Celtics-Cavs Update: Squared series after 88-77 Cavs win last night.
It is always so easy to blame the coach, but I don’t see how Rivers avoids castigation here. He has decided that veterans new to the team are more reliable than the guys who got him 66 wins. Last night PJ Brown had a stellar game flashing out for that sideline pop shot, and he wasn’t too shabby on defense either. But having PJ on the floor enabled Mike Brown to keep Joe Smith on Brown and Varejao on KG, meaning, as Levi astutely pointed out in the comments below, he was the go-to guy in the low block at crunchtime. Bad idea.
But the killer for the Celts is this Sam Cassell fixation. It gets a little wearisome listening to folks blaming Rondo for all the shots he has taken (Magic Johnson, with his predictably stupid, star-centered analysis, hammered this point) without noticing that Rondo made half of his 14 attempts in 33:47 and was a minus -5 while the Celts as a team made 38.6% in 48 minutes and were a minus -11. Cassell, by the way, was 0-5 FG and minus -6 in just 14:13, while Boobie Gibson ran circles around him–a mismatch so blatantly obvious I was hollering for it in the stuff I wrote before the game.
Levi is also right that Ray Allen is co-goat in that he is not being aggressive at all in terms of looking for his shot, and with Rivers stupidly leaving Eddie House on the bench in favor of Cassell, the Celts only have a midrange game versus the Cavs.
Last but certainly not least, how good is Lebron James in the postseason? As his encore for dismantling the Pistons last year, he’s pretty much single-handedly winning this second-round. He had 21 points last night–nobody else on the floor had more than 15. He had 13 assists–nobody else on the floor had more than 4. And during the 3:43 he sat at the end of the first half, Paul Pierce shot 2-4 FG. Pierce also scored two buckets in the brief time Pavlovic was on him when the Cavs went small, meaning that the vast majority of Pierce’s misses in a 6-17 FG night came with LeBron on him. Got that? The leader in points and assists by a huge margin and the shutdown defender on the other team’s top scorer. Bravo.
"And we’re baaaaaack!" as the Jimmy Fallon character Joey Mack used to say on SNL.
With a game on every night, the dilemma has been to put something up that isn’t immediately dated. At the risk of disrupting some really insightful comment threads that occur when I let things languish, my solution is to update my content as we go along (for example, I’ll only post about the Eastern Conference on this first go-round then come back and add the West after today’s games) and then post every two or three days. So let’s get to it.
Detroit-Orlando: An unmagical bore
There is a glaring difference between the caliber of play in the two conferences in this second round, with the intensity and ability of the two Western series utterly compelling, while the East is clearly least, a maddening array of missed opportunities, a pair of skirrmishes of strategic ineptitude and dysfunctional execution. And the Pistons-Magic matchup has thus far been worst of all.
With 7:42 left to play in the third quarter Saturday, the Magic were up by 15, 63-48, to a team obviously missing the injured Chauncey Billups at both ends of the court. The Pistons proceeded to go on a 28-7 run that had them up by 6, 76-70, with 8:40 to go. During that 10:58 of action, Orlando went 2-17 from the field. Clueless Jameer Nelson led the squad in shots during that woeful stint, making one of five and missing two free throws. Nelson’s missed free throw with 44 seconds to play also spelled the difference between a loss and overtime in the 90-89 defeat. True, Nelson generally had his way with Rodney Stuckey, but when Detroit subbed in defensive specialist Lindsay Hunter, why did Nelson keep chucking?
Nelson is just one of many goats here. Fresh off his being named to the All-NBA First Team as center, Dwight Howard was horrible, shooting 0-9 from the field in the final 43 minutes of the game, a period that saw him grab 6 offensive rebounds without converting a single one into any points–three missed putbacks and misfired jumpers by Nelson (twice) and Keyon Dooling ensued. Meanwhile, SVG clung to a crunchtime matchup of Dooling on Rip Hamilton, against all evidence that it could succeed. This was manna from heaven for matchup maven Flip Saunders, who posted Rip up on Dooling about a half-dozen plays in a row. Yes, Hamilton missed a couple of j’s over Dooling, but Van Gundy’s refusal to utilize the double team and to leave Dooling–who is four inches shorter than Rip and had four fouls at that point–out to dry was idiotic, especially after Hamilton fouled Dooling out (the frustrated Drooling picked up a T as he exited) and hit those free throws down the stretch.
Understand that this was a game Orlando had in its hands. All they needed to do was play fundamentally sound defense and move the ball on offense. Instead, they let Detroit beat them in transition off the turnovers (something that simply hasn’t happened as often in the Utah-LA and SA-NO series, where transition D is a priority), refused to run any plays into the post for their lone All Star, let Jameer Nelson imagine himself as the catalyst of the offense rather than a fourth option in the half-court, and had Hedo Turkoglu burn all kinds of time off the clock so that when his terrible scoop shot off the drive barely grazed the front iron at the end, Orlando couldn’t even desperately foul in time to save the game for another possession.
If I were Detroit, I’d leave Billups on the shelf for the next two games (if it comes to that) against the Magic, give him time to fully heal. Because either the Celts or the Cavs are a significant step up from Orlando, and the Western champion will be at least a step up from there. Put simply, Detroit doesn’t need Billups to close this out–in fact Hunter got better as the game went along, a nice little dividend for the Pistons if the gritty vet can find a rhythm with these extra minutes–but if he isn’t mostly healthy in the matchups after Orlando, the Piston have little or no shot to advance.
Celtics-Cavs: Still Waiting on LeBron
Oh how the national network audience wanted to canonize LeBron James last night, declare him fully back in all his glory after his putrid 8-42 FG flop in the first two games of the Boston-Cleveland series. And one could convincingly argue that LBJ delivered, stuffing the stat sheet for 21 points, 8 assists (half of them dazzling), 3 blocks (all of them dazzling), 4 steals, the snuffing of Paul Pierce on defense (Pierce had more turnovers than field goals) and a game-best plus +29 in 40:15 of play. What more could anyone possibly want or expect out of the 23-year old superstar?
Scoring off dribble penetration, that’s what. The Cavs would be up 2-1 instead of the other way around if LeBron had been able to finish at the rim in Game One, and they won’t win this series if he can’t get to the cup and either convert the layups or the free throws the rest of the way. The only blemish in James’s game Saturday night was his 2-11 bricklaying from inside the arc, giving him a horrendous 10-43 FG total on non-3-pointers in the first three games. That’s 23.3% shooting on two-pointers for arguably the best penetrator in the NBA.
Fortunately, LeBron has gotten to the FT line 35 times in the three contests thus far, and made 25, or 71.4%. What that number tells you is that the Celts, much like the Wizards in the previous series, are determined to make LeBron "earn it at the line." That’s code for "beat the shit out of him."
Yeah, I’ve heard all the old-timers talk about how the game isn’t as tough as it used to be, that the flagrant foul rules have sissified things and that back in the day–when men were men and wore shorts so tight they got hernias when they saw a pretty girl in the stands–players could administer a proper beatdown in the
paint without worrying about those nanny refs butting in.
Well, like most occasions in any arena where old-timers are talking about their prime, it’s about four parts bullshit (due to exaggeration) and one part truth. I’m old enough to give the old-timers a run for their fading memories, starting watching hoops in 1959 at age 6, and I can tell you that there is more gratituous pounding and takedowns now than there ever was. First of all, the athletes are bigger, quicker, jump higher, and head to the hole more fearlessly, meaning the potential for injury is greater. Second, all the contemporary players have heard and bought in to the bullshit about how the vintage NBA was tougher. It wasn’t.
Yeah, maybe you had more burly white guys slugging each other with elbows–call it joustling with a vengeance–down in the low block. But the infamous Kevin McHale takedown of Kurt Rambis back in the 80s is so widely remembered precisely because it was relatively rare and particularly violent. You didn’t see guys clotheslined and cross body-blocked nearly as often as you do today–and, to reiterate, when it did happen, they weren’t moving nearly as fast, jumping as high, and being finished off nearly as thoroughly. How many of you old-timers remember Dr. J getting clocked the way LeBron has gotten clocked in the past couple of years? Or what about other erstwhile high-flyers like Elgin Baylor, or even Michael Jordan? The Pistons had a deserved reputation as Bad Boys, but watch them try to intimidate the Bulls and compare it to the way the Wizards went after LeBron in the first round this year. They are very very comparable, and yet Washington’s Brendan Haywood can actually call LBJ a crybaby, even as his punk-ass gets schooled by Ilgauskas for most of the series. The old timers are spooling out self-aggrandizing nonsense and the young’uns full of testosterone are gobbling it up and turning hoops into something as stupid as hockey.
Unfortunately, that’s what it has come to. It turns out that yesterday I was switching channels between baseball, hoops and hockey, and saw the end of the Red Wings-Stars hockey game. The goalie cheap-shoted a Stars skater right at the end of the game, the player retaliated with a swung-stick spear into the goalie’s chest, where all the padding is, and the goalie went down like he’s been tasered. After seeing the replays it was clearly all an act. So later in the day I’m watching LeBron drive and James Posey–a player I like and respect–cheap shots him with a hand across the neck off the drive. It was properly ruled a flagrant foul, but James, like Detroit goalie Chris Osgood, played it to the hilt, going down and grimacing like crazy, rolling in agony. So what we’ve got now is alternately more cheap shots–just off the top of my head I can think of Jason Kidd’s takedown of a Hornet player, Marvin Williams horse-collaring Rondo, Raja Bell doing his thing on Manu Ginobili, the Stevenson clothesline and the Haywood push on LeBron, and I’m not even counting Boozer knocking out Landry’s tooth because that really was accidental–and more ostentatious acting, of the sort made famous by the flopping Spurs. These two things beget each other, and it is time to call bullshit on the whole thing, increase the penalties for flagrants, institute a foul for flopping, and tell the senile braggarts that they really didn’t eat nails and the daughters of their opponents for breakfast.
But back to LeBron: I think the punishment has had an effect. I think the Wizards did rough him up and that the Celts are doing the same thing. And when you get called a crybaby anyway, maybe the best course of action is to zip it to the open man and find your long-range jumper rather than put up with all the abuse. In any event, I repeat, the Cavs don’t win without LeBron scoring enough off the dribble to collapse the Celtic D for Z’s short pops, Szczerbiak’s long-range catch-and-shoots (and if Mike Brown doesn’t bench him every time Wally puts the ball on the floor with a defender on him, I’ll start believing all the terrible things people say about his coaching), and Ben Wallace’s wide open layups and putbacks on the weak side followups.
As for the Celts, I’m delighted to report that KG is having a monster series. His aggressiveness toward the hoop sealed the deal in crunchtime of Game One and he alone came out ready to play in Game Three. Meanwhile, what has happened to Ray Allen? Paul Pierce understandably has his hands full, but if Allen can’t make the likes of Szczerbiak or Boobie Gibson pay on the offensive end, Doc Rivers might as well go with Eddie House to spread the floor.
Bottom line, this is still anybody’s series. I thought the energy that Ben Wallace, Delonte West and Joe Smith brought to the floor in Game Three was as important as LeBron’s regal peformance in securing the victory, and think that every time Rivers relies on Sam Cassell to get things rolling he is gambling mightily. Mike Brown needs to make Boobie Gibson a permanent matchup for Cassell, then instruct him to never leave his feet when guarding Cassell and to put down the throttle every time he has the ball with Cassell on him. If the Cavs win Game Four, we’re going to get pounded by that home/road split for the Celts until we all turn the sound down. BTW, Boston doesn’t have to win one damn road game to capture the trophy, so let’s give that a rest, eh.
Besides, just watching the way these series have unfolded, does anyone seriously think the eventual champ is coming out of the East?
First Road Win Captures the Second Round in the West
As I was saying about ugly takedowns…
Actually, I honestly don’t think Ronnie Turiaf was trying to pound Price; at least not as blatantly as has occurred a dozen other plays in this postseason. It was just an unfortunate landing that had Price’s arms unable to protect his head from splitting open on the floor. It deserved to be a flagrant, of course, but I think if Price gets his hands down and there isn’t blood everywhere, Turiaf stays on the court instead of getting booted. On the other hand, Turiaf obviously hit Price hard enough to spin him; that and bumping against other players going down is why Price could break or brace his fall. And after calling for tougher penalties on flagrants, I can’t really rebut Turiaf getting tossed. But all things being relative, the actual hit Turiaf laid on him doesn’t even rank in the top ten goon moves for this postseason.
As for the game, well, the issue here is how long do you or should you ride your stud superstar when he clearly isn’t the best option for your ballclub? This is what I knew would happen to the Wizards when Arenas came back–Agent Zero has enormous ability and an even bigger ego, and his desire to make an impact screwed up the pecking order that has served Washington well in his absence. And you could see it coming a mile away–I called it in the Cavs-Wiz series preview.
Now Kobe Bryant is a different story. The flare-up of his back obviously rendered him into an ordinary athlete, but what makes Kobe Kobe isn’t just athleticism, it is great court vision, his wiley ways when he has the rock, his insatiable competitiveness, and ability to come up big in the clutch. So if I’m Phil Jackson, yeah, I probably call Kobe’s number in the huddle during the crunchtime timeouts–but I stipulate to him that if others are open, check those options too. I leave Kobe at his rightful place atop the pecking order, but plant the seed that the way to win when your back is ailing and the brutal Jazz won’t let you get a clean look even if you are healthy and quick is to find the open man and let him take the shot. Which is exactly what happened on the drive and kick out to Lamar Odom for that tying trey near the end of regulation, a perfectly called and executed play.
But too often, Kobe tried to do it on his own. Odom bailed him out once with a great follow after Kobe blew the layup, and Derek Fisher was the hero of the dozen-point comeback in the final few minutes of regulation, yet Kobe kept trying to summon
all the physical gifts normally at his disposal, long past the time when everyone watching knew he couldn’t. Hey, the refs even bailed him out on that Kirilenko "foul" right in front of the Jazz bench.
No, the Jazz deserved to win this game, and if they designated the game’s number 1, 2, and 3 stars to come out and take a bow like in hockey, the top guy would be Deron Williams, who has pretty much demonstrated that nobody but Fisher can guard him effectively on the Lakers–LA fans will be throwing things at their TV sets the next time Jordan Farmar is assigned to Williams. In a contest loaded with tremendous crunchtime shots, none was better than Williams moving to his right after nearly losing the ball at half court and then launching over a looming Pau Gasol. You also have to give a curtain call to Mehmet Okur, whose reputation for coming up big when it matters most was burnished a little further today with his step-back treys and that immensely important offensive rebound he pulled down.
But do the Lakers win this game is Kobe is healthy? Yes, I think so. You can’t keep Kyle Korver on the floor as often, for example, and AK-47 doesn’t get to swoop behind Kobe for that block off penetration–how often does a healthy Kobe lack the quickness to get his shot blocked cleanly from behind? For that matter, how often does Kobe get his shot blocked five times in a single game? But it isn’t Kobe’s injury that should have Laker fans kicking themselves; it is Kobe’s refusal to do what was best for the team. If you are beseiged by back spasms for the last three quarters plus overtime, do you really want to jack up 33 shots, especially when Odom and Gasol combined for 21-34 FG? Odom in particularly looked ready to take over a few times (he would have been the third guy called out to take a bow afterward), and having him get the chance to secure a 3-1 lead heading back to LA would have been a boon for the Lakers regardless of how it turned out today.
Instead, Kobe overreached. Even the fact that he got 10 assists isn’t all good news, since it was half of the Lakers total in 53 minutes of action, demonstrating how little anyone else was allowed to create. The ostensible point guards Fisher and Farmar had *zero* assists in a combined 37:08, and only two turnovers combined, meaning their role in igniting the offense was minimal. Now, Fisher got in early foul trouble guarding Williams and Farmar was waaay overmatched–he was minus -19 in a scoreless 18:43–but the Lakers’ forte is ball movement. All five of their starters can sling the rock. So why is it that only Kobe, Gasol (4) and Luke Walton (3) had more than 2 assists, while every member of the Jazz starting five posted at least three, led by Williams’s game-high 14 dimes? Ball movement leads to high percentage shots and forced fouls by the opposition. Well, the Jazz shot 52.6% from the field and went to the line 45 times. The Lakers shot 47.4% from the field and went to the line 25 times. Kobe and Gasol combined for 49 FGA and 12 FTA.
I still think the Lakers are going to win this series, provided Kobe’s back improves enough for him to play without martyrdom in Game Five. But Williams and Okur have both proven to be tough matchups. Odom can’t guard both Okur and Boozer, unfortunately, which means Gasol has to step up–his defense remains one of the Lakers’ few obvious weaknesses going forward. Of course Turiaf may get suspended for his takedown of Price, further complicating things. In the backcourt, I’d think about Walton playing some point on Williams. In any case, this series is better contested than I envisioned when I called it for LA in 5 or 6 at the onset.
Did anyone really expect the Spurs to roll over and let the Hornets run them off the court in San Antonio? Tonight’s thrashing was surprising only in how little resistance New Orleans provided, and demonstrated a few things that are obvious enough to be conventional wisdom by now. One is that Bruce Bowen was always a better matchup on Peja than on Chris Paul. Just because Bowen had some success on Steve Nash in the past doesn’t mean he could stay with CP3. Paul is quicker and a better dribbler under seige. Nash excels at dishing in the open court on the fly; take away that space for him to survey the terrain and his effectiveness diminishes much more than it does for Paul under the same circumstances. You pressure Paul when he has the ball and it is far more likely he breaks you down, and then contently chooses between shooting the open jumper or drawing opponents and feeding the bounce pass or alley oop into the paint. Nash is probably a better shooter when he’s being contested (he’s three inches taller than Paul), but Paul is better at getting uncontested, especially when it is an older, rugged-but-slower guy like Bowen doing the checking. By contrast, Bowen’s in-your-jersey approach really bedevils Peja, who was magnificent not only on the catch-and-shoot during the two games in New Orleans, but in running the floor, taking people off the dribble, and crashing the offensive boards. Now that Bowen is putting the clamps on Peja, Paul and Parker are both running wild, and thus essentially cancelling each other out, a situation that very much favors San Antonio.
Which brings us to the power forwards. After a simply stupendous first three games against a Spurs team that plays postseason defense as intelligently as any franchise in 40 years, David West was due for a bad game and perhaps not coincidentally it came on a night when Tim Duncan seemed to shake off the aches and illness that have plagued him the past week. The two don’t guard each other much, of course, but each anchors the low post offense for their team, and to the extent they successfully draw the opponents’ attention, the wider the lane gets for their teammates on penetration, and the easier the putbacks for the big men on the weak side. West is a deadly midrange shooter and a joy to watch spinning off his baseline shoulder for left-handed shots in the low left block. I’ll bet tonight is his lone stinker of the series, particularly if he can keep his temper totally under control, which apparently was no mean feat this evening.
For Duncan, well, what can you say? He looked old and slow in the two tilts over in the Big Easy, but particularly tonight Popovich seemed to bring him out a little further away from the low block and toward the sideline, so that the inevitable double-teams created more ball-swings to the weak side, creating more running for the opponents, and many many more open treys in the corner and at the top of the key for the Bowens, Finleys, Ginobilis and Udokas of the world. The Spurs weren’t exactly marksmen on all those wide open looks–they shot 8-26 from beyond the arc–but they both wore the Hornets down with all that chasing, and also generated a helter-skelter chaos that deprived New Orleans of defensive rhythm. Right about the time the Hornets were instinctively flying toward the perimeter, Duncan decided to spin to the hoop (he was an efficient 10-13 FG) or Parker penetrated the open lanes (8-12 FG). New Orleans was working harder and less effectively.
The final indignity was Duncan (twice) and then Ginobili drawing three fouls on defensive stopper Tyson Chandler in the first 3-plus minutes of the third quartrer. Suddenly with 8:39 to play in the third, Chandler had five fouls and the Hornets were down 19. It was right around then that New Orleans mentally threw in the towel, along with everyone but the most Hornets-addled fan watching at home. Byron Scott emptied his bench shortly after the 4th quarter and the older, slower Spurs had their garbage time to relax and ready themselves for Game Five.
It should be a tremendous game. Even after San Antonio won Game Three, the fight staged by the Hornets–they pushed the Spurs to the brink a few times in the third and fourth quarters–had me rethinking my pick of the Spurs in 6 or 7. But San Antonio kept refining and came out in Game Four playing that incredibly well-spaced and unselfish ball movement offense that de
stroyed the Suns in Game Three of their first round series. Can San Antonio impose their enormous will on the Hornets on the road? Paul and West both seemed a little pissed and twitchy tonight, an ire that could go either way in their motivation for Game Five. When the Spurs are annoying, they are almost always winning. On the other hand, Chris Paul and David West are bona fide NBA stars, right now, despite their youth, and Tyson Chandler should be in the conversation with Dwight Howard (and some would say Yao Ming) for who is the best center in the NBA. Yeah, I know Chandler didn’t even attempt a field goal tonight. But he is the chip Byron Scott has to play to avoid the disastrous double-team schemes on Duncan that the Spurs have clearly parsed out. And that matchup, perhaps more than any other, will detemine how this series is decided.