Archive for December, 2009

Recap: Cavs 104, Blazers 99 (Or, The Time Andy Saved The Week)

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Overview: The Cavs were able to hold off the Blazers thanks to a huge third quarter from LeBron James and a huge fourth quarter from Anderson Varejao, who finished with 22 points off the bench.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

If there was any doubt coming into this game that Anderson Varejao is the Cavs’ best big man by a fairly wide margin, it should be erased after this game.

The Cavs allowed the Blazers to stay in the game in the first quarter by turning the ball over a few too many times, and in the second quarter got burned by the unlikely duo of Juwan Howard and Andre Miller, who accounted for 25 of the Blazers’ 31 points in the second quarter. Some of the Miller points were thanks to Miller performing his signature weaving drives into the lane and finishing from weird angles, but the 3 jumpers, including two threes, are definitely something you live with.

And as for Howard turning back the clock and scoring 11 straight Blazer points to start the second quarter, I mean, what is there to say? Tip your hat to the guy.

In the third, LeBron knew it was his time to try and keep the game from getting out of hand, and he responded, coming out firing jumpers and making almost everything he looked at. He scored the first 9 points of the quarter for the Cavs, assisted on the next basket, and finished with 14 for the quarter to get the game tied again.

A lot of the time this season, this would be about where the game breaks down for the Cavaliers, as the team gets caught up into watching LeBron do his thing, loses their energy and offensive flow, and lets the game get away from them as soon as LeBron stops doing his Deus ex Machina thing. But on Friday night, the Cavs were actually able to take LeBron’s mini-takeover as a shot in the arm and responded as a team.

9 of the Cavs’ 11 field goals in the fourth quarter were assisted, and 6 of those 9 were baskets by Anderson Varejao, a guy who never stops moving and looking for seams when the ball is in somebody else’s hands. Varejao’s off-ball movement the whole game was beautiful, but in the fourth quarter Varejao was just putting on a clinic, cutting backdoor, rolling after screening, looking to cut through and then stopping at the front of the rim when his man cheated, going up the sidelines and down the middle, and generally showing up to convert a layup wherever the defense didn’t think he’d be. In general, the most promising story from this game was the Cavs looking at a LeBron takeover as an opportunity to become more effective instead of an excuse to get away with being less effective.

Good stuff from Shaq tonight-even though Shaq continues to struggle when he’s left to post up on an island and started the game having a rough night from the field, Shaq got involved off the ball, boarded well, played some good defense, made all four of his free throws, and finished with an uncharacteristically high +12 mark for the game. One thing I particularly liked seeing is Shaq getting the ball in deep post position off of actual ball movement late in a possession and converting the easy hook. Shaq’s still effective in the post, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that you can’t just dump it into him 10-12 feet out and expect him to convert 60% of those opportunities anymore, because his lack of footwork is not helping him age gracefully in the post. And he’s not the off-the-ball dynamo that Andy is by any stretch of the imagination. But if the Cavs meet him halfway and work a little bit to give him a catch where all he has to do is make a quick, decisive move and score, he can still be very effective.

And it’s not fun to find it out this way, but the silver lining to Shaq’s eye injury is that it made it pretty clear that Shaq shouldn’t be on the floor in the fourth quarter over Andy in almost any situation, unless he’s playing the first few minutes while LeBron’s sitting and trying to get the other team in the bonus. The fourth is when LeBron is going to have the ball in his hands and be initiating the play almost every time, and that’s when Shaq’s effectiveness drops off pretty severely, especially in comparison to Andy. One last note on the injury: that it happened almost immediately after Dan and Hubie started discussing the fake “Shaq retires” rumors was definitely creepy.

It’s great to see Mo playing like he was tonight. His shot wasn’t falling (0-5 from beyond the arc), but he really made an extra effort to be a passer to compensate, and finished with a team-high 10 assists and +13 for the night.

LeBron was definitely comfortable with his jumper tonight, getting 15 points on 16 shots from outside the paint. His jumpers weren’t as cleanly set up with his dribble as they were earlier in the year, and his balance on a lot of his jumpers was less than ideal, but Friday was one of those nights where LeBron is just so good that he can go off the textbook and still have success, and it was what the Cavs ended up needing to take the game. For LeBron post watch, LeBron took advantage of a mismatch on Andre Miller a few times in the second quarter and was able to get a finish with his left from the left block, but missed his two prettiest post opportunities, a jump hook with good deep position and a lovely up-and-under move from the right block to set up a left-handed finish.

Delonte was merely solid tonight, with five points and three assists in 27 minutes, and his effectiveness is starting to get seriously hampered by the loss of his outside touch. Meanwhile, Anthony Parker managed to only take three shots in 37 minutes, but didn’t make mistakes while he was in there and managed to hold Brandon Roy to a 9-25 night from the floor. By the way, who punched out AP?

The Cavs scoring 104 points while only hitting three shots from deep is a promising sign.

The bottom line with this Blazers team is that they don’t get a lot of easy points. Only 35 points for the Blazers from the paint or on the fast-break, compared to 70 such points for the Cavaliers. It’s really hard for a team to be consistent offensively when they rely on jumpers so much, and the Oden loss absolutely kills them in that department.

Bullets of Randomness:

LaMarcus Aldridge had a great scoring game tonight, hitting just about everything he looked at. He’s always been a Cav-killer, and when his offensive game is on he’s pretty to watch. But here’s my thing with Aldridge: you watch him play tonight and think he’s a Destroyer Of Worlds, but in reality a lot of those pretty shots miss more often than they go in (his 53.0% TS puts him 39th among power forwards.) But even tonight, when his scoring was humming, Aldridge finished with 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and a game-low -11. Compare that to what a guy like Andy does on a nightly basis without ever really making a one-on-one scoring move. Have a nice weekend, all.

Links To The Present: December 11th, 2009

Friday, December 11th, 2009

-I will admit that I really needed this clarification of what “If Jesus payin’ LeBron, I’m payin’ Dwayne Wade” lyric in “Empire State of Mind” means. Spoiler: it involves cocaine.

-Shaq says that LeBron could coach in the NBA right now. (Don’t actually believe this, but joke…too…easy…must…make…) He was mum when asked if Mike Brown could coach in the NBA right now.

-Not only did the Wizards manage to get zero rebounds for an entire quarter of basketball, they also lost by two. That’s a double-whammy right there. Might not be Washington’s year just yet.

As a consolation prize, I offer the Wizards this idea: If LeBron stays in the dunk contest, why wouldn’t the Wizards sign James White to a 10-day contract, or even for the full year, for the sole purpose of Flight White beating LeBron in the dunk contest? Wouldn’t that be the kind of thing that could save an entire season in Washington?

Well, to balance that out with an insult, who else got some Wizards vibes on Always Sunny tonight when the gang busted into their old flip-cup rivals’ now-upscale restaurant and started destroying the place in an attempt to goad the now-married owner back into the rivalry?

-Epic preview of Fridays Blazers/Cavs tilt from, who else, BlazersEdge. Wow, they’re good. They see this as a hugely favorable matchup for the Cavs. It would be great for the Cavs to bounce back at home on national television, so hopefully their fears come true.

Alright, that’s all for now. Still pretty mired in final papers, and not a lot catching my link fancy tonight for whatever reason. Here’s an epic 7-minute instrumental by Phoenix. Just pretend you’re reading while you listen to it. Does anyone else read those “best of” lists at the end of the year and feel like a complete hick? Phoenix was one of the few bands in the top 20 lists I’d heard of, and a lot of that was due to The Basketball Jones. And yet I digress. See you tomorrow.

Shane Battier Has Betrayed Us All

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

First of all, if you haven’t seen my recap yet, here it is. It’s much longer than this, and is more about last night’s game. I was going to include this as a bullet of randomness, but it’s bizarre enough so that I feel it warrants its own post.

Allow me to disclaimer here: I am a huge fan of advanced statistics, and believe they’re changing the way basketball is being reported on for the better. I am also a huge fan of +/- based metrics, and as anyone who reads this site knows, I use them all the time to support what I’m saying. I don’t think they’re all-encompassing, but they can certainly be useful when put in context and show some things that were previously invisible. Furthermore, I believe that Michael Lewis’ excellent piece on Shane Battier might have been the best piece of sports journalism last year, and believe the article holds up tremendously. And I’m a big fan of what Daryl Morey is doing in Houston.

But every now and then, there’s a piece of irony that you just can’t pass up. According to basketballvalue.com’s +/- data, Shane Battier has been one of the 10 worst defenders in the NBA this season. That’s “unadjusted” +/- data, but according to Basketball Value’s version of “adjusted” +/- data, Battier still comes out terribly.

And this has been noted before, but Kevin Durant, who became the poster child for players exposed by +/- data, has been absolutely fantastic by every +/- metric so far this season.

80% of the reason I’m posting this is just because it’s ironic and kind of funny. But there’s also a grain of truth somewhere in there about how much the situation a player is in can influence his +/- rating, and how comparisons using it have to account for a number of lurking variables.

Recap: Rockets 95, Cavs 85 (Or, That Could Have Gone A Lot Better)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

fail owned pwned pictures

Overview: Playing sluggish and sloppy basketball, the Cavs were unable to overcome a 33-19 first-quarter blitz by the Rockets, who took the game behind 53 combined points from Trevor Ariza and Aaron Brooks.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

The Rockets, on paper, are the epitome of an average team on paper. Coming into the game, they were at the dead middle of the pack in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency. But when you’re on the second day of a road back-to-back coming off a tough loss and not really ready to get after it, the Rockets are one of the last teams in the league you want to see. It’s well-documented that the Rockets are currently a team without superstars, but they play hungry on both ends of the court and are looking to absolutely break you down 1-12 with effort, energy, and unselfish play on both ends of the court, and that’s what they did to the Cavs tonight.

A note I forgot to put in when I first published: the composure has got to improve. Every now and then a tech is going to happen, but getting five technicals in one game is ridiculous. And it’s not something that came out of the blue. The Cavs have been a little bit too eager to plead their case on every call that doesn’t go their way this season, and it may have become a distraction. Once upon a time, Mike Brown’s party line was that the Cavs were a “no-excuses team,” and I’d like to see the Cavs get back to that a little more. For any reporter looking for a legitimate basketball angle to the dancing mini-controversy, this might be it; the Cavs are in danger of becoming a team who gets too giddy when things go their way and unravel a bit when they don’t.

As Arnovitz broke down a little while back, the Rockets love to get out in transition and shoot threes to make up for their lack of a go-to scorer in the half court, and they were able to do both of those things against the Cavs on Wednesday night, beating the Cavs 18-2 in fast break points, getting 12 more points from three on only 6 more attempts, and beating the Cavs 22 to 15 in points off turnovers. The Cavs played sloppy and listless basketball, and Houston makes a living capitalizing on sloppy and listless basketball.

Compounding everything was the fact that LeBron James did not play well, especially not in the first half. LeBron likes to open up the game by establishing his midrange jumper. That plan is less effective when the shot doesn’t go in. On Wednesday, LeBron missed his first four midrange jumpers in the first quarter, and went 0-6 from midrange for the game. He was able to get involved later on in the game to save his stat line, but LeBron was flat-out bad in the first half in a way you’ll rarely see.

LeBron’s not-all-that uncharacteristic anymore five turnovers were indicative of a greater problem with the team. For the second game in a row, the Cavs had 18 assists to 20 turnovers, and it’s really hard to win giving up that many possessions. And it wasn’t one thing: the Cavs were the TV on The Radio of turnovers tonight. Lazy entry passes. Botched fast-breaks. JJ Hickson catching the ball at the three-point line and dunking without dribbling. Offensive fouls jostling for position in the post. Offensive fouls committing charges. A moving screen. An overly risky inbounds pass. Delonte West even put the cherry on top by getting called for violating the rarely-seen “5 seconds with your back to the basket” rule.

When I did my “LeBron in the post” thesis a little bit ago, some commenters (rightly) noted that LeBron was already playing at such a high level that incorporating a back-down game would be trying to fix something that is the opposite of broken. I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint to a degree, but the 2nd and 3rd quarters tonight were a great example of a time when LeBron going to the post would’ve been a great option. The offense had stagnated, LeBron’s jumper wasn’t falling, and the game had become a grind-it-out slugfest. That’s when you want to go to something that works a fair percentage of the time, the defense can’t take away, and can open up the rest of the floor. And to LeBron’s credit, he did go to the post twice in the second quarter. He scored on a nice lefty hook the first time, then went back to the block on the next possession. He thought he was hit but didn’t draw the call, and the normally even-keeled Mike Brown absolutely flipped out and got ejected. Most of that was frustration from MB, but I think a factor may have been MB trying to convince LeBron to keep going to the block.

Of course, the Cavs are supposed to have one of the greatest post threats of all time, but Shaq hasn’t been playing like it this season. Shaq does do some nice things. Tonight, he shut off the paint nicely and did a great job keeping the Rockets off of the offensive boards, where they normally live. But let’s be honest. Other than shutting down Howard or Bynum/Gasol in the playoffs, the Shaq acquisition was an experiment in sacrificing fit in order to add a dimension, and that dimension was Shaq’s dominant ability to score in one-on-one post-up situations. When he’s not doing that, he’s a downgrade offensively. He doesn’t work the pick-and-roll or cut to open space as well as JJ or Andy, he can’t stretch the floor or get offensive boards like Z, and despite his reputation, he tries to power through doubles as often as he passes out of them; he came into the game 29th in assist ratio among centers.

All of that can be overcome if Shaq can do what he’s been doing for a decade and a half and punish single coverage on the block. And so far, that hasn’t been happening. Shaq’s field goal percentage is decent enough, but his free throw shooting put his True Shooting at 43rd among centers coming into Tuesday’s game.

And then came Tuesday’s game. Now, Shaq probably shouldn’t be playing the second game of a back-to-back in December, especially on the road. And Chuck Hayes is not a “scrappy” defensive player. Chuck Hayes is a great defensive player. Against most centers, Hayes is able to use his quickness to keep them from getting around him and his strength to push them further away from the basket than they want to be. But Shaq is one of the few players in the league who negates Hayes’ strength advantage. And, since Hayes is the shortest center in NBA history, Shaq had 7 inches of height on him. Shaq should have been easy money tonight. But he rushed his moves, got sloppy, missed bunnies, and went 2-8 from the field, his worst shooting night of the season, and when faced with a triple-team in the fourth quarter, Shaq turned it over trying to power through it, leading to an Ariza three in transition that pretty much killed the Cavs’ final charge.

I respect Hayes and the Houston defense for doing a good job of swarming on Shaq. But Shaq, if you’re not going to be able to punish a 6-6 center, then what would you say ya do here? Hopefully, Shaq can find his comfort level and get back to what he’s been doing his whole career, or this could end very badly for the Cavs.

Mo Williams’ scoring punch was also sorely missed tonight, as he went 2-10 from the field. He’s a shooter, shooters slump. Hopefully his shot comes back soon, as his play does have a massive correlation to the Cavs’ success.

Also, Mo came into Cleveland with a rep as a defensive liability. He acquitted himself well on that end of the court last year, but this year his bad habits seem to be creeping back. +/- shows his defense as being absolutely horrible, and while you always take Mo’s +/- with a big grain of salt because of how much he plays without LeBron on the floor, those are not good numbers. Getting burned by Aaron Brooks tonight does not help matters.

Good to see Z’s shot coming back a little bit tonight, with Z hitting 3 of his 5 deep midrange jumpers and going +8 on the night. As much as I’ve ragged on Shaq, Z’s jumper has been a huge problem as well. As of the latest batch of 82games data, Z’s only made 32% of his jumpers this season. That’s worse than Josh Smith shot on jumpers last season. That’s a major problem.

Delonte providing some scoring punch off the bench on Tuesday, going back to his nice back-down game for some tough points. If Shaq doesn’t like to come off the bench and be in the game whenever LeBron isn’t, it looks like this’ll be the role Delonte has to perform, and he’s not half-bad at it, although I’d like to see him with a unit that can utilize his passing and ability to penetrate on defenses that aren’t loaded up. But you take what you get. The caveat would be that by my unofficial, rough, top-of-the head count, the Cavs biffed six fast-breaks tonight, and Delonte was responsible for two of said biffings.

A rare -8 despite a solid 4-6 night from the field for Andy, who the latest batch of 82games data says has an even better +/- than LeBron so far.

Losing Boobie with a hand injury in the middle of the game hurt down the stretch, as the Cavs really could have used an extra shooter to stretch the floor in the fourth.

Bullets of Randomness:

This Houston team is flat-out fun to watch play.

Ariza’s one of those “I’m supposed to be the man, but I’m not quite there yet” guys. He’s got a lot of talent and can create shots when asked to, but would probably be best served in a 2nd or 3rd banana role. But every few games, Ariza’s going to go off like he did tonight, and the Rockets are a very tough team to beat when that happens.

Do me a favor and check out Rahat Huq’s blog if you want more on the game, as he’s new to the network and has been doing a phenomenal job so far.

I’ve got one more bullet of randomness, but it actually deserves its own post. See you guys later.

But before I go, in my ongoing and completely coincidental “things that make me happy which share a name with a team that made me feel crappy” series, here’s a fantastic and oddly appropriate scene from Rocket Science, one of my all-time favorite movies. Indeed, in some way there is a cello in all of our houses now.

Recap: Grizzlies 111, Cavs 109 (Or, Caught In a Bear Trap Game)

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

epic fail pictures

Overview: The Cavaliers were unable to escape Memphis with a lackluster effort on Tuesday night, losing 111-109 in overtime. Mike Conley made the game-winning layup with three seconds left to play.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

Sigh. This is one of those games where you forget that 53 minutes of basketball occurred and just start ranting about the final few plays and their implications, but there was a lot more to this game than that.

The first half was really nice for the Cavaliers, especially on the offense ends. As Windhorst noted, the big story of the first half was how good of a job the Cavaliers did freeing up LeBron James off the ball. Seeing as to how LeBron is all but unstoppable when he catches in on the weak-side, this is a welcome development. 6 of LeBron’s 8 field goals in the first half came off of assists, and most of those were alley-oop finishes or opportunities right at the basket. Mo also tallied 7 assists in the first half because of this.

The third quarter did not go quite so well. When the first bucket of a quarter is Zach Randolph banging in a three, it’s a bad omen. LeBron wasn’t assisted on any of his baskets in the second quarter, the team started trying to force-feed Shaq, Rudy Gay got hot, and all of a sudden it was a tight game down the stretch.

Down the stretch, the Cavs got more than a little bit predictable. LeBron scored the team’s final 13 points (only using 9 possessions, for a TS% of 70%, and that includes the final 30-foot heave), but something has to happen to get more offensive balance, either with different guys initiating plays or guys focusing on getting open and hitting their shots rather than standing around and watching LeBron.

But, as excruciating as “LeISO” can be to watch last time, the defense down the stretch was much more of a problem. Memphis’ last 12 points of the fourth quarter came from 6 feet in or closer. On Memphis’ final play of regulation, LeBron James cut off Rudy Gay’s outside drive, then stared at him like he’d never seen anyone change direction after picking up the ball, while a rotating man was nowhere to be found. (It also looked a bit like LeBron was conceding an early MEM basket so that he would have a chance to hit a game-winner.)

In overtime, the Marc Gasol hit a 7-footer, Zach Randolph hit two free throws and a tough 17-footer, and then Lionel Hollins attacked Shaq on his last two possessions. First, he used Gasol to back-screen Delonte, and Shaq didn’t get above the screen, giving O.J. Mayo a look at a three. (Although Mayo deserves many props for hitting that one.) And on the Grizzlies’ final possession of the game, Shaq correctly sagged back when Mike Conley came on the pick-and-roll. Then he bit on a nice pull-up fake from Conley, got left at the free-throw line, and watched as Conley laid the ball in, as JJ Hickson rotated off of Zach Randolph too late to stop the shot. Not a great crunch-time defensive showing from the Cavs’ new starting frontcourt, and you hope Andy fouling out down the stretch will be a rare occurrence.

-The Cavs, as a team: 18 assists to 20 turnovers. That’s not going to get it done.

-The three new starters: a combined -31 in 75 minutes. The three starters from last year they replaced: +19 in in 85 minutes.

-Good night from the floor for Boobie, but his defense kept him off the court for most of the game.

-Before you say that 11 threes is too many for LeBron, consider that if he was taking those shots from midrange, his 4 makes would be the equivalent of 6, and the best midrange shooters in the league don’t average a 6-11 night from midrange. I don’t mind threes from LeBron so long as they’re decent looks and the situation calls for it.

-Delonte came back to earth tonight, with only 2 points on 5 shots. Even when he plays well, it’s apparent he doesn’t have his outside shot back yet, and he missed all three of his shots from outside of 20 feet tonight, including a wide-open corner three in overtime that would’ve been huge.

-Bottom line is this: these are the kind of losses you hope happen in December, rather than it really starts to count. The Cavs were AMAZING in tight games like this last season. What did it get the team? 2 of its 4 playoff losses were of the down-to-the wire, razor-thin, devastatingly winnable variety. As much as people like to talk about a game like this in November reveals a team’s “true soul,” or whatever, winning a game like this in December does not grant the team a magic cookie of intangibles that they get to give to invisible clutch elves in May and June. It’s just one more loss out of 82, even if it feels worse than that.

-The other good news: The Cavs get to try and wipe this taste out of their mouths in less than 24 hours against the Rockets. See you then.

-Also, I had to listen to this after the game to remind me that Grizzlies can, in fact, bring happiness and relaxation. (Note: I did say “listen” and not “watch,” as this video kinda creeps me out.)

Preview: Cavs At Grizzlies, December 8th

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Relevant Stats:

Pace: Cleveland 93.5 (24th) vs. Memphis 96.0 (11th)

Offense: Cleveland 107.3 (7th) vs. Memphis 103.9 (17th)

Defense: Cleveland 99.3 (4th) vs. Memphis 109.2 (28th)

Quick Bullets:

In terms of both PER and +/-, Marc Gasol has easily been the Grizzlies’ best player so far this season. Memphis has a few guys who can get hot offensively, but Gasol has been the only consistent threat. Keeping him out of the paint and off the boards should be a priority.

Obviously, this team’s weakness is defense, so look for the Cavs to attack.

Mayo, Gay, and Randolph have shoot-first games that overlap a bit, but if two or three of them get hot, it could be trouble.

Alright, that’s all for now. Should be a good one.

Links To The Present: December 8th, 2009

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

-To begin with: Brian Windhorst with an early-season roundup of what the Cavs have been doing this season. I disagree with him on the offensive impact Shaq has had, especially when the numbers seem to indicate he’s really been disrupting the flow on that end, but he’s spot-on about everything else, including Shaq’s better-than-advertised (and, for me, expected) defensive impact.

-Finnian, along with just about everybody else, is not a fan of the dancing. Awesome, another mini-controversy. Look, I hate watching the dancing as much as everybody else, and think it absolutely sends the wrong message, but I’m not the one playing. He’s a grown man, and it’s his right to make himself look how he wants to. This is also not a new thing for LeBron. My last thought on this: can anybody else imagine a controversy that revolved around LeBron actively and consciously making himself less palatable in the eyes of mainstream America?

-Stuff like this Rockets broadcaster yelling at referees is the kind of thing that makes people so eager to believe a guy like Donaghy. What makes it worse is that this incident doesn’t seem all that ridiculous coming from a local color guy. As someone who’s had league pass for a little while, I can tell you that complaining about calls is a pretty common broadcaster pastime, and it takes away from how their viewers end up seeing the game.

-On a related note, I rarely link to the mothership, but TrueHoop’s posts completely debunking many of Donaghy’s claims are a must-read.

-Great stuff from Eddy Rivera of Third Quarter Collapse using some very slick Synergy Sports analysis.

-Finally, check out BlazersEdge for some wonderful coverage of a terrible situation. Be thankful for the team you have, folks. See you tomorrow.

Recap: Cavs 101, Bucks 86 (Or, It’s a Game of Runs, and Lefty Guards)

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

Overview: The Cavs were able to dispatch the Bucks behind a team-high 21 points from Delonte West, who scored 14 straight points during a game-deciding 29-0 run in the first half.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

-First bullet, Delonte West. After playing 5 minutes in the last game, Delonte came out and led the team in scoring on Sunday night. It looks like it’s going to be a roller coaster ride with Delonte for the foreseeable future, but when Delonte plays like he did tonight, it’s fun to watch.

-In a lot of ways, Delonte’s game can be seen as a study in contrasts with the Bucks’ leading scorer in this game, Brandon Jennings. Both West and Jennings are about the same size, both are left-handed, and both are combo guards. That’s about where the similarities end.

-It’s been a little while since we saw a player quite like Jennings, using that beautiful, flashy handle of his to dance where he pleases on the court, weaving in, out, and around the perimeter and looking to unleash a move to the hole, jumper, or pass at any second. It’s a style of play that was much more prevalent before the hand-check rules really started to make an impact on the game, for whatever reason.

I won’t call go so far as to call Jennings’ style a “throwback” to the earlier part of the decade, but his game looks a lot more like Steph Marbury’s, Allen Iverson’s, or a (better shooting) Steve Francis’ than it looks like Tony Parker’s, Derrick Rose’s, Rondo’s or Deron Williams’, who are always attacking straight angles and looking to get to the hole and finish.

Jennings’ style is extremely fun to watch on every level, it’s really tough to game-plan for, and Jennings obviously has enough talent to pull it off, so it’ll be interesting to see if Jennings can recapture the type of success he was having early in the year without having to make significant changes in how he plays.

-And yet I digress. Delonte was, in a lot of ways, the opposite of Jennings in how he got his points tonight. Delonte isn’t the best ball-handler in the world, has trouble shooting long jumpers off the dribble, and will seldom blow by a defender on the perimeter. But Delonte is extremely strong for his size, isn’t afraid of contact in the slightest, is a willing passer, and knows how to set his shot up if he’s within his range. Delonte’s offensive game is all about of economy of movement, and that was on full display on Sunday night.

-When Mike Brown does give Delonte minutes recently, he’s asked him to take over Mo Williams’ role as the primary creator for the second unit. I don’t think it’s the absolute best use of his abilities, because he does so many good things when he’s put around good teammates, but it give Mo some rest, and Delonte is a point guard of sorts. Delonte’s been struggling a bit in the role, because he has a little more trouble getting his own shot than Mo does and isn’t quite quick enough on the perimeter to consistently force the defense to collapse. But against the Bucks, Delonte was able to leverage the scoring talents he does have to score 14 straight points in the second quarter and swing the game.

During Delonte’s scoring explosion, the guards for the Bucks were the undersized tandem of Luke Ridnour and Charlie Bell. Delonte immediately recognized the size mismatch he had on Ridnour and took him to the block. Catching the ball at the elbows and working down from there, Delonte scored on Ridnour from the low-post and buried two easy 16-footers over Luke. Delonte is also one of those players who understands that sometimes you have to dare the defense to foul you, and was able to shoot 6 free throws during that stretch because of his willingness to force the issue. (Also a factor on that issue: the Bucks give more fouls than any other team in the league.)

It’s nights like this that you can really see why Mike Brown had his coaches prepare tapes of Delonte’s game to teach to his left-handed some moves. Delonte was catching the ball where he could do something with it, assessing his defender, making quick decisions, and trying to take a high-percentage shot or get to the line. The end result was a stat-stuffing 21/4/3/2/1 line on only 9 field goal attempts, a game-changing run, and an imaginary game ball.

-LeBron was fairly passive in terms of his scoring tonight, not taking any shots of 19 feet, giving the ball up if his drive wasn’t there, and looking to set up the assist at every possible opportunity. (Although he was again trying too hard to get his bigs a home-run pass when the angle wasn’t there, resulting in 5 turnovers.)

And in the “Things that it’s cool to see LeBron do” file, tonight we saw two aggressive post-ups where LeBron really attacked his man on the block instead of waiting for the double, then when he did get the double, he kicked it out to Mo Williams for a wide-open three. That extra step that LeBron got by forcing the double with his dribble rather than waiting for the double to come is what gave Mo the space he needed to hit those threes. And in the fourth, LeBron flashed a great mid-post move when he used his jab step near the top of the circle, backed to about the free throw line, faked right, pivoted left, and was able to get a clean look at a turnaround jumper from 13 feet, which he drained.

-Really not Shaq’s best game in a lot of ways. He was a team-low -18 in 15 minutes, only had one rebound, missed a lot of his shots from the post, and committed some silly offensive fouls. But the good news might outweigh the bad for Shaq in this game, because Shaq and LeBron were starting to find some serious chemistry, with LeBron actively looking to set Shaq up for some nice dunks. That’s a very good sign. Also, I think I like Shaq from the right block just a little bit more than I like him from the left block right now-he looks less awkward setting his feet and turning baseline on his hook than he does trying to go across the middle of the lane when he shoots the hook.

-Neither Andy or Z had big scoring nights tonight, but they did the little things that they do best and finished with matching +31 marks.

-Another great game for the defense, although this Bucks offense is pretty terrible. With Jennings not hitting from outside and Bogut looking awful, the Bucks just didn’t have anyone that could give them offense, and their best success came in the second half, when Jennings pretty much decided to take every shot. Jennings had an uncharacteristic night: he’s had one of the most extreme good shooter/bad finisher skews in the league among high-volume scorers this season, but tonight he was only 2-13 on jumpers and a respectable 6-9 around the rim. Even still, Jennings didn’t shoot the Bucks out of the game as much as he failed to shoot them back into it.

Bullets of Randomness:

-He only played defense on LeBron for a few minutes, but Mbah a Moute is on a very short list of the best perimeter defenders in the league. It’s extremely rare to see LeBron get bothered on the perimeter like he was tonight by “The Prince.” He could be a special player on that end, although I wonder how he’ll ever make himself useful offensively. The plan right now seems to be to make him into a 3-and-D guy, but his stroke does not look all that natural, and I have a pet theory that perimeter guys with insanely long arms have a tougher time developing a good stroke on their jumper because of the sheer amount of coordination getting that much arm into the correct place takes. (Durant would be an exception that proves the rule.)

An idea might be to make him into a four offensively and use a bigger guy who can guard fours and shoot threes to cross-match with him. Either way, I hope something works out so that I get to watch “The Prince” play a lot of defense over the next few years.

Recap: Cavs 101, Bulls 87 (Or, Sometimes Everything Works Better The 2nd Time)

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

Overview: The Cavs avenged one of their home losses this season by turning in a solid effort against the Bulls, with the game turning on a 29-15 domination of the third quarter for the Cavaliers.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

-Apologies for the lateness, everyone. Onto the game:

-This game illustrated a few of the points I made in my last post. The Cavs are excellent at shutting down the paint and the three-point line, and the Bulls don’t do very well scoring from either area. The end result was that the Bulls only scored 35 combined points from the paint and from three, compared to 54 points from the Cavaliers in those areas.

-The Bulls were able to have success offensively in the first half because they’re comfortable shooting mid-range jumpers, and the Cavaliers are comfortable giving those looks up. In the first quarter, the Bulls went 9-14 from midrange, and that allowed them to stay in the game despite the Cavs coming out of the gate with another 30-point explosion.

-Taj Gibson was particularly effective as a Z-like catch-and-shoot big playing the role of “release valve” when the Cavs D overloaded, going 4-5 from outside the paint in the first quarter. From watching Taj play at USC for a number of years, I can tell you that the Cavs were playing the percentages with Taj by giving those shots up, but he was making them. When I talked to Taj at Staples earlier this year, he told me his face-up game is the area he’s been working on the hardest since he got to the NBA, so it was interesting to see that that work has been paying off.

-The Bulls were able to win the second quarter because the second unit completely melted down. That unit has to play smart and controlled to make up for the dearth of talent on it; on Friday, they played with all the composure of Snookie from Jersey Shore. Bad shots, missed free throws, way too many turnovers, and it continued even after LeBron got back into the game. Fortunately the Bulls’ offense wasn’t doing much of anything either, which is why that putrid quarter didn’t kill the Cavs.

-In the third, the Cavs got their offensive composure back, while the Bulls’ mid-range shots stopped falling for them. The Bulls went 3-13 from midrange in the third quarter, and it resulted in a 29-15 quarter that won the game for the Cavaliers.

-Good and bad from Shaq in this game. On the bad side, Shaq has been assertive about getting the ball in the post and getting his shots this year, but his post play hasn’t been all that stellar. He’s floating to the middle of the paint from the left block and settling for a little hook across the lane rather than really powering straight towards the rim and getting close enough so that he can go over either shoulder when he makes his move. This was extremely apparent against Joakim Noah tonight. Noah has a lot of length but doesn’t have all that much strength, but Shaq was willing to settle for his mid-paint hook a few times against him, with limited success. However, when he finally took a power dribble and used his counter-move over his right shoulder, he completely negated Noah and got an easy dunk. I’d like to see more of that from Shaq when he goes to the post.

-On the good side, one of my other complaints with Shaq in the post is that he’s tried to shoot over or power through double-teams instead of passing out of them and seeing if there’s a better shot to be found. Tonight, he was much more of a willing passer from the post, and the offense was able to flow with Shaq in there better than it had before.

-LeBron left some points on the floor by having a poor night finishing at the rim (only 5-10 at the rim, well off of his normal 75% mark), and at the line (4-8), but had a decent night shooting the ball (7 points on 7 outside shots), was passing the ball beautifully, and even doing some work from the low post. And to give you a preview of my next “to-do” list post, his 7-footer coming across the lane is something I’d like to see more of from LeBron.

-On the Noah thing: hey, it’s what he does. It’s not against the rules or anything like that, so it’s his choice how he wants to carry himself on the court, and there is some upside in terms of team chemistry. It’s not exactly how I’d like to see him carry himself, and backlash like what we saw from Noah tonight will happen, but it’s his choice.

-Boobie Gibson with an uncharacteristically good night, making six two-point shots (which Windhorst  on a few deep jumpers and even some finishes at the rim, which raised his percentage at the rim to 33% on the season. Even still, 15 points in 9 shots off the bench is a good thing. He gets a shirt.

boobie shirt

-The worst Cavs news of the night comes from that Windhorst article: Delonte took a step back in terms of his mood tonight, and only played five minutes because of it. I recommend checking out that link, as it sheds a lot of light on why Mike Brown’s been forced to be so erratic with Delonte’s minutes this season.

-Nice to see Mo contributing with seven assists on a night where his shot wasn’t falling all that often, especially from mid-range.

-Alright, that’s all for tonight. Get ready for Brandon Jennings and the Bucks on Sunday.

The Changing Cavalier Defense And What It Means

Friday, December 4th, 2009

As some of you may know, I’ve been skeptical of the Shaq trade ever since it happened, and have upgraded to power-skepticism of the trade since the season began. In particular, I’ve blamed a lot of the Cavs’ regression on the defensive end this year on Shaq, whose pick-and-roll defense has always been regarded as atrocious. Commenter “KJ” has called shenanigans on me a number of times on this, and has pointed out that the Cavs’ defense in the paint has actually gotten better with Shaq in the lineup. As the Cavs’ defensive struggles continued without Shaq in the rotation, I admit that I had some causation/correlation issues with blaming the Cavs’ defensive woes on Shaq. (Although I maintain that the gap between Delonte West and Anthony Parker is much bigger than most would think.)

Last night, commenter KJ said that the Cavs’ improved defense in the paint this season is worth a post. Commenter KJ is right. So here’s an analysis of how the Cavs’ defense has changed this season, and what it may mean down the line.

One of things I’ve lamented about a number of times in my recaps this season is that defense is harder to pick apart and analyze than offense is, especially in real-time. A bad defensive game can be the product of bad individual defense, blown interior rotations, or simply the other team hitting tough shots. Fortunately for guys like me, there’s the wonderful HoopData.com, which breaks down where the opposition is shooting from and how effective they’ve been defensively.

Shaq has certainly changed things defensively. Mike Brown is old-school in his defensive philosophy on the pick-and-roll. The big man shows hard on the dribbler and then recovers back to his man, with the original defender staying with the play. Big Z has traditionally sagged back into the paint while Andy shows high, and it worked a vast majority of the time. Shaq has changed the equation. He can’t show high, and always sags back into the paint when teams try to exploit him on the pick-and-roll. He does get caught in no-mans land much more often than Z did, but when he sags into the paint, he shuts it down.

KJ correctly notes that the Cavs’ defense in the paint has greatly improved this season, in part because Shaq is so adamant about shutting the paint down defensively. Only Boston gives up less baskets at the rim than the Cavaliers have this season, and opponents only convert 57% of their opportunities at the rim, one of the lowest marks in the league. This is actually an improvement over last season, when the Cavs allowed a full extra basket per game at the rim on about the same field goal percentage.

However, Shaq’s inability to step out on the pick-and-roll, among other factors, has caused the Cavs to regress in how well they’ve defended the mid-range shot. Last season, the Cavaliers were better than the league average at defending shots from <10 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet. This season, opponents’ FG% from all of those areas is better than the league average. Last season, the Cavs allowed 13.3 baskets per game from midrange. This season, they allow 16 baskets per game from midrange, and with the better percentages they’re allowing from midrange, that regression more than cancels out the Cavs’ defensive improvement in the paint this season.

The Cavs were excellent at defending the three-pointer last season, and that’s continued this year. The Cavs only allow opponents to make 5.5 three-pointers a game this season, on a very low eFG% of 47.5%. Essentially, the Cavs are a weak at defending midrange shots, but great at defending the perimeter and the rim.

Last season, I would’ve rejoiced at this news. As any advanced-stats junkie knows, threes and shots at the rim are far more efficient than midrange shots, and cutting off those weapons is a great way to neutralize an offense.

However, when I was doing some research this off-season, I found something that shocked me. I did a regression analysis of offensive efficiency against what percentage of a team’s shots came from midrange, and there was absolutely no correlation. None. The midrange shot might be inefficient compared to threes and shots at the rim, but that gap can be overcome by converting the shots a team takes at a high level, and it’s easier to get good looks from midrange than it is to get good looks at the rim or from deep.

What that means is that the Cavaliers are a very good defensive team against teams that practice the “extreme skew” offensively, and a mediocre one against more “conventional” offensive teams. Since the Cavaliers are built for the playoffs, and the Shaq trade was made in large part to fix the Cavs’ matchup problems in the playoffs, let’s see which potential Cavalier playoff opponents practice the “extreme skew” and which ones don’t. Contenders are in no particular order.

1. The Boston Celtics

Boston is very good at the rim offensively, making a slightly above-average 16.4 shots at the rim per game on a league-best 67% mark from inside. That’s a good thing with how well the Cavs have shut down the paint.

Boston is also excellent from the <10 foot range, making a basket more per game than the league average from that zone on a top-three field goal percentage. That’s less good. From the other midrange zones, they make about the average number of baskets on a far better FG%. They are an average team from three-point range. Overall, the Celtics would be a slightly favorable matchup for the Cavs’ new defense. This is because they rely on converting at the rim above all else, but have shown the ability to be very effective from midrange in limited attempts. If the Cavs can shut down their interior game, it will be interesting to see if they get flustered offensively or have trust in their midrange game.

2. The Orlando Magic

The Magic were one of the biggest “extreme skew” teams in the league last season, and that was a big reason they were able to punish the Cavalier D in the conference finals. This season, they haven’t attempted that many shots at the rim, but still favor shooting a lot of threes over midrange baskets. They attempt a below-average amount of shots at the rim and from every midrange zone, but only the Knicks attempt more threes per game. The Magic are still trying to get healthy and get some offensive chemistry, but this matchup would ultimately come down to how well the Cavs defend the three.

3. The Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are average in both attempts and FG% from every area except the paint, where they make the 5th-most shots with the 2nd-best FG% at the rim. This is a team who the Cavs should be able to defend better this season than they would have been last season.

4. The Miami Heat

The Heat don’t attempt all that many shots. They’re only the 17th-most efficient offense in the league, and play at a very slow pace. Only the Pacers make less shots at the rim per game than the heat, and they aren’t all that gret in any other area from the field either. Where the Heat live is at the line, especially Wade. The defensive key in this series will be making sure the Heat have to get all their baskets from the field.

Well, that’s all for tonight. The Cavs are cutting off the extreme skew with a vengeance this season. Hopefully that’ll be a recipe for success come the real season. Until tomorrow, all.