Tag Archives: 2009 NBA Playoffs

Playoff-Tested Cavs Well Equipped to Deal With Magic

Although the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs in record-setting fashion, some people believe that the Orlando Magic will pose a very difficult challenge for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.

TNT’s Charles Barkley has already gone on record predicting an Orlando victory, asserting that the Magic match up well with the Cavs and have a more versatile offensive attack with Dwight Howard in the paint surrounded by three point shooters. Throw in the fact that Orlando won the season series 2-1—including a 116-87 blowout—and just dethroned the defending champion Celtics by winning game seven in Boston and there seem to be legitimate reasons to think that the Magic can beat the Cavs. However, if one looks at this series objectively then it becomes evident that the Cavs should definitely be considered clear favorites.

LeBron James, the 2009 NBA MVP, is the best individual player on either team. James is a two-way player who has eliminated every one of his skill set weaknesses—defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting–except for his midrange jump shot, which can still be erratic at times.

It is a difficult task to keep James out of the paint and he is also a top notch rebounder and playmaker. Unless one team enjoys a marked superiority in overall talent/depth, the team with the best individual player is probably going to win a seven game series, because that player is capable of taking over a crucial game, particularly on the road.

Orlando’s best player is Dwight Howard, who made the All-NBA First Team and won the Defensive Player of the Year award (James finished second). Howard is a dominant rebounder and shotblocker but he will neither overpower defenders on the block a la a young Shaquille O’Neal nor does he possess the nimble footwork and deft shooting touch of Hakeem Olajuwon.

Therefore, Howard can be contained by a solid post defender who forces him to catch the ball outside of the paint; it is not necessary or desirable to double-team Howard unless/until he puts the ball on the floor and gets into the paint but Howard is not a great passer or ballhandler so if he is trapped on the move he can be forced into turning the ball over or taking a low percentage shot (which is just about anything other than a dunk in his case).

The Cavs have the necessary frontcourt depth, savvy and discipline to employ such a strategy, which means that their perimeter defenders can stay at home on Orlando’s deadly three point shooters. Look for James to have a much more pronounced impact on this series than Howard does.

The Cavs enjoy homecourt advantage in this series and that is a very significant factor considering that the Cavs went 39-2 at home—and one of those losses came in the final regular season game, when the Cavs had already clinched homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs and their reserves still almost beat a Philadelphia team that was trying to win in order to possibly improve their playoff seeding. Orlando’s game seven victory in Boston is impressive but beating an injury-depleted Celtics team is not at all the same thing as beating a fully-loaded Cavs team with LeBron James leading the charge.

What about the head to head series, including that 29 point beatdown? You can throw the first regular season meeting out the window: the Magic still had All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson—who later suffered a season-ending injury—while the Cavs were without the services of injured starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and had yet to reacquire Joe Smith, who currently ranks sixth on the team in playoff minutes. In the second meeting, both teams had their current rosters largely intact and the Cavs won at home, 97-93. The third meeting—easily Cleveland’s worse loss of the season in terms of point differential—is a little easier to understand in light of the fact that it was the second of back to back road games and the third game in four nights for the Cavs, while the Magic had the benefit of a day off after playing a home game. This is what is known in NBA circles as a “scheduling loss”—if you stumble into a tough arena for your third game in four nights it is very difficult to beat a good team. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown realized exactly what has happening in that game, which is why no Cav played more than 32 minutes.

The foundation for Cleveland’s success is built on defense, rebounding and LeBron James’ brilliance. The addition of All-Star point guard Mo Williams has established yet another firm building block in that foundation but while many people have talked about Williams’ importance I still don’t think that the general public—and even some so-called experts—fully appreciate just how deep this Cleveland team really is.

Real experts—guys like former NBA coaches turned commentators Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello—have emphasized this point during telecasts of Cleveland’s playoff games: not only do the Cavs have a potent and versatile starting lineup but their bench is loaded with players who have been starters for playoff teams—either in Cleveland (Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson) or elsewhere (Ben Wallace, Joe Smith,Wally Szczerbiak)—yet those players understand and accept their current roles. The Magic cannot match the Cavs in terms of depth or playoff experience.

Game one on Wednesday night at the Q will revisit the classic “rest/rust” issue: will the Cavs be well rested after having so much time off between series or will they be rusty? The answer most likely will be “yes” on both counts; the Cavs may show some signs of rust—particularly in terms of shooting or their timing on certain plays—but veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace will benefit from the rest.

By the second half at the latest any signs of “rust” will likely have disappeared and the Cavs should be in good position to take a 1-0 lead; I expect the Cavs to win this series in five games, six at the most.

Playoffs roundup: Another Classic Night

Bulls force game 7 with triple over
Celtics 127 at Bulls 128
One more overtime thriller has the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics headed for a Game 7 (Saturday 8pm on TNT). Derrick Rose scored 28 points and blocked Rajon Rondo’s potential game-winner, John Salmons scored 35, and the Bulls beat the defending champions 128-127 in triple overtime Thursday night to even the first-round series. Ray Allen scored a career playoff-high 51 points for the Celtics, but it’s back to Boston for Game 7 on Saturday night after another instant classic in a series that had already seen its share of drama.

“I don’t know if this is the greatest NBA series of all time, but it’s the greatest something. At what point do you bronze these games and put them on eBay? Thursday night it was a 128-127 Bulls win in triple overtime at the United Center. Game 6 was so intense, so compelling and so exhausting that the crowd of 23,430 needed a post-victory IV transfusion — and they only watched.”  Gene Wojciechowski said on ESPN Daily Dime

Rockets finish off Blazers, reach second round
Trail Blazers 76 at Rockets 92
The Houston Rockets finally advanced in the NBA playoffs. Ron Artest scored 27 points, Yao Ming had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Houston reached the second round for the first time since 1997, beating the Portland Trail Blazers 92-76 in Game 6 on Thursday night. The Rockets drafted Yao with the top overall pick in 2002, and he’s played on three of the teams that lost in the opening round. He broke his foot late last season and watched from the bench as the Rockets lost again.

Magic didn’t need Superman to finish off Sixers in Game 6
Magic 114 at 76ers 89
On a night the suspended Howard recorded a double-double in blog and Twitter posts from his hotel room, the Magic advanced to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, beating the Philadelphia 76ers 114-89 in Game 6 on Thursday. He wrote on a postgame blog, “im soo proud man. yall have no clue.

Cavs Begin Championship Quest by Facing Familiar Foe

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ reward for finishing with the NBA’s best record (66-16) while shattering the previous franchise record for wins in a season (57) is a first round matchup with the dysfunctional Detroit Pistons. Cleveland and Detroit squared off in a pair of memorable playoff series in 2006 and 2007 but the two franchises have zoomed in opposite directions recently; the Cavaliers remade a substantial portion of their roster—capped off with the acquisition of All-Star guard Mo Williams—while the Pistons fired their coach, traded away All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups, fought through injury and chemistry issues and limped into the postseason with a 39-43 record, including a 12-19 mark since the All-Star break.

 

No one inside or outside of the Detroit locker room seriously thinks that the Pistons can beat the Cavaliers in this first round series. Truthfully, the most interesting thing about this matchup is whether or not the Cavaliers will be focused enough to sweep their overmatched opponent or if they will permit the Pistons to win a game in Detroit and prolong the series to five games. However, while it is fine for outsiders to say such things, overconfidence can be a dangerous thing in the locker room and the Cavaliers would certainly be wise not to “skip steps” either in their preparation or in the way that they play during this series.

 

That said, it is difficult to come up with objective factors favoring the Pistons in this matchup, which is a marked contrast to the situation when these teams faced each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2006. At that time, the Pistons owned the best record in the league (64-18) and had just made back to back appearances in the NBA Finals, winning a championship in 2004. The Cavs had just qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the LeBron James era and they earned the right to play Detroit by beating the Wizards in six games in the first round. Most people did not give the Cavs much of a chance versus Detroit but after falling behind 2-0 the Cavs took a 3-2 lead in the series before squandering an excellent opportunity to win game six at home. Game sevens on the road are death for most teams—young teams in particular—and the Cavs proved to be no exception, losing 79-61. Even though Detroit advanced, that series proved not only that James could carry a team in the playoffs but that Coach Mike Brown’s defense-first philosophy would pay dividends in the long run, particularly as the team gained more experience.

 

In 2007, Detroit only won three more regular season games than Cleveland but many national observers did not believe that the Cavs were quite ready for prime time; James was criticized for supposedly not having a killer instinct and Coach Brown was not accorded sufficient respect for his coaching acumen. I did not buy all of that hype and went against the “experts” by correctly predicting a Cleveland victory.

 

Even when the Pistons were at—or at least near—the height of their powers in 2006 and 2007, they did not play quite the stifling defense that the 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics used to contain James and thus defeat the Cavs in the playoffs; the Pistons had great trouble keeping James out of the paint and he thus shot a much better field goal percentage against them (.449 in the 2007 playoffs, .442 in the 2006 playoffs) than he did versus the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals (.356) or the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals (.355). Since James could go wherever he wanted to on the court versus the Pistons, he turned the ball over less frequently versus them than he did against the Spurs and Celtics, teams that sagged off of James not only to keep him out of the paint but also to disrupt his ability to pass the ball.

 

What does this trip down memory lane have to do with this year’s playoff series? The point is that even when the Pistons were a legitimate contender they never had much success guarding James—and this year’s Pistons are not nearly as good defensively (or offensively) as the 2006 and 2007 versions were, while the Cavs clearly have a much more talented and deeper roster than they did back then. The Pistons still have a fine midrange shooter (Richard Hamilton), a good wing defender (Tayshaun Prince) and their rotation of bigs—including Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell—can do some damage but overall the Pistons do not match up well with the Cavs, who won three of the four regular season meetings. Detroit’s lone victory against Cleveland came all the way back on November 19 and the since banished Allen Iverson played a prominent role, scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting; that was during a stretch when Detroit won four out of five games–including victories over the Cavs and Lakers—by featuring Iverson and Rasheed Wallace in screen/roll actions that were very tough to defend: give Iverson space and he would jet to the hoop but give Wallace space and he would drain three pointers (3-6 from long range versus Cleveland in that game). Fortunately for the Cavs, the Pistons inexplicably abandoned the idea of using Iverson effectively, tried to turn him into a sixth man and later asked him to stay away from the team for the rest of the season. With Iverson out of the picture, young guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum have to shoulder heavy responsibilities, though Prince or Hamilton can also assume some playmaking duties.

 

The Cavs have been a dominant home team all season, so it would be shocking if the Pistons win game one or game two at the Q. When the series shifts to Detroit it will be very interesting to see what the Cavs’ collective attitude is: will they be happy to get a split and then try to close out the series at home or will they get a sweep that could provide some valuable rest before the second round begins? I expect the games in Detroit to be hard fought but in close contests down the stretch the deciding factor will be that LeBron James and Mo Williams handle the ball and make plays for the Cavs, while the Pistons depend on Stuckey and Bynum, both of whom tend to make poor decisions in critical moments, which is a big reason why the Pistons have blown so many leads this season.

 

I expect the Cavs to sweep Detroit but game three and possibly even game four could very well be decided by last minute or even last second plays.