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Cavs Use Balanced Attack to Tame Raptors

Seven players scored in double figures–including all five starters–as the Cleveland Cavaliers improved to a league-best 61-17 record with a 113-101 win over the Toronto Raptors. Antawn Jamison scored a team-high 20 points and LeBron James added 19 points, 13 assists and six rebounds. James helped the Cavs set a season-high in assists (38) and six of his dimes resulted in layups or dunks as the Cavs outscored the Raptors 62-38 in the paint. Former Raptor Anthony Parker authored his best game of the season, setting a season high in points (18) and matching his season-highs in rebounds (eight) and assists (six). Parker also led the Cavs with three steals. Mo Williams dropped in eight first quarter points as the Cavs took a 35-26 lead after the first 12 minutes and he finished with 14 points and a season-high 12 assists. The Raptors had serious problems matching up with Williams one on one and when they trapped him he made excellent feeds to his teammates for wide open shots (on one first quarter possession, Andrea Bargnani went to double Williams on the left baseline and Williams slipped a pass right by Bargnani to a cutting Jamison for an easy layup). J.J. Hickson contributed 10 points and seven rebounds as the starting center, while Jawad Williams (13 points) and Anderson Varejao (10 points) made nice contributions off of the bench. Varejao looked very good in his return to action after missing four games due to a hamstring injury. The Cavs are so deep and versatile it is easy to forget that they were without the services of starting center Shaquille O’Neal and key reserve Delonte West, who missed the game due to back spasms; West’s absence was purely a precautionary measure and indications are that he could have played if absolutely necessary. Daniel Gibson–who ranks second in the league in three point field goal percentage–was officially listed as DNP-CD (Did Not Play–Coach’s Decision) only because the Cavs already had the maximum of three players on the inactive list (O’Neal, West and Sebastian Telfair) but in fact he was scratched due to a foot injury; after the game, Coach Mike Brown noted that Gibson was dressed in his warmup gear–not a uniform–and thus was not available (some media members asked Brown why Gibson did not enter the game even in the last minute with the Cavs up by double figures, a question that either indicates keen concern about Gibson or a tendency to nitpick Brown’s decision making even as he guides his team to the best record in the NBA).

Jarrett Jack led the Raptors with 23 points and six assists. The Raptors suffered a major setback when Jamison inadvertently elbowed All-Star Chris Bosh in the face a little over two minutes into the game. Bosh crumpled to the floor, bleeding profusely, and he had to be helped off of the court; he was later taken to the Cleveland Clinic, where it was determined that he has a broken nose and a facial fracture. Watching the game in person, I did not see what happened live because I was following the ball on that particular play but as soon as I saw the replay I said that Bosh probably has a broken nose and may very well have a concussion as well (we later found out that he was given a CT scan at the Clinic). The Raptors hung tough even without Bosh but then in the third quarter starting small forward Antoine Wright left the game with an ankle injury and the Cavs led by double digits for most of the remainder of the contest. Amir Johnson had a strong game off of the bench (16 points on 7-8 shooting, 10 rebounds) but the Raptors could not overcome their poor defense and lack of size.

For a stretch of a little over two minutes in the second quarter the Cavs used an interesting “big” lineup consisting of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, Jawad Williams and LeBron James: each of those players is at least 6-8 and none is traditionally considered a guard, though James was nominally the point guard and Williams was nominally the shooting guard. The lineup possibilities and potential mismatches that the Cavs can create are really amazing–and will only increase when O’Neal and West are available: not only can the Cavs use multiple effective “big” lineups but the Cavs can potentially go “small” with Hickson or Varejao at center surrounded by four perimeter players. After the game, Jack spoke about how difficult it is to try to defend LeBron James while also keeping an eye on the other Cavs: “We changed up our coverages a little bit in the second half. I thought we contained him as best you could do. They still have other guys who are capable players. You can’t sleep on those guys. Mo Williams is obviously an All-Star and Anthony Parker has shown he is a very capable perimeter scorer. We’ve got to guard them with the same intensity and respect as we do LeBron or anybody else. You’ve go to kind of pick your poison when you’re playing against the Cavs. If you’re going to stop LeBron, obviously that’s going to leave some people open for some looks.” James shot just 5-13 from the field, so it is true that the Raptors did about as well against him as is possible–but the other Cavs shot 42-71 (.592); in the 2008 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics essentially swarmed Kobe Bryant and dared anyone else to beat them, a strategy that other teams are starting to use against the Lakers as well–but that approach toward James will not work against a Cleveland team that is stocked with productive big men, excellent slashers and deadly three point shooters. As Jack said, “pick your poison”: in addition to the Cavs’ huge points in the paint advantage they also shot 8-20 (.400) on three pointers–8-18 if you take out James’ two long range misses. James’ brilliance as a playmaker is threefold: he has impeccable court vision, he is strong enough to make passes from distances that would daunt most other players and his passes are uncannily catchable; the latter trait is an intangible that cannot be quantified but what I mean is that James is able to throw the ball hard enough to elude defenders yet soft enough that the recipient can catch the ball and accurately enough that it is possible to immediately shoot without having to “reload” or make any kind of adjustment. Rarely do you see James throw a pass that lands at someone’s feet, takes someone off of his sweet spot or forces a cutter to slow down/change direction.

In his postgame standup, Coach Brown offered a concise and very accurate description of his team’s play: “It was a good offensive game and just an OK defensive game. We did some good things defensively but we still have to continue to work on our weak side. Our weak side awareness is not great. They did a good job of exploiting us in pick and rolls to a certain degree. We have got to do a better job with that knowing that this team likes to spread you out and just play pick and roll after pick and roll after pick and roll.” Both before and after the contest, Brown indicated that he has no specific, concrete plans in terms of resting his players prior to the playoffs but that he considers the season’s final games to be “high-level practices.” Basically, the Cavs want to find some way to keep their key players healthy while also maintaining sharpness at both ends of the court.

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Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Brown’s pregame standup I asked him about various lineups that he could possibly use during the upcoming playoffs:

Friedman: “When Shaq returns you have the possibility of putting a lineup out there of five players who have made the All-Star team at various times in their careers: Shaq, Z, Jamison, LeBron and Mo Williams. Have you given that any thought and how likely is it that we could see a lineup like that in which everyone has made the All-Star team at some point in their career?”

Brown: “Who was the fifth one?”

Friedman: “Mo Williams.”

Brown: “Mo, Shaq…”

Friedman: “Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a two-time All-Star, plus LeBron and Jamison; you have five players who have made the All-Star team and four of them made it within the past two years. You could theoretically put a lineup out there of five All-Stars (once Shaq returns). Have you given that any thought and how likely is it that we could see that particular combination of players on the court at the same time?”

Brown: “I haven’t given it any thought. Could it happen? Yes but I haven’t given it any thought at all.”

It was a big deal when four Pistons made the All-Star team in 2006–matching the 1998 Lakers, the 1983 76ers, three Celtics teams (1953, 1962, 1975) and the 1962 Lakers–but if the possibility of putting four teammates on the court at the same time in the midseason classic is exciting then what can be said about the possibility of putting five All-Stars on the court at the same time in the playoffs or even the NBA Finals? Granted, Ilgauskas is not an All-Star caliber player right now but he is still a skillful 7-3 center who can rebound, pick and pop and post up, while the other four Cavs in question each made the All-Star team at least as recently as 2008. I understand that Coach Brown may be more concerned about individual matchups than the theoretical possibility of putting five All-Stars on the court at the same time but the fact that he has this lineup combination at his disposal speaks to just how deep the Cavs are. Offhand (I have not researched this completely), these are the only teams that I can only think of that not only had five All-Stars but had four players who had each made the All-Star team very recently: various incarnations of Bill Russell’s Celtics in the 1960s, the 1982 and 1983 L.A. Lakers (other Laker squads from that era don’t qualify because Norm Nixon–and then Jamaal Wilkes–departed prior to James Worthy becoming an All-Star) and the 1988 Celtics (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge each made the All-Star team at least once while they were Celtic teammates). It would be a stretch to include Boston’s 1986 championship team, because Danny Ainge did not make the All-Star team until 1988, while Bill Walton had not been an All-Star since 1978 (an eight year span compared to Ilgauskas’ five year span); Walton had not been a full-time starting center since 1984, while just last year Ilgauskas was the starting center for a Cleveland team that posted the best record in the NBA. Former All-Star Scott Wedman did play a big role for the 1986 Celtics, but he made his only All-Star appearance 10 years earlier, so he was much further removed from being an All-Star than any of the Cavs’ All-Star veterans are.

Friedman: “You had to go about a month with a small lineup without Shaq and Z. Did it surprise you a little bit how well the team was able to rebound with an undersized lineup?”

Brown: “Yes it did. It’s not only that, but even having J.J. (Hickson) playing the center position it is a little surprising that we would be able to be that effective (against bigger players). We kind of did it by committee; Anderson played some center, too. It was good to see guys step up and fill that void.”

Friedman: “Do you think that kind of lineup can be successful in a playoff series or when two teams really lock in on each other in a playoff series do you think that another team might be able to better exploit you going small so that a small lineup would not be quite as successful in the playoffs?”

Brown: “It depends on which teams we play. If we are playing a smaller, quicker team then we could have some success (with a small lineup) but if our starting center is J.J. and he has to match up in a seven game series with Dwight (Howard) I don’t know–not to say that he can’t or he can.”

In other words, even though some fans on message boards seem to think that the Cavs should go small all the time and just bench Ilgauskas–or even Shaq–the reality is that a small lineup is a nice change of pace option for Coach Brown to have in his back pocket but not something that can serve as the primary lineup option, particularly against teams that have dominant big men.

***

It is still unclear when exactly O’Neal will return; he has not yet been cleared for contact and Coach Brown said before the game that if O’Neal cannot come back soon then he sees little benefit in rushing O’Neal back just to play one regular season game for the sake of continuity; if the scenario plays out in that fashion it seems as though Coach Brown would prefer to just give O’Neal a little more rest and reinsert him in the lineup when the playoffs begin. It seems like the only things that could derail a championship run by Cleveland are more injuries and/or a lack of continuity created by bringing back O’Neal in the middle of the playoffs. Three of the Cavs’ 17 losses this season came in the first six games when the team was still adjusting to the arrival of offseason additions O’Neal, Parker and Jamario Moon (plus the uncertain status of Delonte West); for various reasons, key rotation players did not play together during the preseason so the team had to figure things out on the fly once the season began. Similarly, the Cavs dropped three straight games after acquiring Jamison but rallied to go 18-3 since that time despite O’Neal, Ilgauskas, West and Varejao missing games during that run. Near the end of his pregame standup, I asked Coach Brown about the challenge of potentially bringing O’Neal back in the middle of the playoffs: “Obviously, you guys have not lost that many games this year but some of the losses have come in clumps–at the start of the year when you had to adjust because you had new players and then you lost some games right after acquiring Antawn Jamison. How concerned are you if Shaq is coming back in the middle of a playoff series or in the middle of the playoffs? Obviously, there is not really time in the playoffs to lose a game because of having to adjust. Are you a little bit concerned that this is the one thing that could be a problem for this team in the playoffs?”

Coach Brown replied, “Yes, I am concerned but we had a chance to play with Shaq and we kind of have a good feel for that. In the other two situations, in the first case early in the year we had not really had a chance to play with Shaq yet and in the second one late in the year we had not had a chance to play with Antawn. We had a feeling out process with two new players in new situations. Now at least we have had a chance to play with Shaq, so hopefully it is not as difficult a transition as the other two times were.”

***

Cavs forward Jamario Moon received the fifth annual Austin Carr Good Guy Award, an honor bestowed by the Cleveland chapter of the Pro Basketball Writers Association to “recognize a Cavaliers player who is cooperative and understanding of the media, the community and the public.”

Cleveland PBWA Chapter President Bob Finnan said of Moon, “Win or lose, Jamario remains the same. He’s always accommodating and engaging in the locker room. Very seldom does he not have a big smile on his face. He’s added to the Cavs’ culture.”

Austin Carr starred at Notre Dame before the Cavs made him the number one overall selection in the 1971 NBA Draft. Carr currently serves as a Cavs television analyst for FOX Sports Ohio and also works for the team as the Director of Community and Business Development.

***

The Cavs posted the best record in the NBA in 2008-09 (66-16) and they have already clinched the best record in the league this season as well. The last team to have the outright best record in the NBA in back to back seasons was the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls, who did so in 1995-96 and 1996-97. In 1997-98, the Bulls tied with the Utah Jazz for the best record and the following season–the lockout shortened 50 game 1999 campaign–the Jazz tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best record. Since then, the L.A. Lakers (2000), the Spurs (2001, 2003 [tied with the Mavericks]), the Sacramento Kings (2002), the Dallas Mavericks (2003 [tied with the Spurs], 2007), the Indiana Pacers (2004), the Phoenix Suns (2005), the Detroit Pistons (2006) and the Boston Celtics (2008) posted the best single season records prior to Cleveland’s recent two year dominance.

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David Friedman is a freelance writer specializing in professional basketball. His work has been published in several magazines, including Hoop, Lindy's Pro Basketball, Basketball Times and Basketball Digest. He has also contributed to NBCSports.com, HoopsHype.com and ProBasketballNews.com and his articles are frequently reprinted at Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Friedman wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog: 20 Second Timeout

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