’t do that every game, while Dwight will generally make more of an offensive impact. 

Game 3: Cavs @Magic, April 3rd

My original recap is here

Things that could repeat themselves:

Seeing as to how we got completely blown out in this game, you’d hope this section will be short, right? The good news is that this was such a thorough blowout it almost can’t be taken seriously; there’s just no way this team is going to get manhandled that badly if they come with playoff intensity, and this was a physically and mentally worn team after a gritty 13-game win streak followed by a huge letdown loss against the Wizards. 

More of LeBron not really getting to the rim as much as he wanted: only 3 of his 20 attempts from the field were layups or dunks, although he did shoot 10 free throws and it’s understandable he might have started trying for home runs a little with the team down.

More of Delonte and Z failing to show up: 15 points on 17 shots combined. 

Mo also not there: Only 10 points and 2 assists. 

Rashard and Hedo found there strokes in this game, too.

Pretty much everyone on the Cavs played badly and everyone on the Magic played well. 

This was pretty much the middle ground for Dwight offensively: 20 points on 13 shots and 8 free throws. 

Overall Findings:

Mo, Delonte, and Z never really got it going in any of the games. Delonte and Z didn’t really get their post-injury swaggers back until quite late in the year and were out for the first one, so hopefully that’ll ultimately be a point in the Cavs’ favor in the actual series. Mo hasn’t really been all that consistent in these playoffs, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can step it up in this series. 

This team did have success with keeping LeBron from getting the looks he wants, but LBJ has been on another level in these playoffs and is generally not a guy you want to bet anything against right now. Even still, this is probably the defense most capable of really challenging him, so it’ll be fascinating to see him and Howard meeting at the rim in an “unstoppable force/immovable object” type of way. 

Hedo and Rashard pretty much matched up with what I thought: they’ll have a big game or two, but I don’t expect them to really kill us with the defenders we can match up on them. 

Dwight was fully Goldilocks offensively: one good game, one bad game, one in the middle. We’ll discuss his offense much more in the coming days. 

Alright, have at it with your opinions below: we’ll hopefully have all of you fully prepared for the series over the next couple of days. Get excited, everyone.

Kobe/LeBron Day: Director’s Cut

Friday, May 15th, 2009

 

Thing Number One:

I’m up on SLAM today with a column I’m pretty proud of about, of all people, Kobe Bean Bryant. It drives home one of my main themes about Kobe and sports in general, and does it with a fair bit of panache and the benefit of good timing. I suggest you look it up. As fate would have it, probably two of the best columns I’ve written for SLAM have been about Kobe. Oh, twisted fate.

Thing Number 2:

Lest you doubt my allegiance, TrueHoop has excerpts from our giant Kobe/LeBron debate today, and while I like the stuff of mine that made the final cut (there were a LOT of words in that email chain), I sent a giant manifesto, and will publish the director’s cut of that manifesto here, now. The Caveat: playing into what the first piece said, this isn’t my favorite time to be talking about this stuff: what happens over the next few weeks with these two guys is going to be as important in determining how we judge these guys than anything that’s happened in years prior. That said, my thoughts on the two at this current time (I replied to “Josh” who is Josh Tucker of Respect Kobe/Silver Screen and Roll in the manifesto-if context is needed for these things, let me know in the comments. Also, sorry the formatting sucks-when I write posts in Gmail and try to post them, the spacing gets destroyed and this is the best I can fix it.):

1. Can we put a moratorium on “okay, now LeBron is worthy of my accolades”-type sentiments that come out every year? 
He broke out when he posted 26/5/9 in his first NBA game as an 18-year old, and went on to win Rookie of The Year.

He broke out when he upped his averages by 7 points and 2 rebounds and assists in his sophomore year while raising his FG% by 5 and his 3PT% by 6, and SI proclaimed him the best 19-year old ever.

He broke out again when he upped his scoring average by another 4 points, averaged 31.4 points per game as a 21-year old, and won an amazing series with two game-winners and a game-winning hockey assist, then took a vastly superior Pistons team to seven games.

Then he beat the Pistons with one of the great performances in playoff teams and took a rag-tag team to the NBA finals.

Then he upped his regular season averages across the board again, posted his career-high (to that point) PER, and took the eventual champions to the final minutes of a game 7.

But it turns out, from what we’re hearing, that LeBron really broke out and found a sense of purpose when he improved his free throw shooting and defense and got a supporting crew capable of running an actual offense and spreading the floor. Just because LeBron got better doesn’t mean he wasn’t already amazing or even the best player in basketball before, and we shouldn’t discount previous achievements to try and build up what the guy is doing now.

Look, this goes for Kobe just as much as it goes for LeBron-barring a championship, which is eminently possible for Kobe, the achievement of his people are going to remember his his 35 PPG/ 81 point-game season, but last season everyone was talking themselves into the greatness of the “New Kobe,” saying he’d matured in some way to deserve the MVP other than he got competent teammates and voters. (By the way: LeBron deserved the MVP that year, which nobody remembers; he averaged 4 less points but two more assists, had better percentages, and won more games with more or less equally incompetent teammates. And he did actually finish 2nd in the voting. It drives me crazy that nobody remembers this.) 

And Josh just made the point that the “offensive arsenal” that Kobe acquired later on in his career makes him the best player because it allows him to be effective against elite playoff defenses-last I checked, he won three rings pre-arsenal and has two first-round exits and two finals losses post-arsenal. The arsenal didn’t make him worthy of playoff success. He was great before he developed it to the extent it is now. He got better. It wasn’t a magical moment of clarity. 

2. If you’re going to try and compare these guys with any sort of advanced statistical analysis, LeBron’s just going to blow Kobe away. That’s a given, and I think everyone acknowledges it-Kobe’s PER this year, when he finished 2nd in the MVP race and was probably two wins away from making a real run at the award, was slightly lower than LeBron’s in 2006-07, his worst regular season other than his rookie year. It’s not just PER either, win shares, +/- rating, you name it-for years, pretty much any way people have come up with to use numbers to distill a basketball player’s value, LeBron James has been at or right at the top. That’s not ESPN hype-that’s numbers who don’t care that this is maybe the most branded athlete in America and the most-hyped player of all time. It’s really not even worth going into. 

3. Without actual evidence, we get a series of pre-approved myths for why Kobe is as good or better than LeBron. We’ll go through the greatest hits, a lot of which have been mentioned above:

“You can have LeBron James all through the game, but when the game is on the line/you have time to run one play/the pressure is on, I want Kobe and his assassin’s mentality/killer instinct”

Now, from what I can tell, this mainly comes from the fact Kobe wears more jewelery than LeBron does, which is understandable; when it’s all said and done and we’re comparing LeBron and Kobe’s careers, if the ring count is still as it stands now, it’s going to be hard to put LeBron over Kobe. 

But the last of those championships came seven years ago. Since then, he’s lost two NBA finals while playing for the prohibitive favorite both times. Since Shaq left, he’s been bounced in the first round twice, infamously going passive for the entire second half of a game seven and going 13-33 from the field in the elimination game the next year. Last year, Kobe went back to the finals (and got further in the playoffs than LeBron for the first time LeBron’s rookie year), where “the ultimate closer” allowed the greatest NBA finals comeback of all time on his home floor while he went 6-19 from the floor. 

Look, I’m not saying these things to bag on Kobe’s crunch-time prowess, or lack thereof. But we have this Calvinistic ideal of who is and isn’t clutch, that when you prove your mettle in a big situation, as Kobe did in those championship runs, you have revealed a moral fiber and character that will always rear its head in pressure situations and allow the chosen players to rise while the weak stumble. Again, this is Jordan looming over everything: he won those six championships (essentially) in a row, so we never saw him lose another game for the ultimate stakes. And when we tried to anoit Kobe as another Jordan, we assumed he’d do the same thing. It’s just not true. He has lost big games. Some were even his fault. These things happen to everyone. Paul Pierce, the clutch hero of the playoffs last year, shanked what could have been game-winning free throws in the first round this year. Dywane Wade had the greatest NBA Finals performance, making impossible clutch plays one after another, and hasn’t won a playoff series since. Wilt would’ve beat Bill Russell in a finals if Frank Selvy made a wide-open 15-foot shot, his specialty. The best playoff closer of all time blew a World Series Game 7 and a 3-0 series lead in the ALCS. Does that mean we were wrong about Mariano Rivera’s moral character all along? No. It just means the ball didn’t cut as much as he wanted it to. 

Oh, and it’s almost incidental, but the Cavs and LeBron were absolutely phenomenal in close-games this season, only losing two games by three points or less when LeBron played (both on controversial referee calls) and were one of the best “crunch-time” teams in history over the regular season last year. And they do actually track how well players perform in “clutch” situations, as well as the guys taking the last shot of a game . LeBron’s better at both. 

Myth #2: “All LeBron can really do consistently is dunk and get layups; Kobe’s got a complete offensive game and thus cannot be stopped, even by elite defenses”
It is true that LeBron’s playoff exits have come against teams with forwards strong and quick enough to set up a “wall” on the paint and force LeBron to beat them from outside, and the black mark on his career resume up to this point is his inability to score efficiently against elite defenses in the playoffs. And it’s true that Kobe, with most of his offense coming from the perimeter, gets his points in a more defense-independent manner. 
However, one should remember that in those series, LeBron has been surrounded by absolutely zero offensive talent; the Cavs played very, very, ugly in the playoffs, keeping the game as slow as possible, only having LeBron able to make plays on the floor, and featuring absolutely zero ball movement. 
But to imply, as Josh did by saying that “taking away the best part of LeBron’s game is very difficult but not impossible” that it is literally impossible for an elite defense to stop Kobe Bryant is ridiculous. Kobe went 9-26, 6-19, 11-23, and 7-22 in Los Angeles’ four losses against Boston, and that’s with Kobe surrounded by offensive firepower that had LA coming into the series as one of the best offensive teams of all time. On paper, being able to go over the top on a sagging defense and drive by an aggressive one at will with equally high proficiency would be unstoppable. But because basketball isn’t played on paper, and Kobe is a human being, Kobe is stoppable, and does, in fact, get stopped, like he did last night. If you don’t let him get deep post catches, contest his shots, and step up when helping instead of giving him space around the free-throw line extended, he’s going to have trouble. Of course it won’t stop him every time, but nobody’s impossible to stop or slow down. Here’s the best way I can sum up what’s happening:
(Three passengers are bobbing up and down in a freezing ocean, wearing life jackets and clinging to debris. A coast guard ship comes over.)
1800s-era Kobe Fan on the Coast Guard Ship: What happened here?

Passengers: The ship we were on sank. Thank God you came.

Kobe Fan: What was the ship called?

Passengers: The Titanic.

Kobe Fan: That’s impossible. That ship’s unsinkable.

Passengers: Well, it sunk. It hit an iceberg and it sunk.
Kobe Fan: If the hull was breached, the compartment would’ve been walled off and sealed the water in, keeping the boat from sinking.
Passengers: Look, the flaming wreckage is right over there. See the giant, sinking boat on fire?
Kobe Fan: You guys just don’t understand boats, do you? 

Furthermore, pretending that LeBron predicating his game on driving to the basket while Kobe prefers to go with mid-range shots as some sort of stylistic difference is just wrong. Going to the basket is, universally, the way to get efficient baskets, followed by shooting threes. Midrange jumpers are the easiest shots to get, but the trade-off is that they’re a victory for the defense over time-not one player in the league shot better than 50% on midrange jumpers this season. Kobe’s percentage on mid-range jumpers was 44% this season, one of the better marks in the league. Keep in mind that mid-range shots rarely produce free throws or offensive rebounds. The worst offensive team in the league, the Clippers, had a TS% of 52%. So if your offense were to be entirely Kobe Bryant shooting mid-range jump shots, you would have the worst offense in the league by a very wide margin. 

The mid-range game is definitely the weakest part of LeBron’s game, something he should definitely work on (especially his footwork in the post), and a great plan B late in the clock if you can’t get the corner for a drive or open three. But to say that LeBron’s lack of development and devotion to the least efficient shots in basketball are what keeps him from being as good as Kobe is just fallacious. Not only are mid-range shots inefficient in the long run, but they keep the team from getting involved; instead of getting into the paint, scattering the defense, and opening up teammates, the possession ends with little ball movement and few other players getting involved. On a micro, individual level, a perfectly executed midrange move is pretty and a solid way for one player to score against a defense, but over time the only way to consistently attain offensive success is to get to the basket, which LeBron James does better than any player in the league, not only getting dunks and layups but involving his teammates and opening up the floor. 

Kobe likes to say his floor game is him “playing chess” while everyone else plays checkers; in reality, Kobe’s the guy over at the craps table winning huge every couple of rolls, making people gasp, and telling everyone who will listen about his amazing system while he’s ultimately coming out close to even. Meanwhile, LeBron and his teammates are around the casino at the blackjack tables, counting cards, keeping their heads down, and calling in the big players to make the huge money. (Shoutout to the SGSD’s Kevin Lewis/Jeff Ma!)

Two more quick thoughts on this: I’m not sure how a “lack of versatility” is what LeBron suffers from against elite teams; he’s not as devoted to being a scorer, but has consistently controlled the rebounding game, made passes, and worked amazingly hard on defense in all those series, and because of this the Cavs have consistently won in the playoffs in the past even when LeBron didn’t have his offensive game going. There’s more to being a complete player than being a scorer.  
Also, we’ll see if any team can keep LeBron from getting to the paint over the course of a series now that the Cavaliers, for the first time in the playoffs, have players who can spread the court and move the ball, as well as an offensive philosophy that isn’t just LeBron running into a wall over and over again. 
Final thing as I’ve now gone for over 2,000 words: I know Kobe (more Jordan myth), has always been considered the “two-way player” and has accrued a few all-defensive selections over the years, most of which were based on reputation, but as it stands right now Kobe Bryant has nowhere near the defensive impact LeBron has. Nowhere remotely close: 
1. LeBron played for the 2nd-best defensive team in the league this year, and was a leader on that defense, alternating between giving full effort on the help-side and checking the other team’s best player, and on a crushingly good defensive team had an absolutely stellar defensive +/- of -8.4, behind only Joel Pryzbilla and Marcus Camby, both of whom played for bad defensive teams and neither of whom played nearly as many minutes as LeBron. 
LeBron had more steals and blocks, obviously.

LeBron’s opponent PER was a freakish 10.4-Kobe, whose main advantage is supposedly that he’s a “lock-down” defender while James isn’t, had an opponent PER of 14.2, and the Lakers were actually 1.4 points worse per 100 possessions defensively with him on the floor. I don’t know where the “LeBron can’t lock down his man” crap  that Kobe fans spew comes from-there is absolutely nothing in any possible conceivable metric to suggest that LeBron is anything but an amazing man defender to go with his obvious talent on the weak-side, and I can tell you as someone who watched 82 Cavs games this year (it’s my job), and more than my share of Laker games (I live in LA), anyone who says I don’t watch the games enough to understand this is just wrong. And in the playoffs, LeBron has traditionally stepped up his defense as the games have gotten tighter (although he hasn’t needed to so far in this playoffs), and the Cavs have always been one of the tightest defensive teams in the playoffs largely because of this-look at Paul Pierce’s numbers in the Celtics-Cavs series last year. 

Well, anyone got a problem with any of that?

Recap: (8) Whoa-Oh…

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

 

First off, sorry the site was down for a few hours after the game. I have no idea what happened, I am extremely frustrated about it, and apologize to anyone who came looking for a recap. I have literally been reloading the page for an hour and a half and just got it working. 

Overview:

Against a Hawks team that played tough at home and was in no mood to get swept, the Cavaliers prevailed in a close game that saw very little offensive execution on either side and the game get as close as 2 points in the fourth quarter. 

Cavs-Related Bullets:

Defense will always be there. When the jumpers aren’t falling, the whistles aren’t making a symphony, and the ball isn’t moving and the bench isn’t stepping up, defense will always be there. Give effort and make rotations, and if you have the talent defense will be there. And in what was, in a lot of ways, a let-down game for the team, the defense was there, keeping all penetration out, not giving up open looks from three, absolutely suffocating Joe Johnson every time he put the ball on the floor, and destroying every Hawk except for Josh Smith, who is just not a guy you “game-plan” for. 

LeBron actually looked human tonight, or something approximating it: he got what readers know I refer to as the “gritty” 27/8/8, never really getting out on the break, stringing together jumpers, or finding himself able to slice through the defense at will in the half-court (only 4-8 from inside the immediate basket area), instead hitting an open three here or there, leaking out early to get two cheap dunks, cutting backdoor and looking for lobs, getting a layup on Mo going baseline and finding him cutting on counter-movement (MY FAVORITE PLAY EVER), and saying “f**k it, you’re going to have to foul me because I’m not going to stop going towards the rim until I die” to get some free-throws in tight moments. His passes also weren’t of the spectacular three-point line feed for a dunk variety, but were simple passes out of traps on the pick-and-roll and down low. It was just playing the right way mixed with energy, that otherworldly athleticism, and a sense of the flow of the game. The highlight reel isn’t going to be as nice and PER is no longer broken, but it was an extremely effective game that got us the win, which does make 8 double-digit playoff wins in a row. I’ll take that.

But mainly, DELONTE WEST. Gritty defense for 45 (!) minutes. Moving the ball and not turning it over. Banging in threes. Completely fearless driving to the hole and getting his shot from midrange, even in crunch-time.

Mo made a few plays, but didn’t hit a two all night or get to the free throw line. But when we needed a big three “The Hitman” (and winner of this year’s “guy who’s trying too hard to give himself a nickname” award) was there, draining threes to set the tone and to sink the dagger in what was a very game Hawks team. 

In fact, I’m just going to use the dagger play as a microcosm of this team and the resolve it shows when the going gets tough: LeBron splits the double and drives to the hoop, but can’t quite get the finish. Andy’s there to grab the offensive rebound. LeBron can’t get the finish again. Andy and Z corral the rebound, LeBron resets, gets it on the post, draws a double, kicks it to Mo to bang in the three. LeBron’s playmaking, Andy’s hustle and effort, Mo’s ability to hit big shots. That and Delonte’s toughness is what this team has when it gets pressed. And even though it’ll look easy in retrospect, we got pressed tonight.

And we’ll get pressed more in the coming weeks. The easy 8 are done with. The next 8 is where this team is going to show if it’s championship-caliber or not. Boston or Orlando is coming to the Q. They’re going to be tough. Now the real fun begins. Until next time, campers.

Quick Hits: Sunday Edition!!!

Monday, May 11th, 2009

 

 

-Keeping it very short because I have a final in 13 hours:

-Yes, the Lakers came out EXTREMELY flat today against a pumped-up Rockets team who benefited from having guards more comfortable playing pick-and-roll/up-tempo ball having the games of their life and being allowed to freestyle. Just a very lackluster performance from them all around.

-At the same time, I hate when I hear “oh, this means they’re not a championship team, real champions would’ve done X, X and Y.” You know what makes a team not a championship team? When a team beats them four times before they beat them four times. If Lakers/Boston told us anything in their respective playoff runs last year, it’s that the playoffs are played one series at a time. If they beat the Rockets, which everyone seems to think is still very likely, then they’re that much closer to a championship. Losing to the Nuggets or whichever team comes out of the East would make them not a championship team. Body language and “heart” in the sec0nd-round doesn’t change how the series are played. 

-And yes, this team terrifies me. When the Rockets were up 29 in the fourth quarter, I was thinking “I’ll relax when they get it to 30.” They never did, and now I think I have an ulcer. 

-Just when you think the playoffs couldn’t get any more fantastic, Glen Davis hits a game-winner and shoves a child. I’m pretty sure he did it to impress KG. 

-How actually working NBA games makes your life more complicated, part 1: of all the players I’ve met, two stand out in terms of how nice, smart, and willing to talk to you they are: Ron Artest and Lamar Odom. So as much as I’m happy as a Cavs fan that Lamar has been inconsistent and might be out or limited going on in the series, what I really wish is for Lamar to have a speedy recovery and play a great series. He really deserves it, and is as good of a role model that exists in the NBA, despite his early missteps. Of course, Laker fans are probably wishing to ship him out for “toughness” as I type this.

-I’ve seen some LA whining about the lack of fouls on Kobe Bryant in this game. Guess what: when 15 of your 17 field goals are jumpers, you’re probably not going to get all that many trips to the line. And what LeBron’s been doing, barreling to the hole and exploiting slow help and crashing to the rim at every possible opportunity and taking advantage of bigs who aren’t big enough to contest his shots or quick enough to get into position as he’s coming at them? Turns out that leads to fouls. It’s weird. Oh, and the Rockets shot 2 free throws in the entire first half today, and the Lakers had more free throws until they began intentionally fouling. 

-Of course, I’m biased since I’m under the ESPN flag, because ESPN loves LeBron and wants everyone else to fail. Because 7 straight playoff blowouts and a PER of freaking 45 happens every other day from league MVPs. Nothing notable about any of that. I’m sure everyone would rather there be more flagrant foul debating. It’s all an ESPN creation. Remember, ESPN loves LeBron and LeBron only. It’s not like they’ve been advertising a fauning Kobe puff piece/documentary for a month and a half that they’ll be airing commercial-free. After all, it’s easy to rack up stats against this Hawks team, just ask Dwyane Wade, who got more 1st-place MVP votes than anyone but LeBron!

-How actually working an NBA beat makes your job more complicated, part two: I’ve met Brett Pollakoff, and he’s a nice, hardworking, knowledgeable guy who respects the game, does his job the right way, and provides good insight. But he’s followed up his all-important and not-at-all petty overturning of LeBron’s triple-double in New York (which I’m sure had nothing to do with trying to discredit LeBron’s acheivment-IF REBOUNDS AREN’T PROPERLY RECORDED, HOW LONG UNTIL WE JUST START LIVING IN COVENS AND WORSHIPPING SHEEP?) with a FanHouse piece saying, in so many words, that Shane Battier drawing a charge on Lamar Odom was a “reckless and dangerous play,” comparing it to Trevor Ariza’s flagrant foul on Rudy Fernandez. (By the way, look at Kyle Lowry running over to help Battier up and the Lakers wandering in the direction of Lamar.)

Never mind that Battier had his hands down and was drawing a charge, and the call went his way, and at no point attempted to do anything than make a correct defensive rotation-Lamar had gone into his move milliseconds before! Shane Battier, I expect more from you than to try and play fundamentally sound team defense. Clearly, you should have the reflexes of The Sentinel and know exactly when Lamar Odom starts his move, and once that’s established gingerly get out of his way so that he can have a layup. Brett, unlike most idiots on the blogosphere, I’m actually going to run into you at some point in the near future, so I’m not going to call you an idiot or tell you to put your crack pipe down. But you’re off-base on this one. See you at Staples. 

-Reason Number 125 why I’ve switched from my first love, baseball, to being almost exclusively a basketball fan now: we learned about LeBron James. We got excited. He got drafted first. He played the summer league, and in a few months was starting in the NBA and showing his stuff. Now the pitching equivalent to LeBron James is about to get drafted first overall. 

Now, instead of thinking “Man, I better check my schedule to see when the Nats are coming into town next year, I wonder if he can blow that 102 fastball by major leaguers or not,” my thought process is “well, hopefully Boras doesn’t hold him out and he can get a contract signed and not have to play independent league baseball for a year. And I hope he rises through the minors without hitting any snags or getting addicted to crack or oxy because he gets stuck in some podunk town with 20 million dollars and nothing to do. And I hope he doesn’t get held in the minors for two extra years because his team is cheap and wants to keep as much of his rookie eligibility as possible. And above all, I hope to see him throwing gas before his arm blows out, because almost every pitcher has major arm surgery at some point and every game there’s a chance he’ll be done for a year and probably never throw as hard again.” 

So above all, be glad we’re basketball fans. See you tomorrow, where hopefully we can close things out so I don’t have that on my mind as I finish my finals.

Recap: (9) Hawks a different team, but still witnesses

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

 

 

Overview: The Hawks, showing renewed vigor at home, kept the game close for three quarters and even led briefly in the second half, but ultimately crumbled under LeBron James’ best statistical playoff game of his career, as King James went off for 47/12/8.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

Coming into this game, LeBron was producing at an absolutely stupid level. Better than 30 points a game and elevated rebound and assist totals, despite playing limited minutes. Six straight blowout wins. A 65% TS.  The gap between his playoff PER and the #2 players is the size of the gap between #2 and #42 (Billups and Shannon Brown) And yet we hadn’t gotten a true “Witness” game yet. Well, we got one tonight. 

Make no mistake; this was a real game. The Hawks, who posted a 31-10 home record on the year came to play, and were doing some really good things. They were stopping penetration, Joe Johnson was getting into the paint and making things happen, Josh Smith was actually hitting a few jumpers, Horford and Williams were back and playing at limited but reasonable effectiveness. They were getting out on the break, getting production from everyone on the floor, and playing with great intensity and feeding off the crowd. These were the Dr. Jekyll Hawks. 

On the other end, the Cavs were not rolling on all cylanders. Only one three outside of LeBron. Mo and Delonte were a little tentative, and only combined for 5 assists. Andy wasn’t getting involved offensively. Only 7 points off the bench, with all of them coming from Joe Smith. Way too many turnovers and sloppy transition defense. When LeBron sat for 5 minutes, the Cavs leaked 9 points. Under normal circumstances, the Cavaliers lose this game.

But LeBron James was rolling on all cylanders, and when that happens, the game is, simply put, pretty much over. In the first quarter, he immediately got everyone involved, establishing Z by setting him up with easy jumpers out of a trap and finding Delonte and Andy for layups, and going off-the ball to get a dunk. Then he found his own jumper and began railing in threes. In the third, he fell in love with the deep-ball a little bit and the offense stagnated, but in the fourth he came out attacking the basket and pressuring the defense, either getting his own shot or getting to the line. 

Overall, LeBron went:

4-6 from the immediate basket area

6-9 from midrange

5-10 from three

12-16 from the line

He’d rain the jumper. He’d make the pass. He snatched the rebounds and kept the Hawks from getting hustle buckets. He’d go to the hole and get the contact. When his lane got cut off, he’d pull up and hit from mid-range. It was just all working. There was no answer. 

Defensively, the Cavs recovered in the second half and made their adjustments, stopping run-outs, keeping Joe Johnson from having space to work in, and allowing the law of averages to go to work on Josh Smith jumpers. 

Bullets of Randomness:

Even hitting an abnormally high percentage of his jumpers, Smith failed to score efficiently, finishing with 18 points on 20 attempts. 

The Hawks did find ball movement in this game, and Flip Murray’s shot was on. But they really need those turnovers to get going, and the Cavs did a good job of cutting those town in the second half.

Another factor: it’s hard to run against an offensive rebounding team like the Cavs, who got a big 7 offensive boards from Andy tonight.

Alright, one game to go and then we wait for the winner of the Magic-Celts brawl. Now’s not the time to let up. That time will never come. Let’s get it done-see you on Monday.

Recap: (10) This is just getting comical.

Friday, May 8th, 2009

 

Full disclosure: I already turned in a semi-recap of this one to Da Dime. But I shall give you more, because I love all of you in an internet way. That sounds much, much creepier than I mean it to. 

Overview: In a game that was essentially over by halftime, LeBron and the Cavs absolutely stomped the Hawks, giving up only 55 points through the first through quarters and riding 27 points in 31 minutes from LeBron James to an easy win that did not require the starters to play in the fourth quarter.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

This is getting ridiculous. Only once in the LeBron era have we gotten past this round of the playoffs. Each of these wins technically counts for just as much as the gritty, blood-soaked wins in the ultimately futile seven-game wars we had with the Pistons in 2006 and the Celtics last year. And they feel like practice games. At the beginning of this game, both of these teams started with an equal amount of points. It’s almost hard to remember that. 

Keeping that in mind, there were actual basketball reasons the Cavaliers won this game.

Offensive option #1: LeBron James in full-on beast mode. Right from the beginning, LeBron wanted to drive the hole, and was immediately flying to the foul and demanding contact, as well as flying out to create turnovers (4 steals in only 31 minutes) and looking for a fast-break whenever he could, beating the Hawks at their own game. There was no “facilitating” tonight, making easy passes to guys looking for a three or Z working the settle jumper on the pick-and-pop. Of his 5 assists, I can immediately remember four of them off the top of my head:

The absolutely prenatural behind-the-back touch pass on a fast break to a trailing Wally. It should be noted that twice on a fast break, Mike Bibby tried and failed to FOUL LeBron. This plays into the two main offensive themes of the night. 

I played Jayvee high school basketball for all of two years. On day one of tryouts, we learned that you can’t feed the post from the top of the key. Unless you’re LeBron James, who not only managed to break one of the basic rules of Xs and Os, but did it with a BACKHANDED WRIST PASS to hit Varejao under the basket, whizzing the ball by five defenders’ ears from 25 feet away on a frozen rope. Holy Jesus. I’ve mentioned this up, but one of the things that makes LeBron such an amazing passer is that he’s physcially good at passing-his height and strength allows him to actually make the ball go faster and through different angles that all the court vision and anticipation in the world wouldn’t allow him to do normally. 

A spinning, whirling fast-break pass where he somehow drew two defenders to him and, in mid-air, found a wide-open Wally for a jumper.

With the defense loaded up on him, LeBron read a defender cheating and effortlessly fired a skip across the court to a wide-open Mo Williams sitting in the short corner for a three. 

Actually, I just remembered #5: LeBron finding a cutting Andy with an overhanded lefty baseball pass for a layup. 

That’s all five assists. I promise I have not reviewed the play-by-play or any highlights, and I watched this game around 5 or 6 hours ago. That’s the litmus test for discerning “good” assists from cheap ones. 

And if you’ve read this blog, you know the test for whether or not LeBron had the game he wanted going is how well he worked the “extreme skew” layups and dunks great, free throws just below, then threes, with midrange jumpers being the plan B, as fits with the efficiency of the shots in general

Here’s how it broke down tonight, courtesy of next-level data from the Volcano Lair:

In the Paint: 5-7

Free Throws: 12 FTs (6 attempts), 6 makes

3-Pointers: 3-5

Mid-range jumpers: 1-2

He’s getting what he wants, when he wants it. This defense just has no answer. 

And a 40-foot STEP-BACK JUMPER WITHOUT CHANGING HIS STROKE? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? 

And three dunks, including one at the end of a quarter when everyone and their uncle knew the drive was coming, except ZaZa Pachulia, who had his head turned, perhaps silently hoping for an inpromptu Joe Beast Freestyle. 

And can we get Elias on “most times finishing with a higher three-point percentage than free-throw percentage?” If LeBron didn’t do this in more games than anyone else, I’d be stunned. 

Overall, he finished with a 67.5 TS%, and that’s finishing the game 1-4 on “screw it, we’re winning, let’s make some highlights” jumpers and missing half of his free throws. If you take out the last four shots and put him 10-12 from the line, he would’ve gone for a TS of 78%. So option #1 was working. But only three rebounds!

And the free throws? ‘Cmon, LeBron! This is the playoffs! Step up!

Offensive option #2: Ruthlessly and without anything resembling mercy eviscerate whoever Mike Bibby is attempting to guard, either blowing directly by him or exploiting the guy who switches to try and save him. Mo and Delonte had the lane or a wide-open free-throw line jumper absolutely anytime they wanted it, and the results were immediate and crushing. He’s just completely helpless out there, and with Horford hurt, ZaZa trying to make up for terrible rotations with cheap-shots and fake hustle, and Josh Smith’s thoughts occupied by his Spirit Cougar’s mischevious behavior, the Hawks are just getting absolutely shredded by dribble-penetration. 

More good news? Ben Wallace looked like he was back to his early-season form in his (limited) minutes out there, showing out to 35 feet, rotating back, getting on loose balls, and protecting the rim. He had a defensive renaissance early this year, and he’s getting back into that form. That becomes huge in later rounds. 

Offensively for Atlanta, there was no good news. The leading scorers were Mo Evans and Thomas Gardner. Smoove went 2-13. He wasn’t just settling for jumpers-he was missing everything. Although he’s a very underrated passer. I hope this series doesn’t destroy his spirit. I’m honestly worried about that. Evidently, Joe Johnson played tonight. 

And congrats to Wally and his 17 points on 9 field goals. Although as Bret points out, having Wally go off on you without hitting a three is really, really, really bad news.

 

Okay, that’s it for me tonight, campers. All I’ll say is this-Boston probably felt cocky about going up 2-0 on this team too. This is a very erratic team, and is on a whole other level at home. But like I said in the Dime (READ IT NOW I WORKED HARD), what’s most heartening to me about this team is how focused they’ve been and how they haven’t let themselves get fat and happy. I feel good, but there’s a lot of ball left to be played, even in this series. See you after game 3; yes, if we win I will chill A LITTLE. (I don’t want the greatest basketball comeback of all time to happen against us, okay?)