LeBron James set the tone by scoring 18 first quarter points and he finished with 38 points, seven rebounds and six assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers ended their two game losing streak by beating the San Antonio Spurs 101-81. Delonte West and Mo Williams added 22 points each, mainly by draining open looks after the Spurs were forced to double team James lest he score 50 or 60 points. Only three other Cavs scored but the Cavs held the Spurs to .392 field goal shooting and won the rebounding battle 44-34. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 24 points but former Cav Drew Gooden (15 points) was the only other Spur who scored more than eight points; Tim Duncan had just six points on 2-7 field goal shooting, while Manu Ginobili scored four points on 2-9 field goal shooting.
The three foundations of Cleveland’s success are defense, rebounding and the individual brilliance of LeBron James and all three of those elements played crucial roles in this win. Cleveland’s defense and rebounding versus the Spurs are even more impressive considering that the Cavs were without the services not only of Ben Wallace (broken bone in his right leg) but also Anderson Varejao, who was a late scratch due to a wrist injury; it is not clear exactly when/how Varejao got hurt or when he will return to action.
Like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, James often eases into a game, involving his teammates early and then shouldering the scoring load late–but following disappointing losses to Washington and Orlando, James decided to be very aggressive right from the start versus San Antonio. He shot 6-9 from the field and made all six of his free throws in the first quarter. Four of those six field goals were midrange jumpers, including three from the left wing and a turnaround shot from the right elbow, the shot that became a trademark move for Jordan during the latter stages of his career. James is still an erratic midrange shooter but this game provided a glimpse of just how good he could become if he starts to consistently connect from that area; basically, he can be a “supersized” version of Jordan or Bryant, because there is no defense for a player who goes to the hoop as powerfully as James does and who can make the midrange shot. It remains to be seen how long it will take for James to fully and completely develop that aspect of his game but what he did on Sunday has to send a shiver up and down the spines of the other 29 NBA coaches.
After James’ 18 point first quarter, the Spurs began to “blitz” (double team) him as soon as he caught the ball, sometimes even sending that second defender toward him while the pass was still in the air. James is a very poised and unselfish player who instantly reads situations and makes the right pass; in other words, he does not hold the ball or even just make a generic pass out of the trap: he zeroes in on who has been left open in shooting range and delivers the ball right in that player’s shooting pocket, which is why West and Williams not only had big games but shot 10-15 and 9-15 from the field respectively.
It is interesting to note that even with James’ early scoring outburst the Cavs only led 28-27 after the first quarter. Cleveland broke the game open in the second quarter as their reserves outplayed San Antonio’s reserves. As San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said after the game, “When we subbed in the second quarter is when everything went south–and he (James) wasn’t on the court.” There is a misconception in some quarters that James does not have as much help as, say, Kobe Bryant does with the Lakers, but the reality is that the Cavs are at least 10 deep with veteran players who have playoff experience and can be productive for at least 15 minutes per game if necessary: Wally Szczerbiak is a former All-Star, Sasha Pavlovic started for the Cavs in 2007 when they made it to the Finals, Joe Smith is a former number one overall draft pick, Daniel Gibson hit many big shots during the 2007 playoffs and Varejao–who has been starting only since Ben Wallace got hurt–is an excellent defender, rebounder and screener. Even young players such as J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson–who started on Sunday for Varejao, contributing four points and five rebounds–and Tarence Kinsey have been productive during spot duty throughout this season.
Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was understandably pleased with how his team responded to the mini losing streak. In his postgame standup he said, “I thought that at the beginning of the game we had a few breakdowns defensively but as the course of the game went on, our guys’ focus, energy and effort got better and better. That was great to see. Defensively, we have gotten hurt in transition the last two games, so it was good to see us get back and not give up any easy (baskets).” Brown made an adjustment to his normal rotation by playing West and Williams together with the second unit in order to have multiple players on the court who can create shots for themselves and for their teammates.
After Parker’s big first quarter, James often had the defensive assignment against the super quick point guard. Coach Brown explained, “We’ve done that in the past. We did it in the (2007) Finals. We just knew going into the game that first we were going to play our traditional defense, then if that hurt us we were going to play Tony soft and give him the jump shot coming off (screens) with a late contest and then if he knocked down those shots we were going to put a bigger body on him, which is LeBron. Our pick and roll defense was getting hurt initially and then Tony started hitting jump shots, so we continued playing Tony soft but just put a bigger body on him so that when he came off and we got a late contest maybe he will see that body more than when we play him with a guy his size.”
While the Cavs have been a dominant defensive team this season, the Spurs have had a subpar year–at least by their lofty standards–at that end of the court; the Spurs rank just 10th in defensive field goal percentage, the statistic that Coach Gregg Popovich looks at first when evaluating his team’s performance (see Notes From Courtside). Although 10th in a league of 30 teams may not seem that bad, the last time that the Spurs ranked lower than fifth in this category was the 1996-97 season, when Popovich fired Bob Hill after a 3-15 start and took over as the head coach. Under Popovich, the Spurs have led the league in defensive field goal percentage three times and ranked in the top three seven times in the past 11 seasons.
Notes From Courtside:
During Coach Popovich’s pregame standup, he said that the Cavs are “a significantly better team” than they were in 2007, when the Spurs swept them in the NBA Finals. “We definitely caught them at the right time (in 2007). They understand Mike’s system much better (now). They are a deeper team–the pieces fit better and there is more talent. The most important ingredient, LeBron, has really matured. He’s worked on his game. He is sharing with his teammates, he is depending on them more, the way that Kobe depends on his teammates more. He has worked on his shooting. He is a much more confident player in that respect. For all of those reasons the improvement is obvious and that is why they are a top contender to win the championship this year.”
I asked Popovich, “What specific improvements have you seen with LeBron defensively? What do you notice that is different from earlier in his career?”
He replied, “I’m glad that you mentioned that. I think basically he is just taking more pride in it and playing it with more purpose, understanding when stops might be very important and taking it upon himself to set that kind of an example. That’s important–when your best player sets a standard, at either end of the court, everybody else follows and it’s infectious. I think that he has done that to a much greater degree than he did a couple years ago.” In response to a followup by USA TODAY’s Chris Colston, Popovich said that the Olympic experience was good for James and many other members of Team USA, because the players learned by “osmosis” the importance of unselfishness and defense. The crucial role that Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd played in emphasizing those things cannot be stressed enough; this not only helped to bring the gold medal back to the United States, but elevated the games of James and other young stars who proved to be eager and enthusiastic students.
I then asked Popovich, “When you evaluate your team, either after a game or after a series of games, what are one or two statistical areas that you particularly look at?” Mindful of Popovich’s tendency to sometimes answer questions sarcastically–though I felt that I was on safe ground because I was not asking the sort of banal and/or stupid questions that bring forth sarcastic replies from him–I added, “Other than the final score, of course–the sarcastic answer.” At that point, Popovich reassuringly said, “Sure,” making it clear that he did not intend to give a sarcastic reply, and I concluded, “What categories do you look at to see if your team is on target or not?”
Popovich answered, “The first thing that I always look at is field goal percentage defense. To me, that tells a lot about how things are going. At that point, I just look for aberrations–have we been getting our clock cleaned on the offensive boards or did we have an inordinate amount of turnovers, that sort of thing. Field goal percentage defense is what I look at. Offensively, I don’t look at much, because it is obvious–either you shot well or you didn’t. Either you made your free throws or you didn’t. Those aren’t very controllable but rebounds are more controllable, turnovers are more controllable. Defense is controllable. So those are the things that I look at.”
I asked Popovich what his defensive field goal percentage goal is but he said, “I don’t have a number in mind. It changes year in and year out based on possessions and competition but it’s usually going to be in the low 40s–difficult to do, but that’s what you’d love to have. I don’t know what Cleveland is right now–I think that they are number one or number two in field goal percentage defense.”
I informed him that Cleveland is holding teams to right around .420-.430 field goal shooting and he said simply, “That’s good.”
Popovich has a very high opinion of Mike Brown, who was a member of San Antonio’s staff during the 2003 championship season: “The basic qualities that make Mike a wonderful coach are, number one, he has a game plan that he believes in. He knows what he wants to coach and teach. That’s the first step. A coach has to feel very confident in what he is teaching and know it inside and out. I think that secondly he understands that no team wins championships without being a hell of a defensive squad. He has done that consistently, been persistent, has demanded year in and year out, practice to practice, game to game that everybody understands that. A lot of coaches give in but he hasn’t, so his overall system and the emphasis on defense are what are really important basically to go after an NBA championship. After that, I think that he is a great people person. He is willing to talk to players, he’s willing to listen, he has a sense of humor–all of those things are important in an 82 game season. He added to our defensive philosophy (as an assistant coach in San Antonio). I put things in the program that he initiated…Some people just have it and he’s got it.”
When I recently asked Coach Brown what he thought about Houston’s reliance on basketball statistical analysis, he replied, “Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?” Naturally, I sought out Popovich’s take on this issue as well: “Did you see the article in the New York Times about how Houston uses ‘advanced’ statistics both in how they evaluate players and how they game plan?”
He answered, “I know about it.”
I then asked, “What is your opinion about that kind of use of statistics? How much do you rely on that kind of thing versus the eyeball test?”
He said, “I think it’s just a common sense thing–by the seat of the pants, eyeball, ‘feel,’ is very important. Stats can be important. Both can be taken to the point of diminishing returns. So it’s a common sense thing that works.”
I told Popovich, “Coach Brown said that when he was on your staff that you very much went by feel but that P.J. (Carlesimo) was much more stat oriented and he kept telling you about this number and that number.”
“That would be an accurate statement,” Popovich replied.
“So you are more of a ‘feel’ coach in general, even though you said that it can be done either way?” I asked.
“Yes. I would depend more on what I see and feel than on overdosing on stats.”
Before the game, I approached San Antonio defensive specialist Bruce Bowen–a five time All-Defensive First Team member–but he told me that he only talks to the press after the game. This kind of thing annoys some media members and probably is not permitted under a strict interpretation of media availability rules but I understand and respect that every player has his own way of getting mentally and physically prepared to play. On the other hand, the reason that I try to talk to players before games–particularly when my questions are of a general nature and not specific to a particular game–is that if their team gets blown out or they get ejected or something else goes awry then they may either not be available after the game or may not be in a mood to say much of substance. Bowen scored two points on 1-4 shooting and had a -17 plus/minus number in 17 minutes of action, so you can imagine how he must have felt after Sunday’s game. I went up to him in the locker room and reminded him gently that he had promised to talk and I noted that I only had a few questions about the general subject of defense. Understandably, he was hardly enthusiastic, but he did not shoo me away, either, so I asked my first question: “Are you familiar with the New York Times article about how the Rockets use statistical analysis to decide how to play defense, particularly in terms of trying to force Kobe to certain areas of the court? Did you see that article or hear about it?”
Bowen replied, “I haven’t. Didn’t see it or hear about it.”
I then asked, “When you play against Kobe or LeBron, do you look at that kind of stuff, like how they shoot from certain areas of the court? How do you decide how to guard players like that?”
Bowen said, “Nine times out of 10, it’s what the coaches want. You get the game plan from the coaches and you go from there. I don’t think that you can force anybody in this league to go to a certain particular point to shoot the ball or anything like that. They are All-Stars for a reason, because they are able to do things on the floor that others can’t. I don’t know about all that mumbo jumbo.”
I asked Bowen to describe the similarities and differences from his perspective regarding playing defense against Kobe Bryant and LeBron James but he said, “I haven’t put too much thought into that right now, so it would be hard for me to give you a sufficient answer about that.”
Ben Wallace–who is still on the inactive list–warmed up on the court prior to the game. He wore a black protective covering on his lower right leg and noticeably favored that leg as he shot from various midrange areas, including the free throw line. He jogged through some basic sets with an assistant coach, setting screens and then popping out to shoot jumpers. He tended to shoot well on his first few attempts but then miss wildly the longer he shot from the same spot. For instance, he hit seven of his first nine attempts from the right baseline but ended up making 11 out of 20 from that area. He shot 10-17 on midrange jumpers from the left baseline. Wallace shoots a better percentage on practice jumpers then you might expect from watching him shoot during games but it is important to keep in mind that great NBA shooters typically shoot 80% or better on uncontested practice shots from midrange areas, so making more than half of those shots is not a tremendous percentage, even if the casual fan might be surprised that Wallace can do that in light of his dismal free throw percentage.
Eric Snow, who was technically still on Cleveland’s roster but did not appear in a game this season and has been working as a commentator for NBA TV, was formally released by the Cavaliers on Sunday due to medical reasons. The knee injury that he suffered prior to the 2007-08 season ultimately ended his career.