Entering this year’s playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed to be primed for success while the aging Boston Celtics had been little better than a .500 team for the greater portion of the regular season (27-24 in the final 51 games). The Cavs were nearly unbeatable at home while the Celtics were uncharacteristically vulnerable in Boston and displayed a propensity for blowing big leads. All of the trends suggested that the Cavs should beat the Celtics and TNT’s Charles Barkley even declared that Cleveland could sweep Boston. I did not predict a sweep but I expected the Cavs to eliminate Boston in fewer than seven games, a result that is now impossible in the wake of the Cavs’ embarrassing 120-88 home loss in game five, the second consecutive time that the Celtics have routed the Cavs in Quicken Loans Arena. The Celtics deserve credit for playing some of their best basketball in recent memory, with Rajon Rondo operating at a very high level and Kevin Garnett looking healthier than he has all year, but with all due respect to Boston it is obvious that the Cavs are playing well below their normal standard.
Prior to the series, I said that the Celtics’ one decisive matchup advantage would be Rondo versus whoever checked him. I expected LeBron James to have a significant advantage over Paul Pierce and for Shaquille O’Neal to get various Boston bigs into foul trouble. Based on how hobbled Garnett looked this season, I thought that Garnett and Antawn Jamison would be a wash. Ray Allen has an edge over Anthony Parker but I did not expect that margin to be decisive in the series at this stage of Allen’s career. Throughout the season, the Cavs had a much more consistent and productive bench than the Celtics.
After five games, the reality is that Rondo has been the best player in the series, confounding the Cavs to the point that they tried so hard to contain him in game five that they lost track of future Hall of Famers Pierce, Garnett and Allen. Garnett’s postups have been more consistently effective than Jamison’s drives to the hoop, though the Cavs could even out that matchup a bit by providing Jamison with more touches. James is annihilating Pierce overall but in the pivotal fifth game Pierce clearly got the best of James. O’Neal has shot a high percentage from the field (.510) and the free throw line (.690, a very good number for him) and has delivered all that could reasonably be expected from him in the “Big Bill Cartwright” role. Parker and others have done a credible job versus Allen, though—like Pierce—Allen did break out in game five.
It is easy to blame Coach Mike Brown for the Cavs’ problems but I do not think that Brown’s game plans are defective. When the Cavs have played hard they have beaten the Celtics but the Celtics dominated when the Cavs played lethargically; NBA players are highly paid professional athletes, so something is seriously wrong if the Cavs need “rah, rah” speeches from Brown in order to be motivated. Brown’s mentor, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, mocked that very concept during his team’s series versus Phoenix; asked if he would remind his team about some of their earlier playoff successes in order to inspire them after the Suns took a 2-0 series lead, Popovich could not conceal his disdain for the reporter’s ignorance and sarcastically said that he might also ask his team to win one for the Gipper. Providing motivation may be a big deal for high school and college coaches but in the professional ranks the coach’s primary responsibility is to devise the correct game plan for each opponent.
No rational person can reasonably criticize Coach Brown’s capabilities as a game planner; during his tenure he transformed the Cavs into a defensive-minded team even though they have always had several players in their rotation who have limitations/liabilities as individual defenders. Recently, it has become chic to declare that Coach Brown is poor at making in game adjustments but I have yet to hear concrete, reasonable suggestions about what he should do differently. The truth of the matter is that game planning is actually far more important than the vaunted in game adjustments. Great coaches like Phil Jackson use their practices to prepare their players for the most likely eventualities and then those coaches generally sit placidly on the bench during games; most coaches who you see jumping up and down and ranting and raving during games are just putting on a show for the TV cameras. If the players are not properly prepared beforehand then it is doubtful that the coach can make some magical adjustment that will turn things around in the heat of battle; in fact, the best “adjustments” are actually moves that were thought of long before the game began. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh famously “scripted” a certain number of plays before each game and many fans assumed that this meant that he ran those plays in a predetermined order regardless of the situation but that is silly; what Walsh did is prepare several sets of plays for various contingencies (second and long, third and short, counters to various blitzes, etc.) and then chose from that list as appropriate. The reason he did this is that he learned during his time as a Cincinnati assistant coach that when the weather is freezing and the play clock is running down the circumstances are not ideal to make in game adjustments: if you have not already prepared something for the situation at hand then you are in trouble: Walsh compared this to trying to run a multimillion dollar company by holding an important board meeting outdoors in freezing cold with severe time constraints.
Anyone who praises Coach Brown’s game planning but criticizes Coach Brown’s in game coaching either does not understand how coaching really works at the professional level or is simply trying to call Brown incompetent without using that word; if the Cavs are really failing to adjust during games then that means that either the players are not executing correctly or the game plan is flawed/incomplete. There are no mystery plays or magic plays; both teams in a playoff series are very familiar with what the other team runs and they go into each game with plans to counteract the opponent’s favorite sets but it is up to the players to execute those plans. For instance, when reporters kept asking Boston Coach Doc Rivers about the possibility of LeBron James being switched onto Rajon Rondo at some point, Rivers replied that the Celtics had factored this into their planning before the series began. If/when the Cavs put James on Rondo for an extended period of time Rivers will not make an “in game adjustment”; he will merely remind his players to execute whatever game plan he put into place before the series. The same is true for Coach Brown regarding various moves that Rivers might make.
The only thing that I would criticize about Brown’s coaching this year is the way that he “rested” players at the end of the regular season. I have never liked that approach in any sport; it has yet to work for the Indianapolis Colts, who almost annually race out to the best record in the NFL but won their only Super Bowl title in the one season in which they did not have the best record and thus did not “rest” players. The Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls went 72-10 and 69-13 in back to back seasons during their second three-peat, with those star players logging heavy minutes even in “meaningless” late season games. The point is that there really are no “meaningless” games—and this was even more true for the Cavs because they needed to develop chemistry among various players who had not spent much time on the court together. Back in March after Shaquille O’Neal got hurt, I wrote that the one obstacle that could derail Cleveland’s championship quest is that during the playoffs the Cavs would have to develop on court chemistry on the fly because key members of their rotation had not played together very much during the season. The Cavs were so much better than the Chicago Bulls that the talent disparity made up for any chemistry problems in the first round but playing against a Boston team whose nucleus won the 2008 NBA title has revealed that the Cavs are not “on a string” defensively the way that Coach Brown would like them to be; many times in game five you saw two defenders run at one Celtic only to leave another Celtic wide open. Those kinds of communication issues are only solved by practice and repetition and that is why I firmly believe that the Cavs should have set up their playoff rotation during the final regular season games. The Orlando Magic took their final games seriously even though they were “meaningless” in terms of the Eastern Conference standings and it is no coincidence that they are the hottest team in the playoffs right now.
It is not realistic to suggest that Coach Brown bench Mo Williams because Williams has difficulty guarding Rajon Rondo. Guess what—most NBA point guards have trouble defending Rondo; that is why Rondo is an All-Star. The World Champion L.A. Lakers sometimes have to crossmatch because starting point guard Derek Fisher cannot keep up with his counterpart but you don’t see Phil Jackson benching a player who is a key member of the starting lineup. Williams ranks second on the Cavs in the Boston series with 29 assists but he has only committed seven turnovers; James leads the Cavs with 33 assists but he also has 18 turnovers. There is no question that the Cavs need for Williams to improve his shooting percentage but taking him out of his comfort zone as a starter is unlikely to help in that regard. ESPN analyst/Hall of Fame Coach Dr. Jack Ramsay made a great point during a recent radio interview: after his 1977 Portland Trail Blazers lost the first two games of the NBA Finals to the Philadelphia 76ers, his assistant coaches made all kinds of suggestions about strategy changes and lineup alterations but Ramsay concluded that if he so drastically altered his approach that he would be sending the wrong message to the team. Instead, Ramsay told his players that they had not yet played their best game but that if they executed properly that they were good enough to beat Philadelphia. Portland won four straight games to capture the championship.
Some observers complain that the Cavs play too slowly on offense, relying too heavily on postups by Shaquille O’Neal instead of utilizing a smaller, quicker lineup. Did Mike D’Antoni or Don Nelson win an NBA championship when I was not looking? NBA championship teams almost always feature a strong post presence. Even Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had first Bill Cartwright and later Luc Longley and those teams generally featured their centers early in the game in order try to draw fouls and also to force the opposing team to reveal its defensive game plan. Coach Brown is correct to utilize O’Neal in a similar fashion. It is not like O’Neal is shooting the ball 20 times a game but even with limited touches he has often been able to create foul trouble for the opposing team and to get the Cavs in the bonus early, an important factor that casual fans do not fully appreciate.
Depending on how the opponent guards O’Neal, the Cavs can then run different actions to free up cutters and/or three point shooters on the weak side. That is how the Cavs built an eight point lead early in game five. As O’Neal correctly noted after the game, the Cavs did not lose because of how they played offensively but rather because of defensive breakdowns.
The most important thing for a basketball team to do offensively is create penetration into the painted area; that is how a team generates high percentage shots. That can be accomplished by posting up, by driving to the hoop or by passing to cutters. When O’Neal is in the game he is the team’s best postup option; at other times, the Cavs penetrate into the paint via drives by James, Jamison, Williams or Delonte West. The Cavs ranked ninth in scoring during the regular season—ahead of the Lakers and Celtics and right behind the Magic—and they finished third in field goal percentage, so there is little statistical support for the contention that Coach Brown’s offensive game plan is inefficient. The Cavs rank fourth in playoff scoring and third in field goal percentage, so it is not like their offense has fallen apart in the postseason, either.
So if Coach Brown is not the problem and playing “small ball” is not the answer then why are the Cavs facing elimination tonight? The bottom line is simple: even the best game plan in the world will fail if the team’s best player does not invest his mind, heart, body and soul in the process of trying to win a championship. If LeBron James plays at an MVP level and does his part to execute the game plan then his teammates will follow suit and the Cavs will win this series—but after seeing the Cavs lose three of the previous four games to the Celtics it seems increasingly unlikely that James is willing to put his stamp on this series in that manner. The strangest thing so far in this series—other than the fact that Cleveland lost two home games—was the Twilight Zone-like vibe of the postgame press conferences after Cleveland’s game two loss. First, Coach Brown stormed into the room, angrily called out his team and uttered an expletive during a live NBA TV broadcast; then James calmly spoke to the media as if he did not have a care in the world, denying that Brown had said any harsh words to the team in the locker room and joking that perhaps the Coach does not love the media as much as he loves his players. I sat there thinking that either Brown and James were playing “good cop, bad cop” or else there was a serious disconnect between them. It seemed like James’ great game three performance brushed any internal problems under the rug but the past two games have made it increasingly apparent that while Brown is very concerned and disappointed by his team’s poor performance and lack of execution James just does not think that this is a big deal.
Brown is right to be upset, because he very likely will be fired if the Cavs fail to win the championship—but James may be deluding himself if he is assuming that he will definitely have many other opportunities to win a ring. History is littered with the stories of great players and powerful teams that seemed destined to win championships but fell short due to injuries and other unforeseen factors. Dan Marino made it to the Super Bowl after his second season and then never again appeared in the big game. There is no guarantee that James will return to the NBA Finals and it is far from certain that he will ever again play for a team that is as deep, talented and well balanced as this Cleveland team. If James’ apparent indifference is his way of signaling that he wants to play for a different coach and/or a different team he may look back in 10 years and realize that he squandered his best chance to win a ring. James needs to rouse himself out of whatever mental funk he is in and perform in games six and seven the way that he did in game three.