(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Yeah, this one kinda defies overview.
-I am very nearly at a loss for words right now. Let’s try to go over some general game stuff before getting to the parts everyone is going to be talking about:
-A very ugly game for the Cavs. They turned the ball over too much, and had huge problems getting into their offense. Utah did a great job of making LeBron uncomfortable in the post, and in general they were able to flummox the Cavs inside, and beat them to almost every loose ball. Too many turnovers, too little energy.
-The Cavs could not defend without fouling. In the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, the Cavs committed 10 fouls on 19 Utah possessions. Some will say refs, some will say a lack of discipline by the Cavs. Either way, it was a major factor in this game.
-Mo continues to struggle with his shot, and that bled into the rest of the game, as he committed sloppy turnovers and was way too handsy on defense, which led to him fouling out when the Cavs needed him most.
-The small-ball lineup needed a try in this one. Shaq did not look good in this one, particularly in the fourth quarter, when he missed an easy hook, got abused on a blow-by by Boozer, and let a couple of loose balls around his ankles go to the Jazz.
-Horrible game for Andy. 2-7 from the field, as many traveling calls as made baskets, forced shots, and a game-low -12.
-Delonte made all three of his threes, but drifted in and out of the game, didn’t have a basket on four shots inside the arc, and overall wasn’t effective. He missed two of his four free throws, and MB and LeBron had no interest in having him try to take game-sealing free throws, even though he had the best FT% of any of the players on the floor once Mo fouled out.
-With 3:26 remaining and the Cavs down nine, LeBron scored 18 points in just under three minutes to put the Cavs up six with 32 seconds to play. Best clutch performance of the year. Heck, maybe his best performance of the year, period. Crushing and-1s. Impossible threes. Four points on one possession. Even a great rebound in traffic and two big free throws. End of the story, right? No. Here’s what happened next:
-Ronnie Price bangs in a three off the dribble. Price is a 32% career three-point shooter and has now made seven threes on the season.
-After two Cavs FT makes, Price then draws a foul in five seconds and makes both free throws. He is a 56% FT shooter on the year.
-AP splits a pair of FTs.
-Paul Milsap gets tripped up 20 feet from the basket and makes both of his free throws. He is a 73% FT shooter, and was 3-6 from the line coming into those two shots.
-AP splits another pair of free throws. When this happened, I let out an involuntary scream so loud it worried other people in my house.
-Kyle Korver makes a contested 19-foot jumper from behind the backboard. He was 1-5 from the field before that shot.
-Zydrunas Ilgauskas splits a pair of free throws. I’d like to remind you that this was the first time Mo had fouled out this season.
-Sundiata Gaines, playing in the fifth game of his NBA career and replacing an injured Deron Williams, is allowed a three. He makes the first three of his NBA career over Anthony Parker as the buzzer sounds.
On the free throws: Mo fouling out just made everything horrible. The Cavs were clearly not prepared for that situation. LeBron probably had the best chance of making those free throws in the clutch. But MB’s thinking was that the Cavs hadn’t practiced late-game free-throw inbounds situations without LeBron as the triggerman, and the gap in LBJ and someone else’s passing was bigger than the gap between LeBron and someone else’s free-throw shooting, which on paper is very small. Decent enough justification on paper. But history is the propaganda of the victors, and MB is a big-time loser in this one.
These are the type of games that make you think. As I write this sentence, there are 28 minutes until my 21st birthday. Going out with friends tonight, and tomorrow, my friends are taking me to Vegas for the weekend to celebrate. I have been looking forward to this for months. When these types of things happen just before you turn 21, it makes you think a lot.
Cavs fans were 32 seconds away, one more miss, one clang from a D-league call-up, from a weekend of peace. A LeBron takeover, in the clutch, to drive a fantastic comeback. For a few days, everyone could just sit back and talk about how much fun it is to watch this man and this team play basketball and not try to find some evil truth lurking in his greatness, something that prevents him from winning despite all that he does. After all, winning is the propaganda of the victors, and sports coverage is a luck-free zone. People are Winners, or they are not. The outcome is a function of the people who go into making it, and that alone. People will be saying that about this game, because LeBron didn’t demand to take those free throws. He made his own luck, will become the accepted doctrine, even with all of the events described above. And these things seem to happen to LeBron with more regularity than they happen to other superstars. Just when he looks complete and unassailable, one tiny pinprick of a crack in his armor emerges, and the arrow always seems to find it.
I’ve been doing this a little too long, have been writing about the NBA in general for too long, been trying (trying) to keep an objective viewpoint for too long, and have seen how the proverbial sausage gets made for too long, to feel the type of personal connection to LeBron or the Cavs that a lot of fans and bloggers feel with their stars and teams.
But what does occasionally happen is that I can project pieces of my own personality into the way I cover LeBron, after doing it so exhaustively for so long. Someone on the Dime Chat mentioned tonight that I point out all of LeBron’s mistakes. I often do. Guess what? I’m kind of insecure. I try to not get swept up in narrative and break down what LeBron does in an empirical way. That’s how I try and see the world.
So games like this one are the ones that really turn my stomach, keep me pacing back in forth, dance in the back of my mind on my birthday. Because, despite all the rational things my brain says, it felt like something was happening in the last 32 seconds, like something didn’t want LeBron to have that takeover on his resume and for me to have nothing in the back of my mind this weekend, like there was something he or I had done wrong that made neither of us deserve the win. (The free throws for him, me telling my friend to get ready to celebrate after LeBron hit the three over Matthews.) And that all the rational principles I try to let govern my life are wrong, and I’m that much dumber for believing them. I try not to let that voice command how I see the game or my life, and most of the time I don’t. But I hear it.
Which is why it’s important to remember things like the following. The Cavs are now 30-11 in January instead of 31-10 in January. This game will not count for extra clutch points if the breaks don’t go their way in the playoffs. And really, too much went terrifyingly and improbably wrong to say this was the Cavs making their own luck. LeBron would be no better or worse of a player, and the team no better or worse, if the three had gone off-line and the Cavs had escaped.
And my life wouldn’t be much different either. I turn 21 in 60 seconds. My friends are awesome, a few of them are taking me to Vegas for the first time, I’m in college and getting to have people read what I write about my favorite sport already, and I’m about to go out in a t-shirt on a January night. This is a game that made me think about my friend’s girlfriend, whose hobby is not watching pro basketball and writing about it. She quilts. And she’s no worse off for it, and doesn’t have to go through these kinds of emotional ups and downs. This is the worst regular-season loss I can remember. The best thing I can say? Go quilt. The Cavs will play again on Saturday, and something that isn’t this will happen. I promise. After all, the Cavs haven’t lost a game since I turned 21.