(I am aware that Daniel Baldwin, not Stephen Baldwin, got hugged by Shaq last night. However, some pictures demand to be shared. Picture courtesy of Onion AV Club)
The Cavs were able to beat the Blazers on the road thanks to a stellar performance from LeBron James, who scored 41 points on 13-19 shooting from the field. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge combined for 52 points on 22-34 shooting from the field to keep the game competitive for much of the way.
-After a sloppy performance on Friday night, LeBron James had no intentions of losing this game. And it showed. From the opening tip on, LeBron had every aspect of his game working, and every intention to punish the Blazers. When LeBron’s playing like he was, there’s no answer. A post-up on Martell Webster from the elbow to set up a nice lefty finger roll. A tough floater on the fast-break. A terrifying display of speed in transition for a lefty finish. Catch-and-shoot threes. Off-the-dribble threes. The man was doing whatever he wanted, making it look easy, and not missing shots. He even made one of those end-of-quarter pull-up jumpers that he’s been bricking left and right lately.
However, the Cavs continued their habit of seemingly getting caught up in the LeBron show on offense when he goes off in the first half and forgetting to lock down on defense. After a 34-point Cavs barrage that included LeBron scoring 20 points on 8-8 shooting, the Cavs were only up five points.
LeBron has, by almost every statistical measure, been just as good this season as he was last year, when he ran away with the MVP trophy. And the Cavs really haven’t been doing that much worse. But for some reason, his good performances don’t seem to correlate to the Cavs’ good performances quite as much as they did last season, and that makes LeBron seem somehow less omnipotent this season than he did last year.
Now, I’m much, much more in the stat geek mold than I am in the “traditionalist” mold, so there’s a rational part of my brain that’s telling me that’s a silly thing to say. Just like pitcher’s won-lost record is subject to factors they can’t control like run support, that the Cavs seem to relax on both ends when LeBron is going off this season shouldn’t be pinned on LeBron.
In fact, I do have a rational explanation for the phenomena, at least in the early parts of a game. I think the major culprit is replacing Z and Andy/Ben’s consistent energy levels with Shaq and JJ’s (especially) inconsistent energy levels has been a cause of the problem. But it’s worth looking at, because an opening salvo like that from LeBron should have set the tone for a blowout in this one.
-One more reason that LeBron appeals to my inner stat geek is that his play seems more in line with the law of averages than other superstars’. This may be just because I watch LeBron much more than I watch any other player, but his game seems to make statistical sense. About a year ago, a study was published that essentially debunked the “hot-hand” theory in basketball. After watching LeBron, who fully believes in heat-checks, over the past few seasons, I can say that LeBron James is a perfect example of what that study is talking about.
Last season, even though he won the MVP, watching LeBron’s perimeter game was like watching a problem gambler win a big bet, get ahead, and instead of walking away from the table, sticking to that strategy, or cashing out, made progressively bigger bets with each win until he finally and inevitably lost. If he made a deep jumper, he’d pull up for a three. If he made that, he’d pull up for another one. If he made that, he’d huck another one, instead of making the defense respect his shot and driving the lane. Eventually, he’d miss two or three in a row, wouldn’t trust his shot anymore, and would go into all-out basket attack mode, making him more predictable than he was before he started shooting jumpers. Yes, the Milwaukee 3rd quarter happened, but that game was as much a function of probability as talent; believe me, the Cavs gave up more points in other game that LeBron tried and failed to get that “hot” than they gained when he did have that fateful barrage in the Bradley Center.
Which brings me to this game. LeBron was making everything he looked at in the first half, from everywhere on the floor. He even drained a heat-check three. He had one of the most efficient scoring halves possible.
But that’s not the best part. The best part is that instead of trying to ride his hot streak, LeBron cashed out. He looked at what he did in the first half, appreciated the boost it had given his team, and realized that continuing to try and go off like he he had been wouldn’t be the strategy that would give his team the best chance of winning. He went back to the game that worked for him, driving inside, getting to the line, and setting up his teammates when he got doubled, racking up six assists in the second half. It was the reverse of the script LeBron generally tries to follow in a given game, setting up his teammates in the first half and taking over late, but it was what the Cavs needed to get the win on Sunday. Oh, and he sat three minutes. LeBron wanted this one.
-Big praise in order for the Big Fella. The Blazers didn’t have enough size to bother Shaq or athleticism to make him pay on the other end in their frontcourt, and Shaq recognized that and beat the Blazers up inside. 3-4 from the field, five beautiful assists out of double-teams, and he went to the line 8 times. And he finished with a +16, which tied him for the game high.
The defining moment of the game for Shaq was when he was setting up for a jump hook on Howard, who wrapped him up in a complete give-up move to prevent the shot and make the Cavs take it on the side. Seconds later, the Cavs lobbed the ball over a fronting Howard, and Shaq laid it in. Juwan, for all his merits as a veteran, just had no chance against Shaq physically.
-ULTIMATE JAWAD. He showed some nerves in his first game, but I liked what he showed playing off the ball on Friday, and he certainly showed wonderful stuff in this one, playing crunch-time minutes in his third game in the rotation. He worked off of LeBron to get a nice layup early, played physical frontcourt defense, and…made two threes. Could he be the stretch four the Cavs have so openly coveted, a destitute man’s Antawn Jamison? Maybe. I’m not going to give Jawad my full blessing yet, because HicksonMania wasn’t that long ago.
(And after Tarence Kinsey, I am extremely wary of giving completely incongruous amounts of affection to a late-season rotation addition again. I won’t be hurt like that again. Friends of mine at summer league were going out of their way to inform me how badly he sucked. Anyways.)
However, Jawad gave the Cavs some pretty sweet stretch four minutes. Not only was his three to put the Cavs up six with 4:21 left in the game a big play momentum-wise, but it was a beautiful basketball play.
The Cavs had LeBron posting up his man on the wing. The Blazers were semi-zoning LeBron, and had a man watching him under the basket. Jawad ran all the way around on the baseline, and set up on the weak side, just above Andy. As Jawad got to his spot, Andy started to cut from the weak-side like he was going to find the seam in the double and get a layup. (Remember, this is what the Cavs killed the Blazers with late in their first meeting of the year.)
LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s watching both Andy and Jawad on the weak side of the semi-zone, goes down into the paint to prevent Andy from getting a layup. This frees up Jawad for an open three. LeBron hits him with a BB of a skip pass, and Jawad nails the big three. LeBron in the post, movement off the ball, a stretch four; isn’t that a set that contains all of what Cavs fans desire more of? And to put the cherry on top, Delonte also froze Andre Miller by faking a cut into the middle, giving Jawad even more space. So I’m hoping the Jawad experiment works out, so that we can see more plays like that; as much fun as small-ball lineups that spread the floor and allow LeBron to blow past a four-man are, lineups that can spread the floor and allow to punish a swingman in the post might be even more intriguing.
-Anderson Varejao continues to somehow struggle from the field, and he missed a few chippies, but overall he was still doing more than enough Andy things to make up for it.
-Delonte with 33 minutes and AP with only 18, presumably to better cover B-Roy. I guess the Cavs did make him work.
Bullets of Randomness:
I love Brandon Roy’s entire game, but especially his perimeter game. Something I like to say on this blog (and it applies to the heat-checking stuff from earlier), is that the most valuable skill in basketball is not the ability to make difficult shots, but to create easy ones. So many guys in this league try to copy Kobe or whoever else and add all these different shots to their arsenal, but most of them don’t have anywhere near enough talent to be effective doing it. They’re trying to add turnarounds, fadeaways, leaners, shots off the wrong foot, and whatever else they have to do to get a shot off in traffic.
B-Roy is different. He almost never leans or fades on his shot, particularly from outside of 15 feet, and shoots it the same way every time, without a particularly quick or high release. But he’s a master at setting it up. He uses the hesitation dribble, screens, crossovers, and whatever else he needs to do to get himself the space he needs to shoot his jumper the way he wants to, and he’s terribly effective at it.
Before Mike Leach did whatever it is he did, his trademark was his offensive theory of confusing the defense by having a few plays out of tons of formations instead of tons of plays out of a few formations, and I feel like Roy’s perimeter game operates on the same basic principles as Leach’s offense. Using many moves to set up one shot is no less difficult for the defense to figure out than setting up many shots with a few moves, and it makes things significantly simpler for Roy to do the former.
-Martell Webster is not shy. I think he could turn into Pietrus with basketball IQ, which is much higher praise than it appears. By the way, when ESPN does a “look, Martell Webster is defending LeBron really well” montage on a night when LeBron goes for 41 points and 8 assists on 79% TS, you know LeBron’s pretty good.
-Alright, that’s nearly 1,900 words and I have class in six hours. Until tomorrow, everyone.
Update: Lance Uppercut reminds me that I forgot to share the picture of LeBron James catching a lob with his head and shoulders above the rim. Here it is.