There is no bright side.
And there’s no use revisiting Tuesday night’s 120-88 loss to the Boston Celtics in Gave Five. It’s basically more of the same . . . only worse than ever . . . and the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t seem to care. Honestly, I have no idea what’s up with LeBron and the rest of the team, and it doesn’t seem like anyone else does either.
Naturally, this is a pretty irritable time to be a Cavs fan . . . to say the least. Suddenly, and without any warning, everything has been thrown in the balance: The title march, the Finals appearance march, the rematch against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals.
And obviously, you can take it much further than that . . . but I can’t right now.
But it isn’t that the Cavs hit a roadblock, it’s that the roadblock has knocked the Cavs down . . . and apparently, they have a collective concussion. That’s the only way I can explain having your ass handed to you over and over again . . . and not seem to be aware of the fact that something is wrong. Or be willing to put forth a solid effort regardless.
It’s truly bizarre, and it’s making my head hurt.
So in the absence of any comfort thoughts, or glass-half-full angles, I’m going to go ahead and rip LeBron for having one of his worst games (if not the worst game) of his career . . . at arguably the absolute worst time possible . . . and not really having something interesting to say about it.
Now, I’m not going to really rip him. Like all players, great players have bad games . . . and like all not-great players, great players have low-energy, weak efforts. But great players don’t give weak efforts in their bad games. That’s what separates great players from not-great players in the first place.
First off, was Tuesday night’s game the worst game of LeBron’s NBA career?
Considering that it was the playoffs . . . and considering the high stakes . . . it was. Easily. If you compound that with his blasé attitude and intensity level, and it’s . . . well, still the worst game, but even more bad, disheartening and baffling.
LeBron was 3-for-14 shooting the ball. That’s 21.4%. He was 0-for-4 from beyond the arc, which is 0% . . . and 9-for-12 from the stripe, which is actually a semi-normal 75%. He finished with 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds. (By the way, because of the divergence between numbers and visual evidence in this series . . . you can’t argue that LeBron’s assist and rebound numbers demonstrated that he was a factor in other areas of the game. He wasn’t.)
That 21.4% was the ninth worst FG% in LeBron’s NBA career, including both playoff and regular season games. Or, you can look at it like this: LeBron shot a better percentage in 609 of his 618 NBA games.
And in one of those nine poor shooting games, LeBron only played 17 minutes and left due to an injury. (At that point, he’d missed all five of his shots. So, I think you could probably throw that one out.)
Ironically, the most recent game in which LeBron shot 21.4% or worse also came in the playoffs at the hands of the Celtics. It was Game One of the 2008 series, a series the Cavs ended up losing in seven. In that one, which was played in Boston, LeBron was 2-for-18 (11.1%) with 12 points. He missed all six of his three pointers, and made eight of his 12 points at the free throw line. Weirdly, he almost had a triple-double . . . notching nine assists and nine rebounds.
But LeBron did have a double-double in that one . . . if you include turnovers. He coughed the ball up 10 times in that game, which tied a career high. He’d done that two other times before. (In Tuesday’s game, LeBron had three turnovers.)
After that game, James said:
“I missed a lot of shots I know I can make,” James said, staring at the stat sheet incredulously after scoring just two points in the second half and missing his last six shots in all. “I missed layups. Those layups I’ve made my whole life.”
That was the only playoff game with a worse FG%. As for the seven (or six, if you don’t count that injury game) regular season games, all of them were in LeBron’s first two seasons in the league . . . except a 2-for-11 (18.2%) night against the Dallas Mavericks on opening night in 2007.
So, out of the blue, LeBron James just has his worst shooting night in two years . . . in Game Five of a 2-2 series, which has seen a lot of abysmal Cavs effort on both sides of the ball? Apparently.
I suppose the timing could be a little worse. It could have been in a close-out game. But then again, it isn’t a walk in the park trying to figure out where to set your expectations for the team going forward. And by going forward, right now, I can only mean Game Six . . . because as hard as it is to believe, that’s all Cleveland has left, unless they find some collective effort.
So what did LeBron talk about after Tuesday’s game? He said:
“Of course the [Boston] defense had a little to do with [my bad shooting night], because they’re on the court and they’re very aggressive. But I just missed a lot of shots. A lot of open shots that I’m capable of making. And . . . you don’t see that out of me a lot, so when it happens, it’s a big surprise.
“I’ll go over the film, but they played me the same way they’ve played me all series. And I just wasn’t able to knock down those shots that I got some good looks at.
“I wasn’t able to get anything going offensively for myself, but I was still able to do some other things . . . get some rebounds and some assists and get guys going early in the game. And it was a good game, at the start.”
When asked about the possibility that this could’ve been the Cavs’ final home game of the season, if things don’t go well Thursday night in Boston, he said:
“Nah, I didn’t even think about that. I feel like Game Six is a huge game for us. And Game Five was a huge game . . . we just didn’t come out and play particularly well all game. I think in the first quarter we did, but we didn’t play particularly well in the second quarter, third or fourth. Me sitting up here saying [that this could've been our final game in Cleveland this year], that wouldn’t be me. It wouldn’t be our team.”
When asked if the Cavs were still trying to find their identity, he said:
“No, I don’t think so. We know what it takes to win as a team, but at the same time, we haven’t played great basketball. It’s been all playoffs . . . we’ve had a few stretches, a few quarters, a few games where we played particularly well. But for a collective group, throughout the whole playoffs, we haven’t played great basketball. So, I don’t think it’s an identity thing, I think it’s a consistency thing . . . and we haven’t had that.
“[On Tuesday] we shot 41% from the field, and that’s never going to help us win a game . . . when we’re not executing offensively.”
When asked what he thought of the fans at The Q booing the team, he said:
“We played awful. They have every right to boo us. No disrespect to our fans. They’ve been great to us. They’ve seen us at the highest level, they’ve seen us at the lowest level. If they [felt like booing] . . . so be it.”
When asked about his elbow, he said:
“It felt good, I didn’t have any problems with it.
“I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have three bad games in a seven-year career, it is easy to point that out.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to go out be great and the best player on the court. When I’m not, I feel bad for myself because I’m not going out there and doing the things I know I can do. But I don’t hang my head low and make excuses, because that is not the type of player or the type of person I am.”
I totally respect that.
But in this one instance LeBron, can we just blame the elbow . . . or something? Can you just give us a few excuses . . . a few explanations?
If it’s an injury, admit that it’s affecting your gameplan, but you’re working through it. If it’s something personal, say you weren’t feeling well. If it was something with a coach or a teammate, come out and say that there was some miscommunication and/or confusion and you’re going to work it out with that coach/teammate before the next game so everyone’s on the same page.
With how brilliant LeBron James has been for seven seasons, there must be a perfectly logical explanation for his three strange performances in this series. I don’t want to freak out here. I want to believe the Cavs can take the next two from Boston. But something seems really off . . . and I’d just feel better knowing what it is.
So, just give us something. Anything.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are great when they play great . . . and are bad when they play bad.
Here’s the good news: With their huge win in Game Three on Friday night . . . and despite their excitement-tempering loss in Game Four on Sunday . . . the Cavs are knotted up 2-2 with the Boston Celtics, and still hold home-court advantage.
There are three games remaining (if necessary). It will look like this: Tonight in Cleveland, Thursday night in Boston, and the final game will be held Sunday in Cleveland.
The bad news is: The Cavs spent Game Four building on the wrong game. It was definitely an improvement over the disastrous, bizarre Game Two . . . but it was a depressing, disenchanting departure from Game Three.
If these last two games would have happened in the opposite order, everything would be different. Cleveland fans would’ve been pretty scared to be down 1-2 to the Celtics . . . but watching the build from Game Two to Game Three to Game Four would’ve made a lot more sense.
But as it stands, it’s hard to know what to think. Again.
It’s also hard to characterize. From what we’ve seen so far in the playoffs, the determining factor on how well the Cavs play is not how their opponents play . . . or even how they themselves play . . . it’s how much they want to play.
The problems, or at least the most glaring ones, don’t necessarily seem to be the mechanics of their offensive or defensive execution. They work fine when they’re backed by effort, focus and control. And they inevitably shine through, intermittently, in even the cloudiest games.
The problems aren’t talent or skill based. This season, LeBron James has more than enough talent around him. It’s arguable that, on paper, the Cavaliers are the deepest, most multi-faceted team in the conference, if not the league. They may not have the championship experience of the Los Angeles Lakers, but this team was built to neutralize the match-up problems created by the Orlando Magic . . . while creating massive ones of their own for every other team in the NBA.
And the problems don’t appear to be gameplan-related. Although, that’s hard to say, considering that the Cavaliers haven’t been doing anything with any conviction in failure. Unless that is the gameplan. If the gameplan is having no glameplan, then there are some significant gameplan-related problems.
Instead, Cleveland’s biggest problem is a lack of sustained substance.
Game Four was a good example. The Cavaliers showed occasional toughness and grit, more than we saw in Games One and Two . . . and kept the game within grasp for the duration, essentially. But the intensity slipped in and out like cell phone reception while traveling through Idaho.
Sure, Rajon Rondo exploded in Game Four . . . and it appears as if the defense hasn’t committed to how they want to handle him . . . but on Sunday, the hustle was spotty at best. The Cavs, whether true or not, looked lazy and frazzled.
- In Game Three, the Cavs had 25 assists on 59.5% shooting (44-for-74). They won the rebounding battle 45-30, with 11 offensive boards. They had 12 turnovers. And shot 91.2% (31-for-34) from the stripe.
- The Cavs also won the fast break points battle 7-5, and had the edge in points in the paint 50-32.
- In Game Four, the Cavs had 19 assists on 40.3% shooting (27-for-67). They lost the rebounding battle 33-47, with three offensive boards. They had 17 turnovers. And shot 74.4% (29-for-39) from the stripe.
- The Cavs also lost the fast break points battle 7-23, and got beat in points in the paint 40-50.
Obviously, there’s a difference there . . . but can it all be chalked up to the Cavs having a good Game Three and a lousy Game Four and vice versa for the Celtics? Well, yes.
But for those who are worried about the Cavs’ effort, consider this: Even in Game Three – where the Cavs seemed to be destroying the Celtics on both ends of the court – the Celtics were still able to grab more offensive rebounds (14 to 11 for the Cavs) and fewer turnovers (7 to 12 for the Cavs).
But statistics alone can only communicate a fraction of the underwhelming efforts the Cavs displayed. If you saw Games Two and Four, you know what I mean.
It’s the too-frequent defensive lapses that allow Rondo to slice right to the basket and get a lay-up . . . usually after a 20-second Cavaliers possession, in which it seemed like they had to scrape and claw to score.
It’s the too-frequent “deer in the headlights” offensive possessions where it seems almost as if the Cavs had been in the middle of playing the Minnesota Timberwolves . . . and all the sudden the Boston Celtics dropped into the arena from out of nowhere, and the Cavs had no clue what to do.
It’s the too-frequent off-games by key players . . . when it seems like every opponent, even dating back to previous post-seasons, has some guy step-up with anon-game, and become a temporary star.
Am I being short-sighted, or does that really not happen in Cleveland, aside from LeBron? If we’re talking about a true impact step-up, the last one I can remember off the top of my head is Daniel Gibson in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. Now, Boobie is collecting dust on the bench.
In general, it’s that the Cavs . . . even in wins . . . seem to be doing more to adjust and react to their opponents . . . as opposed to taking the first position, and forcing opponents to adjust and react to us.
During the regular season, the Cavs got into too many “cutting corners” bad habits, in which they could expend whatever energy and effort that was necessary to vanquish the team they were playing . . . and that would be enough. Total, 48-minute, full-roster moxie wasn’t always needed.
But this is the playoffs.
Burning anything less than a full tank is half-assed, and against these teams – with these stakes – it’s going to be exposed every time. The Cavs can’t take possessions off. The Cavs can’t aimlessly gamble away opportunities, they can’t turn in passive (or all out bad) quarters or halves on either side of the ball, and they can’t just expect to be able to turn it on with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter and win the game.
It’s the playoffs . . . and everything matters. In wins and losses.
Every mistake has to teach . . . every success has to be understood . . . every opportunity has to be used wisely . . . and everyone needs to box out Rondo. Jesus.
If a seventh grade boys basketball team isn’t bringing the pain in the playoffs, parents will blame the coach. (And the tall, lanky kid with no coordination who can’t play basketball . . . but is, as previously mentioned, tall.)
But if an elite NBA team isn’t bringing the pain in the playoffs, should fans blame the coach?
Every now and then, the tenuousness of Mike Brown’s job security comes up in Cleveland . . . generally after losses. Bad losses. And sadly, but not surprisingly, it’s being talked about again now.
The Cavaliers second round series against the Boston Celtics is tied-up at 2-2. That isn’t necessarily unexpected (although, I did have Cleveland in five, which, obviously, is no longer mathematically possible) . . . but the Cavs’ lackluster effort has been surprising. And alarming. And confusing.
It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So last night, my friend Sam Greenspan and I had a conversation about Mike Brown and the Cavaliers’ energy, and I thought I’d share it.
Here it is in hopefully-easy-to-read interview format:
W&GR: How much do you pin the Cavaliers’ apparent effort / intensity lapses on Coach Mike Brown? Some say it’s his job to make sure the team is in peak form mentally, physically, and strategically for the games, yet others say that there is only so much a coach can do when his team is failing to bring it for a playoff game.
J.D.: Rather than wasting time trying to make sense of this, I’d rather just pin it on Coach Brown and hope that he can rally the team in time to ensure that the Cavs don’t accidentally boot this series. But in order to do that, I have to consider what Brown could have done . . . that he didn’t.
And I don’t know. I don’t know what you do or say to motivate a team for a playoff game against a supposed rival during a supposed title march. Do you say “Let’s go, guys! Let’s crush the Celtics!” Or do you say “Let’s do it, guys! Let’s destroy the Celtics!” It’s Coach Brown’s responsibility to get the Cavs up for an away-away back-to-back game against a team like the Indiana Pacers in November. It seems reasonable for him to leave the players to get fired up on their own in the playoffs, so that he can deal with more pressing matters . . . like what the hell to do with Rajon Rondo, so that he doesn’t look significantly better than the Cavs ordinarily make their opposing point guards look.
Feel free to roast Mike Brown for gameplan-oriented issues – and if we fall short of our goal, plenty of people will – but from what I’ve seen, the inconsistent effort is the #1 thing keeping us from beating the Celtics right now, and I’m not sure I can put that on Brown.
No matter what glasses / tie combination Brown utilizes, his work isn’t sexy. If the team wins, LeBron and X and X role players get the credit. If they lose, Brown takes the heat.
Sam: I really don’t know how much to pin on Mike Brown, but I do think it’s do-or-die for his career right now. My issue with Mike Brown centers far more on his ability to make in-game adjustments. It’s seeming more and more like the Cavs come up with a pregame plan. If they execute it properly and the opposition doesn’t throw anything in the mix to screw with it, they win. As soon as something starts going wrong it takes Brown a half or a full game before he adjusts. It’s painful to watch . . . you know that if the game starts going poorly, the only chance at a win is LeBron having a superhuman game. That’s not going to win championships.
As for the lack of intensity, I just don’t know what to make of it. No one in Cleveland can possibly understand it. Did they become complacent because, since February, they’ve been able to play games where they slacked off for three quarters, turning the ball over, missing free throws, watching passes
bounce off J.J.’s hands, and then been able to win by turning it on in the fourth quarter? Did the habits they developed become more overwhelming than we thought? I just don’t know. We’re nine playoff games in. They’ve had their proverbial “punch in the mouth” — an epic blowout loss at home. They responded great for one game, then went right back to dogging it the next game. Can anything light a sustained fire under them? I have no idea.
What I do know is that I’ve found myself in “tempering expectations” mode. Orlando is playing some of the best basketball in history. The Cavs are letting Rajon Rondo put up numbers that Jordan wasn’t putting up in his prime. Other than Game Three of this Boston series, has there been a single sign that the Cavs should truly be considered contenders at this point? If they do win this series — which is REALLY no guarantee — will anyone in the world pick them to get past Orlando?
W&GR: One of the problems with the Cavs’ offense appears to be a lack of premeditation. Typically, the Cavs have (mostly) lived and (rarely) died under LeBron James’ freelancing hand at the reins of the offense . . . but in times like these, should Mike Brown assert himself and attempt to overrule LeBron on the running of the offense? He may not be an offensive-minded coach, but with input from his staff, they could draw up an actual play for each possession. Or, do you think this would upset the apple cart even more?
J.D.: It’s unclear just how much freedom Mo Williams and Delonte West have to call their own plays, but it seems like they have too much. Mo looks great when he cuts with the ball – baseline or through the paint – because it’s a more defense-disrupting way of getting the ball to Shaq, another big, or even an on-the-move LeBron James. But it doesn’t happen enough.
Mo runs a lot of simple plays . . . soft lobs inside, or two-man pick-and-rolls . . . without much movement on the weakside or through the paint. That, and/or he gives the ball up to LeBron too quickly. He needs to push the ball more, and look for opportunities to get the defense on their heels.
Delonte, however, used to be great at mixing things up by denying LeBron the ball when LBJ was 26-feet from the basket, and pushed the offense ahead, until LeBron and/or the other gears were in better position. But Delonte wasn’t good in Game Four. He did a lot of dribbling, didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with the ball, and ended up taking some bad shots. He had one assist in 20 minutes.
So yes, I think more calls from the bench – if they aren’t already coming regularly – would instill some creativity in the offense, and remind the Cavs of plays that have been successful in the past.
As for LeBron, I don’t know, man. There are so many possessions where he creates a sweet shot for a teammate. Sometimes they finish, sometimes they don’t. There are also a lot of frustrating, aimless possessions where LeBron just does some stationary dribbling, and then takes a contested, unnecessary 20-footer. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t. Those kinds of things need to be cut, but you do want LeBron looking out for opportunities. Maybe there should just be more communication . . . so the rest of the guys on the floor can move off-the-ball to try to free themselves.
Sam: I think Brown has to do something at this point. It comes down to his inability to do in-game adjustments. Sunday, it was clear LeBron wasn’t going to get any easy paths to the basket. The Celtics were collapsing on him and causing either turnovers on bad interior passing, kick outs to the ice-cold jump shooters or, most frequently, LeBron complaining about not getting a call and failing to get back on defense. In that case, something different needs to happen. Send LeBron to the post. Get Mo Williams the hell out of the game and put in Gibson — his defense can’t be any worse than Mo’s — and maybe he’ll make a shot. Do anything. Anything.
W&GR: Considering the staleness of the Cavs’ offensive and (at times) defensive effort, should Mike Brown have a quicker trigger on bringing in some of his deeper bench depth? Would utilizing Zydrunas
Ilguaskas, Leon Powe, Jamario Moon and Daniel Gibson more give the Cavs a spark and/or the potential for a successful new look, or again, would that just exacerbate the problems?
J.D.: Jamario Moon feels like a no-brainer at this point.
I think I’d also like to see Z a little more. Yes, he may be a liability on defense, but who hasn’t been? It’s not like we’d ask him to guard Rondo or Garnett. I think we could bring him in, and see if he can get his pick-and-pop shot going. Maybe he could get some open looks against Boston’s defense. If not, we can move on to the next thing. Plus, it wouldn’t be horrible to have Z in the game to get a few offensive rebounds / tip-ins. Also, he’d be another big obstacle Rondo would have to work around if he makes it to the rim or tries a floater. I can’t believe I’m thinking like that, but oh well. I’m not feeling Powe. Like Z, Boobie’s shot would be so huge if we could get him going . . . without him being any more of a liability on defense than what we currently have.
Sam: I don’t know that Powe has a place in this series but Moon’s lack of playing time is mind boggling. He’s a long, athletic, motivated defender who’s actually been hitting his shots in the playoffs. Why not give him some of Mo’s minutes and put him on Rondo for a different look. (As much as people are praising Anthony Parker, he’s getting murdered out there. Make Rondo have to guess what’s going to happen.) Mo Williams is giving the Cavs nothing at this point. Nothing. I’m not saying to bench him completely, I recognize how ridiculous that notion is and how he has potential to get hot and change a game like Game One, but at least throw Gibson out there to see what happens. I don’t know about Ilguaskas. I have a bad feeling about him being out there. But why not? Somebody has to do something. Again, just do anything. Somebody please. Anything.
In Game Four the Celtics had Tony Allen step up. Tony Allen! It was a gift that he was on the floor and he ended up being one of the heroes. Unbelievable. A few games ago, it was Rasheed Wallace. It’s one of those things that happens against Cleveland teams but never FOR Cleveland teams. But Varejao hasn’t looked like himself all playoffs, joining the super erratic play of Mo, Delonte, and even Jamison. I want to type “at some point, someone’s going to have to step up” — but we’re nine games in. It’s just hard to look at this situation and see that happening.
This is all extraordinarily pessimistic, and I hate being that way. But, at some point, you have to stop wondering when the Cavs are going to wake up and play like champions and switch that to IF the Cavs are going to wake up and play like champions. It’s not a 2-2 series that has driven me and so many others to this extreme. The Celtics are playing great and we didn’t expect the Cavs to sweep their way through a much more difficult bracket this year. But, after watching nine games and seeing exactly ONE where the Cavs had a start-to-finish championship-caliber effort — versus, say, Orlando’s eight start-to-finish championship-caliber efforts — this 2-2 series sure doesn’t feel good.
I hope I’m wrong. And deep down, I still have hope — the same hope that was there when the Cavs were getting murdered by the Spurs in the Finals, the same hope that was there when the Indians let the 3-1 lead slip away against the Red Sox but seemed to have a chance in Game 7. But if the Cavs players can’t muster the energy to really care, I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t either. We’re getting closer and closer to the most disappointing postseason in Cleveland history and not a single player — not even LeBron — really seems to have any sense of urgency when it comes to changing that.
The Cleveland Cavaliers say they’re ready for Game Three.
The optimist in me knows they will be, because I believe this team is better than the Boston Celtics . . . and the Cavs couldn’t not be ready for Game Three after the wake-up call they got in Game Two. (And the three full days off can’t hurt their ability to be ready.)
And hopefully they are awake now. It’s almost as if they were so excited for the playoffs to finally start that they couldn’t sleep the night before, then overslept, and were pushing the snooze button throughout the first round series against the Chicago Bulls.
But after Monday night’s alarm-sounding, they better be up.
The pessimist in me, though, really needs to see it to believe it. Aside from maybe Game One of the Chicago series . . . which really was pretty solid, with the exception of about eight minutes in the third quarter . . . the Cavs haven’t played a solid all around game in a month. (I’d say since the pre-rest-extravaganza Toronto Raptorsgame on April 6th. Yes, April 6th. That’s a long time ago.)
And as a life-long Cleveland fan, heeding pessimism (while desperately clinging to fraying strands of optimism) is ingrained in my cerebrum.
In an article on Cleveland.com (by Mary Schmitt Boyer) several members of the team are quoted downplaying injuries, preaching about how they know Game Two-like efforts are not going to cut it, and insisting that they’re ready to bring it in Game Three.
Because of this puzzling LeBron James / elbow drama . . . I’ve been in “read-between-the-lines” mode again.
Here’s how this works: I’ll throw out some quotes, and then “read between the lines,” “New York Post”-style . . . and make comments of varying degrees of seriousness, insightfulness and interestingness. Let’s get it on.
LeBron, on what the team needs to do:
“As a team, we all need to come out more aggressively. Not only myself. I can’t go a whole first half and only take five shots and shoot 40% from the field. I have to be more aggressive, try to get more shot attempts up.
“It’s hard to get into an offensive rhythm when you’re not into it offensively early like I was [not]. As a team, we all have to do the same thing. When we get good looks we have to take them and we have to knock them down.
“Whoever is out there has to be productive.”
Translation: ”The entire team needs to raise their aggressiveness from a 1.5-out-of-10 to at least a 5-out-of-10 . . . or maybe even a 6-out-of-10. Not just me; Anthony Parker, you need to light a fire under your own ass. A hot one. Shaquille O’Neal, you need to be unrelentingly bullish whether you get the ball or not. Mo Williams, you need to stop worrying about everything and come join us in the moment. Anderson Varejao, tick some Celtics off. Jamario Moon, run.
“I have to shoot some shots. I can’t spend the first 40 minutes trying to set up my teammates, and expect to win the game in the final eight minutes. I have to score 50 points in Game Three.
“I need to get a better feel for the game on the offensive end. I need to find the right balance between finding and setting up my teammates, and taking advantage of opportunities for myself, too. Especially if the opponent is expecting me to start games in facilitating mode. I need to force them to guard me for 48 minutes, which is how long I’ll be on the floor if Game Three looks like another dud early. Also, my teammates need to convert on their freakin’ open looks.
“Daniel Gibson, you don’t need to be productive.” (Elbow references: 0)
LeBron, on his elbow:
“It felt good today. It didn’t flare up today at all. We had contact drills and I was able to go through the whole practice and it didn’t flare up one time today, so that’s a good sign.
“If it’s hurting throughout the game, there’s no way it can stay off your mind. You want to be conscious about it, but at the same time, I’ve got to be able to pull through it and find a way to try to help the team. It doesn’t change my approach.
“But if you’re dribbling up and down the court and you can feel a twinge or you feel it lock up, it’s going to stop you from doing some things that you usually would be able to do. It is what it is and I’ve got to play with it.”
Translation: ”My elbow is fine . . . maybe.
“If it’s hurting during the game, it’s going to be on my mind. That’s because pain is a basic bodily sensation that is induced by a noxious stimulus, is received by naked nerve endings, and is characterized by physical discomfort. It is initiated by stimulation of nociceptors in the peripheral nervous system (or the “PNS,” as doc calls it). And it’s purpose is to motivate us to withdraw from damaging or potentially damaging situations, to protect the damaged body part while it heals, and avoid those situations in the future.
“But I’m not going to withdraw. I’m going to work around it, and find a way to help my team. It’s not going to change my approach . . . and you’ll believe that as long as you didn’t see Game Two.
“If it’s going to affect my game, it will. It is what it is.” (Elbow references: 12)
Andy, on his back spasms:
“It’s still a little bit sore, but it’s much better. I did treatment the last two days and I believe it will be fine for the game.”
Translation: ”Which way to the court?”
O’Neal, on his OKness:
“I’m OK. I’m used to taking 30-40 shots a game. The little chippies I shoot, I’ve just got to make them. It’s just me. I’m just missing. It’s only my sixth or seventh game back. Like I said earlier, I won’t miss ‘em all.”
Translation: ”I’m OK. Also, I exaggerate. I need to get a rhythm, but that’s on me. I’ve had some opportunities and I’ve missed some easy shots. That can’t happen. I’m not quite back to being myself yet, but I’ve only played seven games after being out two months. But I’ll score.”
[By the way, the "I'm used to taking 30-40 shots a game" translation to "I exaggerate" was not a cheap shot, he was playin'. I looked into it. Shaq has played in 1,380 games in the NBA, and he's taken between 30 and 40 shots in just 18 of them. That's 1%. And the last time he hit that range was in November . . . of 2001. In that game, he attempted 30 even. He made 16 of them, and scored 38 points.]
[In fact, Shaq has had 20 attempts only once in the past four seasons. That came in February of last year, when he was having that resurgent run with the Phoenix Suns. He made 20 of his 25 attempts in that game and scored 45 points. His highest number of FGA this year was 15. He also had several games with 13.]
[What he meant to say is: "Over the past five seasons, I'm used to taking 8-13 shots a game."]
LeBron, on O’Neal’s OKness:
“We need him to get going. We need him to get into some type of rhythm. He hasn’t shot the ball particularly well from the field. He hasn’t played a lot of big minutes. But we need him to get going. I think he understands that. He wants to play well. We want him to play well. It has to start [Friday] for him to get into some type of rhythm.”
Translation: ”Yeah, we’ll try to get Shaq going. He’s a role player, and we need to help him find and get comfortable in his role. If he’s ‘on,’ we’re a monster. If he’s not working out, I’m going to give Mike Brown my ‘Get J.J. Hickson in here, now . . . and no, I don’t care about his defense right now’ look.” (Elbow references: 0)
O’Neal, on LeBron’s OKNess:
“He’s a warrior. You guys talk more about it than he does. He’s going to play through it. He’s not going to make any excuses. His elbow has nothing to do with our team defense. Everyone has to do their part.”
Translation: ”LeBron, he’s good. His elbow may be bothering him in the media . . . but amongst the team, it hasn’t been that big of a deal. It’s become sensationalized [thanks a little to the media, but mostly because of all the possibly unnecessary vagueness surrounding it, and to a baffling-ly 'off' game by LeBron on Monday night]. But LeBron is going to play. His elbow isn’t the reason we got steam-rolled by Boston in Game Two. We need to improve our defense, and everyone on the team needs to step up and be accountable.” (Elbow references: 3)
O’Neal, on the Cavs’ OKness:
“We know we’ve got to play better defense. We know we’ve got to play better overall basketball. We know we’re a damn good road team, so if we do what we’re supposed to do then we’ll be fine.
“We match up with any team in the league pretty well. We’ve just got to do what we practiced . . . work on the small things.”
Translation: ”We’re underachieving. We’ll try to not do that.”
One of my favorite NBA quotes – in pseudo-recent history – was in the summer of 2006, when then-New York Knick Nate Robinson ripped his then-departing coach Larry Brown for taking away his “joy.”
He told the “New York Post”:
“Coach Brown is so old-school. He want everything done just like this, not getting the crowd involved. Isiah [Thomas] wants everyone to have fun.
“At first [Brown] was trying to take my joy away . . . ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’ At the same time I had people in my corner saying ‘Don’t change who you are. You got here by being Nate Robinson.’”
I love that. A lot. For some reason, the idea of Larry Brown robbing Nate Robinson of his “joy” just gets me. It still makes me laugh. Especially now that we know how that “everyone having fun” mantra played out in New York with Isiah and Nate . . . both of whom, of course, are no longer around.
I bring this up now – almost four years later – because of something I thought about in the latter stages of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first round playoff match-up with the Chicago Bulls:
The Cavs just aren’t playing with any joy.
And I’m being serious. It’s something that has been a significant part of their make-up for the past two years, at least . . . ever since LeBron James has been surrounded with enough talent to play solid, legitimate, and often dominant team basketball.
LeBron has been credited with setting the fun tone. His love and enjoyment of the game, his trust in his teammates, his excitement for their individual and collective successes, and his general playfulness and relaxed nature have created what appears to be the best team environment in the NBA. And maybe even in professional sports.
It’s on- and off-the-court chemistry. It’s off-the-charts chemistry.
Last year, there were pre-game antics . . . the picture-taking and whatnot . . . and this year, there’s the “goosenecks,” plus the elaborate personalized handshakes, and as always, the bench’s notorious in-game cheerleading.
During the regular season . . . in any random game of varying significance or insignificance . . . the Cleveland bench is visibly engaged in the game at all times. They pay close attention to the game, they leap up and dance whenever something exciting happens, and they usually jump up and walk out to congratulate their teammates as they’re coming back to the bench at a timeout.
In fact, before this season, the NBA warned teams to keep their bench . . . on the bench. Although the Association didn’t publicly call the Cavs out, it seemed directed toward them. Last season, the bench would regularly stand for long stretches during pivotal moments of the game, always prepared to explode the second the Cavs made a huge offensive or defensive play. (Well, Tarence Kinsey was prepared to explode, at least.)
[Under the new "guidelines," the players can still react to what's happening on the court, but they aren't supposed to stand while the game is going on . . . because it blocks the view of the seated fans in the expensive seats.]
This anti-standing “movement” was apparently spearheaded by a Chicago Bulls beat writer, who did call out the Cavs in particular for their “jerk”-ish, view-blocking behavior.
Speaking of Chicago, fast-forward into the season, to a Cavs game against the Bulls at The Q in December. In that one, LeBron was playfully dancing around all night . . . and it got under the skin of Joakim Noah, who began jawing at LeBron from the Bulls bench because he, apparently, wasn’t a fan. A few words and glares were exchanged, but in the end, it was just a case of the Bulls being frustrated.
But throughout the Cavs’ playoff series against the Bulls . . . there wasn’t a lot of smiling and there definitely wasn’t much dancing. The Cavs were in serious mode, and that’s OK. It’s playoff basketball, and it’s time to buckle up and get down to business.
Only the Cavaliers seemed reluctant to do any business. In fact, they didn’t even seem all that interested in the games they were playing. It was as if there was some other main event somewhere . . . and these pesky battles with the Bulls were merely a sideshow.
Cleveland may have walked away from the series 4-1, but they were lucky it didn’t drag out any more. The Cavs weren’t at the top of their game . . . and aside from sporadic moments in Games 1, 4 and 5, it wasn’t the most exciting entertainment to watch as a Cavs fan.
That’s when I started thinking: Maybe the Cavs are too tightly wound. Maybe it wasn’t that they weren’t taking the Bulls seriously . . . maybe it was that they were taking them (or the playoffs as a whole) tooseriously.
Right when the playoffs started, I remember reading an article by ESPN’s Chris Broussard called “Cavs Focused Like Never Before” . . . and in it, Broussard talked about how the whole team was adopting a more solemn, serious tone. Shaquille O’Neal was reportedly leading the way in this change in approach, perspective and focus.
Well, clearly something happened from then until now. It’s not worth hypothesizing, since focus can come and go. It can be easily lost and found . . . like keys, or Mo Williams’ shot. But regardless, maybe that isn’t the best approach. At least right now.
Think about it.
For players like LeBron and Shaq, the steely-eyed, super intense and serious demeanor can be very comfortable and empowering. Other veterans, like Antawn Jamison, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao (defensively only) and Delonte West (defensively only) can also feed off this vibe.
But for others, no matter how locked-in they are, this approach might just be needlessly stressing. It might just be too much . . . especially with a superstar on the floor with them. A superstar that needs to win and is no longer joking around.
It might scare them into deferring to LeBron even more than they already do, it might suffocate their freedom to experiment and create, it might make them feel uncomfortable and unsure . . . it might make them feel like they’re walking on pins and needles, while carrying a Fabergé egg.
[In other words, it might make them appear worse than they are. Cavs fans know that LeBron has had a pretty impressive supporting cast this season . . . exponentially better than what we've seen in the playoffs.]
This list includes: Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao (especially offensively), Delonte West (especially offensively), J.J. Hickson, Jamario Moon and the forgotten Daniel Gibson.
It sounds like this would be bad . . . that these players can’t step up in big games or can’t be clutch. That’s not necessarily the case though. These players just seem more prone to have bigger impacts within a slightly more relaxed, loose style of play. And in moments that can’t be “loose,” these players . . . which can be more up and down emotionally . . . can step up to make “sense of the moment” plays.
Take Daniel Gibson: If there were five seconds before halftime, and I needed a three-pointer to close a gap to single-digits . . . I would not bring Boobie off the bench to take that shot. He’ll have a 20% chance of making it, at best. But in another situation, if he were playing (scoring or not) while the Cavs were making a thrilling comeback to close a game, and needed someone to take a three to win the game with five seconds left . . . I would make sure that’s Boobie’s shot. He’ll have an 80% chance of drilling it.
Yeah, I know, if Boobie’s hitting 80% of anything he’s not on the bench. It was for a point. But then again, he is on the bench, and he finished third in the NBA in 3-point shooting. So there you go.
OK, so how do you bring more “joy” to the Cavaliers? Especially when they’re not playing well . . . like most of the first two games of the Boston series.
I don’t know. I’m just a writer.
LeBron knows every guy on the team personally and professionally . . . off the court and on it. He understands what makes them tick . . . what buttons to push to get them going. That’s part of the reason he’s such a great teammate, and a lot of the reason he spends time trying to get them going early in games.
If he wanted to relax the solemn, serious tone around the team a little . . . which again, is typically appropriate for a team on a quest for its first championship . . . I think he could do it while building on any sense of urgency that is there.
Generally, it could be picking up the tempo, having the ball pushed up the court, encouraging teammates to run the floor, enforcing that the ball be passed from one side to the other in the half-court, challenging guys to find creative ways of getting Shaq the ball . . . if that’s what they’re going to do . . . or basically, starting a one-upping competition for finding / creating open shots for teammates.
And elbow issue or not, LeBron should also make sure everyone is on the same page: That the ball doesn’t need to go through him . . . if a shot is there without him “resetting” everything up top, it needs to be taken. Maybe relinquishing some control to his teammates would even free him up to do some more off-the-ball work/decoying.
On the defensive end, that’s where the “All Together” or “One for All” (or whatever slogan Cleveland is using) comes into play. LeBron (and the coaching staff) should instill a cocky mentality on that end of the floor. They need to preach that every ounce of effort will help seal holes . . . every help move will fortify walls . . . and every time someone gets a hand on the ball, or in someone’s face, it should be recognized. The Cavs should be taking pride in their defensive effort again . . . not taking it for granted and/or expecting to be able to turn on a “switch” when needed.
Even if the Cavs aren’t up by 10 or 15 points, a sense of pride, individual confidence and team trust could keep the loose, “joy”. Even if it’s the playoffs, they could be allowing themselves to have fun on the court. And even if they’re down by 10, they can know that they’re just about to make their pounce.
Maybe all this is stupid.
Playoff intensity should be “tough” . . . but at least for now, it’s just not working for the Cavaliers. Not much is. So, at least while they’re finding their groove, maybe they could just have some fun on the floor. At least that way, they’d be much more enjoyable to watch.
By sheer talent alone the Cavaliers are believed to be superior to the Celtics. Yes, Boston is definitely a very real adversary, but maybe the Cavs are tripping over their own feet a lot.
If Mo wasn’t worried about compensating for his failures in the game before . . . if J.J. wasn’t over-thinking scouting reports . . . if Andy knew whether LeBron wanted him to take that 15-footer (psst, he doesn’t) . . . if West knew he should take the initiative to take the ball to the basket (and do something totally awesome) . . . if Jamario knew we were appreciative of his hustle . . .
Maybe the talent would be uncorked, and pour.
The Cavs need to play better. Win or lose. And personally, I think they need to go back to having fun. Because this serious stuff just isn’t them right now.
[By the way, I'm curious about the kidnapped or not-kidnapped state of Nate Robinson's joy right now. He's on a good team in the playoffs . . . finally . . . but in two games he's only played a total of 40 seconds. That's less than the 1:14 that Daniel Gibson has received. Shoot, Boobie, Shoot!]