James Dazzles as Cavs Rout Hawks

On Tuesday night, NBA Commissioner David Stern presented the 2009 MVP trophy to LeBron James in front of a sellout crowd of 20,562 adoring fans at Quicken Loans Arena–and then James spent the rest of the evening showing why he deserved that honor, scoring 34 points on 12-20 field goal shooting, grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds and dishing off for three assists as his Cleveland Cavaliers blew out the Atlanta Hawks, 99-72. James set the tone offensively by scoring 16 first quarter points but he also made his presence felt defensively, amassing four steals and taking a momentum-shifting charge at the 7:44 mark of the third quarter; the Cavs closed out that quarter with a 21-13 run to take a 77-61 lead and they never looked back in the fourth quarter. The Cavs became just the fifth team to win five straight playoff games by at least 10 points; the last team to accomplish this feat was the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons.

Mo Williams added 21 points on 7-12 field goal shooting–including 4-8 from three point range–and Delonte West contributed 13 points and a playoff career-high nine assists while also playing good defense against Joe Johnson, holding the three-time All-Star to 11 points. I’m still not sure why some people insist on saying that Johnson led the NBA in minutes played and that he is fatigued from playing for Team USA last summer; neither statement is accurate–this season Johnson finished second in the NBA in minutes played (third in mpg) and he was not a member of the U.S. Olympic Team, as anyone who read my Team USA Olympics Report Card would know. Although no Cavs other than James, Williams and West scored in double figures virtually every member of the team played a role in the stifling defense that placed a vice grip around Atlanta’s offense; the Hawks scored 15 points in the first 5:19 of the game but only managed to produce 57 points in the final 42:41, including just 11 in the fourth quarter. In my series preview I predicted that the Hawks would score fewer than 85 points in several games in this series and that they were likely to go through extended stretches without a field goal; in this game, the Hawks had stretches of 4:53, 2:50, 4:02 and 5:06 in which they did not make a field goal. Josh Smith led the Hawks with 22 points but eight of them came on dunks or layups in the first 5:19; once the Cavs solidified their defense against him both Smith and the Hawks had no answers. Mike Bibby had 19 points, eight assists and four rebounds; he was the only Hawk who was able to score consistently in the half court set but he only had five points in the second half as the Cavs did a much better job of keeping track of him during their defensive rotations.

Although James was clearly the dominant player in this game, his plus/minus number (+13) was only the fourth best on his team because the Cavs were able to extend leads even when he was out of the game. Cleveland’s depth and defensive tenacity are even more impressive to watch in person than they are on TV; the TV cameras force you to watch the game a certain way but when you are at a game you can focus on the action away from the ball and also just take in a bigger picture view of the entire court. The Cavs have several excellent individual defensive players–including James, West, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace, who plays sparingly now while he recuperates from various injuries–but even the players on their roster who are not known as defenders understand the team’s defensive schemes and play very energetically at that end of the court; the Cavs frequently pushed Atlanta’s offense well behind the three point line and during one particularly impressive sequence they trapped Johnson near midcourt and then after he passed the ball they rotated so quickly and effectively that no Hawk was open enough to take a good shot: it looked like the Cavs had six players on the court, even though several of the players who were in the game at that time would not be considered “stoppers.”

After the game, Atlanta Coach Mike Woodson praised Cleveland’s defense but also lamented that his team was “very lethargic” in the third quarter after being competitive in the first half (Cleveland only led 49-44 at halftime): “I thought we played great in the first half. I thought our schemes were great but their defense outlasted ours in the second half in terms of taking us out of our offense.” Woodson also noted that when Johnson is double-teamed he must make a good pass (Johnson had a game-high five turnovers) and not try to make a “home run” pass; as Hubie Brown often says, the second pass out of the trap is the one that can lead to a scoring opportunity. The Hawks shot .556 from the field in the first quarter but just .250 in the fourth quarter, finishing with a .438 percentage; they also turned the ball over 17 times. “Outlasted” is a very apt description of what the Cavs did to Atlanta and this is a direct reflection of Cleveland’s depth and defensive intensity; the contrast between the Cavs and L.A. Lakers–the top seeded team in the West–in those two areas is huge.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said that there are two points of emphasis for the Cavs versus Atlanta in this series: keeping the Hawks off of the offensive boards and limiting Atlanta’s transition scoring opportunities. Brown was very pleased that the Cavs held Atlanta to six offensive rebounds (resulting in eight points) while outscoring them 15-6 in fast break points. He acknowledged that the first quarter defense versus Smith and Bibby had not been good but felt that the team zeroed in on those guys much better as the game progressed.

Brown singled out West for praise and candidly admitted that when the Cavs first acquired West in the middle of last season he did not really understand what kind of player West is. During this year’s training camp and the team’s practice sessions, Brown said that he discovered that West has “one of the most complete games I’ve been around…We run a lot of the same plays for him that we do for LeBron.” Brown added that West should receive All-Defensive Team consideration.

LeBron James is usually considered to be a pass first player but he scored 22 points without getting a single assist in the first half, numbers that would be heartily decried if posted by Kobe Bryant. TNT’s Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith did offer some light criticism at halftime but they resorted to their tired critiques of Cleveland’s allegedly one dimensional offense as opposed to blaming James. The reality is that James and Bryant–like the great players who came before them–read the situation on the court and react accordingly, though they also have so much talent that they can decide to be extra aggressive in terms of looking to score if they think that this is necessary. Coach Brown said that when James was double-teamed he made the right reads and that when he was single-covered “he was extremely aggressive. Not only was he aggressive in the half court but he got out and ran in transition. Offensively, he started the game for us, he carried us for a little bit until we started to get rolling and it’s great to be able to have a great player like that.” If you go back and read postgame quotes from Lakers Coach Phil Jackson after similar first halves by Bryant you will find that Jackson said much the same things; sometimes there are situations when a great player has to shoulder a heavy part of the scoring load until his teammates are ready and able to contribute. Both James and Bryant are excellent at properly reading such situations and providing whatever their teams need.

James initially denied that he was more aggressive than usual early in the game in terms of looking to score but later he conceded that perhaps he had been “a little more aggressive.” It was evident to me right from the start of the game that James was looking for his shot a bit more aggressively than he typically does; instead of passing the ball immediately out of traps he sometimes backed up, forced the trapping defender to retreat to his own man, and then attacked the lone defender. I don’t think that James was wrong to play this way any more than Bryant is wrong when he does this. Again, both players understand what their teams need (that is something that TNT’s Doug Collins often says about Bryant but it is also true of James). James’ lack of first half assists is irrelevant because he created high percentage scoring opportunities for himself, shooting 7-12 from the field.

Veteran NBA observers understand that each game in a playoff series takes on a unique character and teams seldom begin the next game the way that they ended the previous one–but it is also true that a team cannot completely change its stripes. The Cavs are a deep team that plays disciplined defense and has by far the best individual player in this series; the Hawks are not nearly as deep as the Cavs–I had to laugh out loud when I read a preview article that suggested otherwise, supposedly relying on information from an NBA scout–nor are they as disciplined defensively. The Hawks will likely put forth a more sustained and consistent effort when this series shifts to Atlanta after game two is played in Cleveland on Thursday but if the Cavs continue to keep them out of transition and off of the offensive glass then the Hawks will struggle to score enough points to win a game.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

Commissioner Stern spoke to members of the media for about a half hour before the start of the game. Usually he makes some prepared remarks at such gatherings but this time he simply opened the floor to questions on any subject. Most inquiries centered around LeBron James winning the MVP and the financial status of the league. I have yet to hear a good, complete explanation from the league about the scorekeeping irregularity that happened in Boston’s 109-99 game seven victory over Chicago; you may recall that Ben Gordon made a three pointer in the first quarter that was scored as a two pointer, an error that was not corrected until midway through the fourth quarter. Obviously, in a closer contest that “extra” point could have had serious strategic ramifications if it had shifted the score from a two possession game to a one possession game. I asked Commissioner Stern, “In game seven of the Chicago-Boston series, there was a scorekeeping error with a Gordon three point field goal that was scored as a two and then it wasn’t changed until the fourth quarter. What exactly is the rule with that in terms of how late a change can be made? Is there some concern if the game had been closer that this could have affected strategy–like if the lead went from four points to three points–so what exactly is the rule about that?”

Commissioner Stern replied, “The rule is that it should be corrected at the next stoppage of play but we had, in effect, a miscommunication/malfunction/technical error–take your choice–so we were left with the issue of whether because of that we should not give what was really due. Because we felt the system had failed, we overruled it to make sure that we corrected it.”

I followed up by asking, “In the future will there be a procedural change or some kind of backup mechanism to make sure that this won’t happen again?”

Commissioner Stern answered, “Yes, but it goes to something very technical that I am not going to go on here but yes, believe me when I say ‘continuous quality improvement,’ we learn something every day in this business and we are going to make it better. But, we had a decision to make and, in fact, as the game became closer I think it made me feel better that we had done what we did. It turned out not to be relevant but that’s what you do, because no player wants to win a game that he didn’t deserve to win.”

***

Last year, the Hawks pushed the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round, so during his pregame standup I asked Coach Woodson, “How would you compare Cleveland’s defense this year to the type of defense that Boston played last year when they had all of their roster intact and they won the championship?”

He replied, “They’re right there. They remind me so much of the Pistons team that I worked with (as an assistant coach) with Larry Brown (when the Pistons won a championship in 2004) in terms of their defensive energy and how they bring it every night. That is why they are the best team in the league: not only do they score the ball, they bring it defensively and they do it every night. They compare right at the top with the Celtics and what they did last year: that (defense) is what won the title for them last year, along with having three All-Stars–that didn’t hurt.”

Woodson served as an assistant coach for several different NBA coaches–including George Karl, Chris Ford and Randy Wittman–before getting his opportunity in Atlanta and he praised all of those men for giving him opportunities and helping him but he said that the coach who influenced him the most is Larry Brown: “Larry Brown stands above all the pro coaches who I’ve worked with and I say that because he just taught me the game in a different way in terms of how to manage the game and how to prepare for a game and holding players accountable, on and off the floor; that is so important, I think, when you talk about building a team–in my case, such a young team when we started five years ago. Being able to win a title with him was one of the most unbelievable experiences as a coach because I watched it firsthand and was a big part of the success there in Detroit.”