Overview: In a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs were able to cruise to a victory over the shorthanded Magic behind 64 combined points from LeBron James and Mo Williams.
-First bullet goes to Mo Williams. Here’s some fun with numbers from this season:
Mo Williams in 3 losses: 11-35 from the field (3-14 from three), 3.6 APG
Mo Williams in 5 wins: 38-72 from the field (15-21 from three), 4.6 APG
So far, when Mo’s played well, the team’s won. When he’s played badly, they’ve lost. It’s insane. Even with this small of a sample size, I can’t remember one non-superstar being this uncanny of a barometer for a basketball team.
And of course, the Cavs’ best performance of the year came on the night Mo had his best game of the year. Mo was absolutely feeling it tonight, plain and simple. Maybe he felt like he had something to prove after his abysmal ECF against the Magic, maybe he’s trying to get more involved, maybe he just wanted to spite John Huizinga. Whatever it was, Mo was absolutely a man possessed in the first half, hitting all 8 of his field goal attempts (including 4 threes) in the first 24 minutes. When the Magic went under the screen, he pulled up from the left side and drained threes over Jameer Nelson. (A note here; Nelson’s defense was a factor in this. With Nelson’s short size and alligator arms, taller points who can flat-out shoot off the dribble like Mo are going to be problems for him.)
And it wasn’t just that Mo was hitting threes-when he got into the teeth of the defense, he was keeping his dribble alive beautifully and making wonderful passes for finishes, finding LeBron when the Cavs used LBJ as a screener in a 1-3 PnR (why do the Cavs not do this a LOT more?), finding the big man when the defense tried to cut off his lane, and finding LeBron twice on weak-side counter-movement (my favorite) for finishes. Mo did start forcing it in the second half, especially at the beginning of the 4th when he was out there without LBJ or Shaq, but this was an absolutely amazing performance from Mo. He is THE X-Factor if the Cavs are to meet the Magic in the playoffs again.
Second, the Cavs’ grand plan to use Shaq to stop the Magic has been revealed. I would sum up this strategy as the “Shaqrificial Lamb” strategy. Shaq wasn’t particularly effective scoring the ball tonight and was exploited on the pick-and-roll by VC and Jameer, but his mission was to get fouls on Dwight and give fouls on Dwight, and he succeeded admirably in this one. Dwight was barely on the floor in the first half due to Shaq taking it right at him and forcing the refs to make calls (many of the ticky-tack variety), and on defense the plan was to hold the line, come with doubles and give fouls, and keep Howard from getting in the groove and killing the team like he did last summer. Tonight, the strategy worked-having two centers and Varejao with fouls to give helped a lot, and Dwight finished with 11 points, 5 fouls, and 0 assists in 32 minutes. It wasn’t pretty, and it won’t be popular in a lot of places, but tonight Shaq did what he was brought in to do. We’ll see if he can do it when the Magic are at full strength and the games count.
LeBron James: 36/8/4. Ho-hum.
Again, the best thing was how well LeBron was playing within the offense. 6 of LeBron’s 13 field goals tonight came at the basket. Here’s the breakdown of those 6 layups or dunks:
One And-1 on a 3-on-2 fast-break where LeBron used a change-of-pace dribble to blow by Matt Barnes and get the easy finish and the foul.
One layup on a cut through the middle to get the feed from Shaq in a double-team.
One layup on an offensive rebound in a fast-break situation.
3 dunks or layups on Mo Williams feeding a cutting LeBron from the weak-side.
LeBron also made 4 other trips to the line, and off the top of my head I can remember that 2 of those trips to the line were a result of LeBron posting up. So LeBron put up 36 points tonight with four points, at most, coming from his bread-and-butter, charging drives to the basket set up by his own dribble.
You don’t want to go completely away from LeBron charging to the basket, because LeBron going pick-and-roll with Varejao or ISOing up with shooters spreading the floor is about as unstoppable of a play as exists in basketball, and the Cavs will need a lot of it to win it all, no matter what the pundits say, and I do worry that Shaq’s presence makes that simple but crushing set less effective. But overall, LeBron having a huge game without having to rely on his old standby is very, very, very good news.
The other element of LeBron’s game was his outside shooting, which remains extremely good in the early going. LeBron made 7 jumpers tonight, with two of them coming from behind the arc, with all of his makes coming off the dribble. He went 7-15 from outside the paint overall, and with the added value from the threes, that’s an eFG% on jumpers over 50%, which is tremendous.
Most of his jumpers are still coming from a bit deeper than I’d like-three of his five midrange makes were from 20 feet or deeper, which isn’t really a midrange shot. And his two jumpers from closer than 20 were even tougher shots, absolutely ridiculous twisting, off-balance fadeaways over the outstretched arms of waiting help defenders. But he looks so smooth and confident when he takes that set-up dribble and rises straight up from deep, so it’s working for him thus far. I’d still like to see him really set up his jumper with a few hard dribbles toward the basket, but if he can keep hitting jumpers like he’s been doing so far this season, watch out. And going 2-3 from deep tonight rose his 3-PT% to 40%, which is right about where it was the last three months of the 08-09 season. Now, about that post game.
In actually bad news, LeBron’s strangely mediocre assist/turnover ratio this season continued tonight, with 4 more turnovers to go with 4 assists.
From the “I could not be more cautious in my optimism about this” file, new starter JJ Hickson led all players with a +13 in his 23 minutes of play. Hickson didn’t appear to be setting the world on fire offensively, making right about one bad play for every nice one, but did seem to know what he was doing defensively. I really thought putting someone who needs to sag on pick-and-rolls with the team’s most confused help defender was going to be a recipe for disaster out there, but Hickson stayed active defensively and didn’t find himself egregiously out of position that I was able to see. That’s all I can ask out of JJ at this point.
Worst news of the night: Delonte West was not in the lineup tonight because of an undisclosed incident with the team before the game. I said in my chat with Ben and Eddy today that the Cavs don’t win the championship without Delonte playing a major role, and I believe it. So hopefully this works out, to say the least.
However, Anthony Parker did acquit himself tonight by playing some nice defense on Vince Carter and taking every one of his shots from behind the three-point line.
Big Z continues to struggle from the floor, missing all 6 of his shots. And this time, they weren’t forced-those were Big Z’s bread-and-butter shots. But he did space the floor, do an excellent job fighting for rebounds, wisely gave his 5 fouls, and once again the Cavs were +11 in his 24 minutes even with Z struggling mightily to score.
Andy Varejao, who’s been the best big man on the team by a wide margin in the early going, was rewarded by getting moved to the bench tonight, and he responded with his worst game of the season so far. Fun. But it’s not like the rotation didn’t work.
Bullets of Randomness:
This just didn’t look like the Magic team the Cavs played last season. The ball stayed on one side of the floor, and 5 of the team’s 9 assists came from Jameer. Considering this team’s greatest offensive strength last season was how many playmakers they could put on the court at once, that’s a major worry.
Rashard Lewis was a huge absence for this team tonight-they were running the pick-and-roll all night and the weak-side man was being left open, but Bass was neither active enough or a good enough shooter to really punish the Cavs. When he gets replaced by Lewis’ dead-eye shooting and ability to create off the dribble, things will change.
When Howard actually did have time to post up, he looked good against Shaq, blowing by him out of a face-up to draw a foul and draining a nice lefty hook over him-if Shaq gets too macho and demands to be left on an island against Howard rather than getting help and giving fouls, there could be more trouble than Shaq and Howard’s history would indicate.
JJ Redick does the little things. That is all.
-Vince is the most frustrating player to analyze ever. The stat sheet says he does the opposite things he appears to do on the court. It’s genuinely bizarre. But tonight, Vince looked like he got baited into trying to be the hero against Shaq’s weak pick-and-roll defense, hoisting jumper after jumper from the wing, many of them early in the clock and off-balance, instead of being patient and looking to probe for weak points. But 82games says that with the Magic so far, Vince takes shots later in the clock, takes less off his shots off the dribble, and passes more intelligently than Hedo did with the Magic. This guy is going to cause a stat geek/scout brawl this season. Tonight, I felt like he shot the Magic out of their offense at times. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.
In lineup news, Mike Brown actually had better rotations than another human being tonight. As much as I hate Shaq/Z , SVG trying to match that with Howard/Gortat was just baffling. Gortat was a -19 tonight, and he is a true center, while the tiny bit of success that comes from the Cavs’ big lineup is that Z is a gigantic 4 offensively. Don’t know why SVG didn’t try to counter with some small-ball, which could have carved up the Cavs, although how thing the Magic are right now probably played into this right now. I think SVG is maybe the best coach in the league right now (I have a soft spot for guys who come up with brilliant systems but get unfairly maligned for the occasional over-scrutinized in-game decision), but tonight was not a coaching high point for him.
That said, I have no idea why the Magic look so bad defensively this year. Lewis is an extremely underrated defender, but the Cavs just cut through them like butter tonight, and they’re only 15th in the league in defensive efficiency this season. I can’t tell specifically what’s up with the defense after only watching one or two full games, but it was shocking how badly that team has regressed defensively.
Alright, that’s more than enough for tonight. Good win, hopefully the Cavs can keep it going against Wade and the upstart Heat on TNT tomorrow. Until next time, all.