[This is a guest column written by our friend Amar Panchmatia. You know him as the superstar behind the former (and greatly missed) MVN.com blog Cavalier Attitude.]
Monday night was the first time many NBA fans have seen the usually mild-mannered Mike Brown come out agitated and frustrated, so much so that he raised his voice while talking to reporters and, yes, was even bleeped out during his postgame press conference.
He had every reason to be. At this time a year ago, his Cleveland Cavaliers were well on their way to a ruthless, merciless four-game sweep of the overmatched Atlanta Hawks in this very round of the playoffs.
It may have been experiences like that very series that now have Brown’s Cavs feeling a little bit of a sense of entitlement after coming out with two lackluster performances to open their second-round bout against the Boston Celtics. And instead of being in firm control of the series, the Cavaliers—picked by many to capture their first-ever NBA title this spring—now head to Boston for Game Three tied at 1-1 in this best-of-seven.
Questioning his team’s energy and focus is fine, but if Brown wants to dig a little bit deeper to find answers as to why his team has struggled so much so far in these first two games against Boston, then he needs to take a look in the mirror.
In particular, Brown needs to ask himself why he is not finding more minutes for sophomore big man J.J. Hickson, who has been a heck of a spark for the Cavaliers this season whenever they have been matched up with Boston. In Game One of this series, Hickson only played 12 minutes, but he scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting while the Cavs were plus-five with him on the court.
In Game Two, Hickson played 19 minutes, but he still left an imprint on the game by attacking the rim hard and getting to the rack whenever he had the chance. He finished with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting while going 5-of-7 from the charity stripe. The Cavaliers, who were drubbed by 18, were only minus-seven as a unit when Hickson was on the floor.
Brown, however, has chosen to go more with Shaquille O’Neal over Hickson. Sure, if this was either a legends contest or a Shaq from 10 years ago, this would never be an argument. But Shaq is 38, the oldest player in the league, and simply has not meshed well with the Cavs in matchups with the Celtics this year.
In Game One, Brown played O’Neal for 20 minutes, and although he didn’t put up gaudy numbers, Shaq did end up getting some key plays down the stretch to help the Cavs take the 101-93 victory. However, in Game Two, O’Neal played the same number of minutes as Hickson, but only put up nine points on 4-of-10 shooting. Cleveland was minus-18 with him on the floor.
What seems like simple logic would seem even simpler when you see that this is not some sort of breaking news for the Cavs. In a regular season game earlier this year in Boston, the Cavs struggled to a slow start against the Celtics in falling to a double-digit deficit. Then Celtics forward Glen Davis inadvertently hit Shaq’s right hand, leading to a sprained right thumb for the Cavs center.
In came Hickson following the injury, and the Cavaliers, who were trailing by double figures at the time of O’Neal’s injury, roared back to administer a back-alley whipping on the C’s, 108-88. The Cavs were minus-10 with Shaq on the floor but wound up plus-27 with the 6’9″, 242-pound Hickson.
Shaq’s size may come in handy later on in these playoffs against Orlando and the Los Angeles, but the Cavs have to dump the Celtics first to get that far. And O’Neal is every bit as detrimental against Boston as he would be advantageous against the Magic or Lakers.
Brown may or may not get a more focused and motivated team in Game Three. He does not control that as much as he would like. But one thing is for sure: he would definitely have a better team if he played the 21-year-old Hickson far, far, more than the 38-year-old O’Neal.
And that much he does control.
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!]
Well, that was pretty bizarre.
OK. Be honest: How many times did you wonder “What the hell is going on here?” during Game Two?
On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics in a blow-out, 104-86. [The series is now heading into Boston tied 1-1. Game Three is Friday.]
It isn’t that the Cavaliers lost – or even lost big - that was bound to happen at some point. The Celtics are a formidable second round opponent, and the Cavs have been playing very unevenly in the playoffs.
In fact, the Cavs have yet to play a complete game in the playoffs. I’m not talking about them being electrifying from start to finish. Those games are random treats that happen from time to time. I just mean playing generally solid offense and defense throughout all four quarters.
Not just the fourth quarter. Or the second half. Or quarters 1, 2 and 4, or whatever.
No, it was how they lost.
Poking around the Internet after the game, there are definitely those that are freaking out over the loss, and those that are already over it. There are also those that are scared to death about LeBron James and his elbow, and those that believe it’s hardly been a factor at all. If at all.
Normally, I gravitate toward the chill, anti-freak-out angle. I’d like to think that I look at things in measured, thoughtful, perspective-filled, panoramic aspect ratios. But after this game, I’m not really feeling all that normal.
That was a weird-ass game.
So, this time I’m going to go ahead and position myself equidistant from the freak-out and the chill on both the loss . . . and on LeBron. I’ll probably regret saying this in a week or so, and I hope I do.
First up, the game.
The first quarter should’ve been better than it was. You can call it back luck or short execution . . . but things started off badly. The Cavs missed a lot of shots, while the Celtics made a lot of shots. Mo Williams wasn’t connecting from long range, and Shaquille O’Neal was bricking at no range.
[Both of them ended up having terrible games.]
Even though the Cavs were getting torched in percentage, the defense wasn’t bad. There were some blown covers, but fundamentally the defense was, if not sound,stable. And it was active. Anthony Parker comes to mind. He had his hands all over the ball on the defensive end.
In a way, it recalled the hard luck the Cavs had against the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. The Cavs were playing inside-out and coming up short, while forcing the Celtics to hit from the outside, which they did almost flawlessly.
But a long stretch of misfortune was only the beginning.
Instead of miraculously (Boston turnovers) ending the quarter down one, Rajon Rondo . . . who finished with 19 assists, two more than the entire Cavs team . . . hit a crazy three-pointer to put the Celtics up 26-22.
[Just a quick aside here: Anyone know why, with one second on the clock, LeBron couldn't at least take a shot in the dark at that 4/5-court three? There was time to get a Hail Mary up. LBJ doesn't play for individual numbers . . . so it wasn't that the three would negatively affect his average. Plus, he finished the game 0-for-4 from beyond the arc anyway. So why not, right? Even if there's only a 0.0001% chance of it going in, there's still a chance. And it is the playoffs.]
If you include that Rondo three, the Celtics went on a 12-0 run in less than two minutes to start the second quarter. Rasheed Wallace . . . who was a big part of that . . . was playing as if he was still good. He started out 5-for-5, hitting all three of his 3s, for 13 points. He finished with 17 points (on 7-of-8 shooting, which is more field goals than I expected him to make in the entire series. No joke. He only made six against Miami in the first round.)
Anyway, the Celtics were suddenly up 35-22.
The Cavs cut it to six (38-32) before LeBron re-entered the game, but aside from a fantastic chase-down block on Tony Allen, he was about as much of a non-factor as LeBron can be on the offensive end . . . not that his teammates were really taking a proactive role in helping him out.
Despite their off performance . . . both in lack of spirit and in lack of luck . . . the Cavs were only down four at halftime. They were shooting 42% to Boston’s 52%. So it can only get better from there, right?
No. Actually, it can get worse. And it did.
The third quarter was abysmally abysmal. The wheels, which had fallen off one-by-one earlier in the game, were now falling off again . . . just for dramatic effect.
The Cavs were outscored 31-12 in the quarter, which almost tied the Cavs lowest output for a quarter this season. [Back in November, the Cavs only scored 11 in a quarter against the Indiana Pacers.]
It began with the Celtics going 17-7 in one stretch, and it also included a separate 11-0 run by Boston in over four minutes toward the end of the quarter. At the horn, it was 83-60.
And it isn’t done getting worse yet!
Three minutes into the fourth, the Cavs were down 25 points, 91-66. That’s the biggest negative number that has been shown in the “Diff” box on the scoreboard at The Q this season.
But then, randomly, the lineup of Mo Williams, Delonte West, LeBron James, Antawn Jamison and J.J. Hickson went on a 15-0 run over five-and-a-half minutes . . . mostly featuring offense from J.J. and LeBron. It brought the Cavs to within 10, but then the run ended, and so did the game.
The Celtics won by 18, 104-86.
Calling it another “uneven” effort wouldn’t do this justice. You don’t hemorrhage points in the playoffs, at the level of severity that the Cavs did . . . and then have a 15-0 run in borderline garbage time . . . without having some significant inequalities in execution, effort, intensity and gameplan.
And then there’s LeBron and this elbow nonsense.
Before this game, I was not all that concerned with LeBron’s elbow. Well, OK, maybe briefly when he shot that free throw left-handed to close out the Chicago Bulls series . . . but not since then. But now, I don’t know what to think.
LeBron and Mike Brown don’t seem to be even mentioning it as a problem, let alone a concern. Which seems to fall in line with how I had this initially . . . “LeBron isn’t at 100%,” “he’ll play around it,” “even with the bum elbow, he’s still the best player on the court,” and “it’ll add to the legend.”
Well, now I have to admit I’m concerned. Or at least, perplexed.
Yes, LeBron has found that the Cavaliers are most successful when he helps get his teammates involved early . . . and then he takes over later. If you’ve watched the games, you know this. But would it hurt to mix it up a little in the first half? To keep the Celtics on their toes?
Why doesn’t it make him more difficult to defend if he’s randomly alternating between these four things: Being a decoy while his teammates do their thing . . . looking for his teammates . . . creating opportunities for his teammates . . . and then, just when the defensive focus starts to relax on him ever so slightly, being aggressive looking for his own shot, either from the floor or on a move to the rim, depending on how much space he has.
In my opinion, he not only had opportunities to try to take control throughout the game, there were also several times when he passed up on open opportunities . . . without anything else in the works. Speaking of passing, LeBron had five turnovers . . . and at least two of those were on wildly off target passes. To me, there were a lot of anticlimactic moments with LeBron that just seemed weird and uncharacteristic.
One way to explain them would be his elbow.
But that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. If LeBron was truly hurting, I don’t think he’d be operating in the purgatory that he was in Game Two: With him passing on jumpers and at times hesitant to drive the lane . . . but yet fearless when he did go to the basket, and not at all resistant to attempting to make hard-nosed plays on the defensive end.
It’s really unexplainable.
How can LeBron look that tentative at times . . . and be voluntarily un-tentative at others? My best guess – even though I am starting to buy into this elbow fear – is that his elbow isn’t bothering him that much, but that he doesn’t think he can beat the Celtics on his own . . . and was willing to wait it out. And unfortunately, that help never really came.
I don’t know.
This sums it up: At the 10:15 mark in the fourth quarter, LeBron hit a 19-footer, and Reggie Miller (om TNT) remarked that it was his first made jumper of the night . . . and he thought that LeBron was “trying to find a rhythm” or something like that. But at that point, it was 87-66 with 10 minutes left!
If I was completely healthy, and my teammates were dropping the ball, and it wasmy MVP night, I’d take a break from the passiveness and “try to find my rhythm” in the second quarter.
But after the game, I was shocked to see LeBron’s line: 24 points (on 7-of-15 shooting; 10-of-15 from the stripe) with seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks. That’s fairly, and incredibly . . . normal. (?)
What is going on here?
As much as I was dying to figure out the identity of the mysterious hold the Chicago Bulls had on the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s for the best that this series is over now. Even if it’s before we had an opportunity for a “Scooby-Doo”-style reveal.
It was almost as if Chicago had the ability to put some sort of mystical spell on the Cavaliers, which would hypnotize them for roughly eight- to nine-minute periods (of gametime) . . . and only LeBron James had the strength to push through it.
Despite being the 8 seed, Chicago probably ended up being the strongest team in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference bracket. And maybe that shouldn’t be all that surprising . . . with Miami being a team without a supporting cast, Charlotte being a team without a superstar, and Milwaukee being a team without a Bogut.
But on paper, at least to me, it still seems like the Cavs have advantages in almost every conceivable category over the Bulls . . . including all match-ups, with the obvious exception of Derrick Rose Vs. Mo Williams, or even Rose Vs. the Cleveland defense as a whole.
And yet, it felt like this was the Boston Celtics series . . . where, at least as I see it playing out, it doesn’t matter how dominant you are at certain points in the game . . . any letdown will make it a game. And any time it’s a game, you do have a good chance of losing.
But Chicago? Even in a worst case scenario that seemed unlikely.
You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to stymie the Cavs in a First Round series this year . . . but, well, that’s exactly what the Bulls did.
It’s effort. It’s drive. It’s the present. It’s staring “the end of the line” in the face, and mentally willing it on . . . not with sheer talent, or even execution, but with relentlessness.
The Cavs, on the other hand, fought through one eight-minute trance in the first game, but were otherwise cued up and ready to go. The marquee was crowded; Mo, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison and Shaquillle O’Neal all had LeBron’s back and things were good in Cleveland.
Game Two was sort of a buzzkill, but the Cavs absorbed a strong effort from the Bulls . . . and Cleveland was able to put things together in the fourth quarter. Thanks, unsurprisingly, to a superhuman LeBron effort. The Bulls were outwardly daring him to take jump shots. He did, and he made them.
Game Three was one of those games that we’ve seen often after games like Game Two. It was like a reverse game of Chicken . . . where the Cavs try to figure out how much they can yield to an opponent and still win the game. Or an EKG limbo. “How low can we go?”
The result was one of the least interesting playoff games imaginable with LeBron James on your team. The Cavs didn’t show any consistent signs of life, intensity or teamwork, until the fourth quarter . . . but by then it was too late – and a last ditch effort to eke out a win was thwarted.
That loss should’ve been a wake-up call. But it wasn’t . . . for anyone other than LeBron.
The King had a monster game. He finished with a wicked triple-double: 37 points (on 11-of-17 shooting, including 6-of-9 from beyond the arc, plus 9-of-10 from the stripe) plus 12 rebounds and 11 assists. He also had two steals and a block. It was amazing.
Antawn said he observed a “scary” LeBron James before that game . . . and added, “I haven’t seen [LeBron] in this mind-set since I’ve been here.” He didn’t say if anyone else had noticeable, notable mind-set changes. But I’d like to think that someone did.
Antawn had 24 points (on 9-of-16 shooting) and Mo had 19 points (on 6-of-10), but the Cavs were never able to get much going, consistently, as a team. It was just an otherworldly performance by LeBron, who seemed to be directing the entire game. Fortunately, some teammates stepped up and hit shots . . . and it turned out to be a solid win. Totally awe-ful . . . definitely not dull, or exciting.
Everything could be made up in Game Five, a close-out game at the Q. And it was!
Look, I tend to fall on the optimistic, glass half-full side of the Cuyahoga. But the playoffs bring out some more real realities, and sweat from my palms.
There are too many possessions where the Cavs are playing a mid-December offense. There are too many possessions where the Cavs are playing a mid-March defense. There are too many possessions where the Cavs feel like they have all the possessions in the world to put away the Chicago Bulls . . . and opt to put it off until a future one.
After the lackluster effort throughout the past few games, I spent Game Five thinking about effort. In the first quarter, it was there. In the second quarter, it was there. In the fourth quarter, it was there. In the third quarter, it was still in the locker room, watching highlights from the second quarter.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Cavs played well in those quarters (although they did for most of them). There was some pretty weak, unpolished-looking defense and offense mixed in there . . . but the effort and intensity were there, and at this point, that is what I’m asking for.
If we make it to an Orlando series in the Eastern Conference Finals, we can worry about finding perfection then. For now, I just want to see playoff intensity . . . because it’s exciting that way. And we have LeBron and a stacked stable of star role players, which should make it even more exciting.
And LeBron’s accomplices were back in action on Tuesday night. Antawn had 25 points (on 8-of-14 shooting) and five rebounds. Shaq had 14 points (on 7-of-9 shooting), eight rebounds, three assists, and knocked the Bulls’ bigs out of the game, literally, by drawing all kinds of fouls.
Delonte West covered up Mo’s off-night, with 16 points (on 6-of-11 shooting), two rebounds and four assists. He also made some huge hustle-plays, including a few which led directly to fast-break points.
Jamario had seven points (including a 3 and an alley-oop) in 16 minutes . . . and Varejao had five points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes. He also brought his toughness back.
The Cavs only won by two points, 96-94 . . . but overall, it was a more comforting win than Game Four on Sunday. (With all due respect to the more-than-satisfying efforts of LeBron on that night.)
So Cleveland dropped Chicago four-games-to-one, despite never really being able to zero in on them enough to really clamp them down. It feels a little unfinished in that way; the Cavs weren’t able to learn anything, or improve themselves . . . on their attack or on their defense.
It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, from the Chicago series carries over to the Boston Celtics series, which will begin this Saturday in Cleveland. The Celtics are a lot different than the Bulls . . . a lot older, and a lot more experienced . . . so Mike Brown will have to tweak his rotations.
Hopefully, there will be no looking back, effort-wise.
As for the other mysterious entity that kept Chicago in the thick of things with Cleveland . . . you can point to Chicago’s rebounding, or their lack of turnovers, or their playmaking abilities . . . but I have a hunch that if the culprit was unveiled, it might have been the ghost of B.J. Armstrong.
And he might have gotten away with it if it weren’t for the Cavs resurgent effort.