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The Boston Celtics held the Cleveland Cavaliers to 29-70 field goal shooting (.414), overcame an early 14 point deficit to build a 15 point second half lead and then staved off a late Cleveland rally to topple the Cavaliers 95-89 in the season opener for both teams. Kevin Garnett scored 13 points and had 10 rebounds in his first game since March 25, while new Celtics Rasheed Wallace (12 points, 3-6 three point field goal shooting) and Marquis Daniels (seven points, game-high +11 plus/minus rating) helped the Celtics to enjoy a 26-10 advantage in bench points, but the big star for Boston on this night was Paul Pierce, who led the way with 23 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Pierce scored 10 fourth quarter points, including six points in the final 1:03. LeBron James had a typically explosive game–38 points, eight assists, four rebounds, four blocked shots, two steals–but he was about the only bright spot for the Cavs; Shaquille O’Neal had six points (3-3 field goal shooting) and four rebounds in the first 7:20 of the first quarter but managed just four points and six rebounds in 21:28 the rest of the way, including 0 points on 0-2 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Mo Williams scored 12 points on 3-8 field goal shooting and had a game-worst -10 plus/minus rating. Anthony Parker was Cleveland’s only other double figure scorer (10 points) but he shot just 3-9 from the field and had a costly turnover late in the game when James passed to him for what should have been a wide open corner jumper. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (six points, five rebounds in 24:39) struggled to find his way in his new role off of the bench as O’Neal’s backup.
Cleveland lost only two home games last season en route to posting a league-best 66-16 overall record. The home team had won the previous 16 encounters in this series and after the first quarter it looked like that trend would continue. The Cavaliers raced to a 21-7 lead as O’Neal looked mobile and sharp while James scored from inside and outside in addition to racking up three blocked shots, including a sensational left handed rejection of a Rajon Rondo fast break dunk attempt at the 3:12 mark. The Celtics began to chip away as both teams put their reserves into the game and by the end of the quarter Boston trimmed Cleveland’s advantage to 28-21. Ray Allen scored 11 of his 16 points in the second quarter, often abusing the smaller Daniel Gibson in the post; the Cavs sorely missed the presence of Delonte West, last season’s starting shooting guard who also sometimes anchored the reserve unit during key stretches of games. During the 2009 playoffs, West led the Cavaliers with 41.3 mpg, ranked second on the team with 19 steals and tied for second with 58 assists. Although he warmed up on the court prior to the game, West was placed on the inactive list and it is not clear when he will return to active duty as he battles against bipolar disorder. Boston Coach Doc Rivers coached West in Boston for three seasons and when Rivers was asked about West’s situation Rivers said that he is praying for West to completely recover and he added that his philosophy is “Don’t give up on anybody who’s breathing.”
Prior to the game, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown expressed concern about his team’s transition defense and weak side defense and he reiterated those themes after the game, while also acknowledging that Boston played very well: “You have to give Boston a lot of credit. They did a heck of a job in the first half of withstanding the punch that we threw. They bounced back the right way. They are a very good strong side defensive team. For a stretch in the first half, we didn’t get the ball across the floor. We kept the ball on one side of the floor and took a lot of jump shots. That hurt us. On the defensive end of the floor we had a lot of uncontested shots. One of our staples on the defensive end is to contest and there was a stretch in the first half when we didn’t contest shots, especially transition three pointers…On average last year we had a little over 13 uncontested shots per game but we had nine uncontested shots just in the first half of tonight’s game.”
Brown blamed himself for a substitution pattern that led to the Cavaliers being “a little disjointed,” which is an excellent description of his team’s performance after the first few minutes; Brown is still trying to figure out which player combinations will be most effective, a process that has been hindered not only by West’s situation but also because Brown is integrating newcomers O’Neal, Parker and Jamario Moon into the mix. Brown paired O’Neal and Ilgauskas together for a little more than six minutes in the fourth quarter; Boston led 80-71 at the 9:20 mark and 85-79 with 3:15 remaining when Anderson Varejao replaced Ilgauskas. In response to a question after the game, Brown said that the Twin Towers look was something that he had planned to do in advance but that he had not expected to stick with it for quite that long. I followed up by asking, “You said that you were looking for something specific when you played Shaq and Z together. What exactly were you looking for and did you see what you wanted to see?” Brown responded, “I just wanted to see if those guys could play together and how they would look playing together. I thought that they did a nice job when they were on the floor together.”
In this game, we saw a microcosm of the best of the Cavs and the worst of the Cavs: at their best, the Cavs are a very good defensive team that can attack offensively in a variety of ways, from O’Neal in the post to James virtually anywhere, with spot up shooters and slashers available as pressure releases if opposing teams trap O’Neal and/or James–but at their worst, the Cavs have some defensive weaknesses that can be exploited (they are slow in transition and in defending the screen/roll, problems that stem in part from having two elder statesmen seven footers in O’Neal and Ilgauskas) and when they are pressured or have certain lineup combinations in the game they have a tendency to break down offensively and either go one on one or else settle for long jumpers. The talent and potential of this team are quite evident, so the Cavs should show steady improvement during the season–but, assuming that the team stays reasonably healthy, the obvious X factor is West’s status. Parker is a good offseason acquisition and Moon figures to have more impact during the rest of the season than he did in this game (two points in 13:41) but neither of those players can fully replace West’s contributions or replicate his familiarity with Brown’s system.
As for the Celtics, don’t forget that they opened their 2009 title defense with a 27-2 record before injuries–particularly to defensive linchpin Garnett–scuttled their season. Even without Garnett they still pushed eventual Eastern Conference Champion Orlando to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics will miss Glen Davis, who recently broke his thumb in an altercation with a former college teammate, but Wallace should be more than able to pick up the slack, while Daniels will provide valuable bench production at point guard, shooting guard and small forward. When they are fully healthy the Celtics are a suffocating defensive team. Center Kendrick Perkins is a powerful force in the paint, Garnett wreaks havoc all over the court, point guard Rajon Rondo (eight points, 10 assists, six rebounds versus Cleveland) is quick and plays bigger than his size and future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have accepted the challenge defensively ever since Garnett joined the team in 2007.
Notes From Courtside:
In 2008-09, LeBron James won his first regular season MVP partially because he improved several of his skill set weaknesses: he reversed a three year decline in his three point shooting percentage and fell just short of setting a career-high in that category (.344, just .007 worse than his 2004-05 percentage), he shot a career-high .780 from the free throw line, he earned his first selection to the All-Defensive First Team and he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Great NBA players are known for their relentless pursuit of perfection; they never rest on their laurels–that is why Kobe Bryant spent part of his summer learning low post moves from Hakeem Olajuwon. During his pregame standup, I asked James, “Last year you improved your free throw shooting and your defense. What is one area you are looking to improve or focus on this season?” James replied, “I don’t know. I just try to improve every part of my game every year. I did a lot of shooting this summer, from everywhere on the court but mostly from boxes and elbows, so hopefully I can open my offensive game a little bit more. Defensively, I am going to have the same intensity as I had last year. I will be the same leader that I have been the last few years–that won’t change.” Later in his pregame standup, James reiterated his goal to shoot at least .800 from the free throw line, a standard that Assistant Coach Chris Jent mentioned to me in May 2008.
Before James did his pregame standup, I saw part of his shooting workout with Jent (you can find my account of James’ pregame shooting routine from last season’s home opener here). James shot from various areas of the court until he made five shots (not in a row). I don’t know how long he had been practicing before I arrived but here are his shooting percentages for the part of the workout that I saw (in the order that James shot from the various areas):
5-5 free throws
5-8 one dribble pullup jumpers from the left baseline just inside the three point line
5-6 left wing three pointers (catch and shoot)
5-10 one dribble pullup jumpers from the top of the key area (beyond the top of the key but inside the three point line)
5-10 one dribble pullup jumpers from the right wing just inside the three point line
5-10 one dribble pullup jumpers from the right baseline just inside the three point line
5-7 free throws
James’ form on his free throws and jump shots has improved significantly since he entered the league: his release is smoother and more consistent and he no longer fades away or drifts to the side on his jumpers as much as he used to do. When James gets in a good rhythm he looks like a great pure shooter but he does not sustain that rhythm the way that guys like Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash do during warmup situations; James will swish three shots in a row beautifully and then clank one off of the rim discordantly or even hit the side of the backboard. His shot is a work in progress but the significant thing is that he is working on it and he did demonstrate improvement last season.
Mike Brown has the best winning percentage (.643) of any coach in the 39 year history of the Cavaliers franchise. He is also the third winningest coach among the nine NBA coaches who have been with their current team for at least the past four years, trailing only Gregg Popovich (.675) and Phil Jackson (.672) and ranking ahead of such notables as Jerry Sloan and Doc Rivers. Brown went 188-112 (.627) in his first 300 games as Cleveland’s coach, the fifth best winning percentage among active coaches in their first 300 games, trailing only Phil Jackson, Rick Adelman, Stan Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle.
Prior to the game, I spoke with Cavaliers Assistant Coach Hank Egan. Much was said and written before, during and after last year’s Eastern Conference Finals regarding how Cleveland matched up with Orlando, so I asked Coach Egan to explain the thought process behind some of Cleveland’s strategic moves during that series:
Friedman: “Sometimes when a team has a really great defensive player–like Kobe Bryant has been for years and like LeBron James turned into last year–the philosophy is to put him on the other team’s best player and shut him down, while other times the philosophy is to put him on a weaker player and use him as a roamer. How come in the Orlando series instead of putting James on (Rashard) Lewis or (Hedo) Turkoglu you put him on (Rafer) Alston? Explain, from a coaching perspective, where that idea came from.”
Egan: “There are a lot of reasons for it. One of the reasons was we put him on Alston so he could roam a little bit, so that gave us some opportunities there; also, we didn’t feel that would get us in a lot of foul trouble to begin with because they would not post up Alston or put him in any situations like that. Then, late in the game, we started picking out (certain matchups) and putting James on different people, which is what we did a lot during the year: keep him out of foul trouble early in the game and then in the second part of the game in crunch time we find the key guy and we would put him on the key guy.”
Friedman: “A lot of the media coverage of the series focused on the idea that Orlando enjoyed favorable mismatches or favorable matchups versus Cleveland sizewise, so a lot of people wondered why James did not start out on Lewis or Turkoglu, because he would not be at a size disadvantage. What is your perspective on that as a coach?”
Egan: “It’s not necessarily the matchup one on one because we were going to have to double team Dwight Howard, so we were going to be in (defensive) rotations anyway. So LeBron would be in rotation and that would give us an opportunity to use him to double team the post or else to rotate to shooters on the perimeter.”
Friedman: “So you felt like the angles that James would be coming from (when he was assigned to guard Alston) would–”
Egan: “Not necessarily the angle, but he (James) would be in a position on the postup (of Howard)–the way that they used Alston–to maybe help more from that spot than he would be from one of the other guys. It’s hard to leave Turkoglu, it’s hard to leave the premier shooters.”
Friedman: “Was there any thought, with the frontcourt depth that you had last season, of maybe taking some more fouls on Howard? Is that something you look back on and wonder if you should have done differently, maybe take a chance on his free throw percentage versus the three point shooting percentage of some of their other players?”
Egan: “Yeah, we talked about that. Taking fouls is really not in a person’s character. It’s really hard (because players want to play defense and not just bail out/give up on the play). But he hit his free throws against us (Howard shot .701 from the free throw line versus Cleveland in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, compared to .636 overall in the playoffs and .594 in the regular season).”
Friedman: “It seemed like there were a couple plays when Howard caught the ball down low versus Varejao and Varejao didn’t foul him and he dunked even though it seemed like the coaching staff was giving the (forearms crossed) signal to foul. Were there some particular individual situations–not to just single out Varejao–in which the coaching staff was giving the signal to foul but the foul did not get taken for whatever reason?”
Egan: “I’m sure that there were. I don’t remember that specific one involving Varejao–”
Friedman: “That happened in the overtime of game four.”
Egan: “I can’t remember that one but there were situations in which we wanted to foul and didn’t get it.”
Friedman: “With the personnel changes that you have made and assuming that Delonte will be able to play during the playoffs–and hopefully sooner–do you think that if you faced a similar situation again that you would match up differently and maybe not have LeBron be a roamer?”
Egan: “If we had had bigger people to rotate (last year versus Orlando)–we had a very small lineup with Mo, at times, Gib(son), Delonte on the perimeter because Wally (Szczerbiak) was not up to full speed and Sasha (Pavlovic) wasn’t playing well so we were rotating with very small players and I don’t think we were affecting the three point shooters. The biggest change we feel about the ballclub now is we have AP (Anthony Parker), we’ve got Jamario Moon, those kind of guys rotating to the shooters so it is going to be a little different now. We hope that will make a big difference.”