Tag Archives: Cavaliers

Reloaded Cavs Seek Revenge Against Aging Celtics

Cavaliers vs CelticsThe Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics each cruised through the first round of the playoffs with 4-1 victories over Chicago and Miami respectively, setting up a rematch of their classic seven game 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals duel—but both teams have made significant personnel changes in the past two years.

Cleveland’s 2008 playoff rotation (the top eight players in mpg) included LeBron James, Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith and Anderson Varejao, while Sasha Pavlovic and Devin Brown were the only other players who averaged at least 10 mpg; Boston’s 2008 playoff rotation consisted of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, James Posey, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, with Leon Powe being the only other player who averaged at least 10 mpg (rookie Glen Davis averaged 8.1 mpg).

Cleveland’s 2010 playoff rotation (the top eight players in minutes played during the first round) includes LeBron James, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao, Shaquille O’Neal and Jamario Moon. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and J.J. Hickson played significant roles at various times during the regular season but only saw spot duty (8.5 mpg and 4.4 mpg respectively) versus Chicago; Boston’s 2010 playoff rotation (the top eight players in minutes played during the first round) is Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis, Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace. Shelden Williams averaged 18.0 mpg but he only appeared in one contest—game two—after Garnett was suspended by the league. Michael Finley played just 8.8 mpg versus Miami.

Only James, West and Varejao remain from Cleveland’s 2008 playoff rotation (Ilgauskas is still on the team, of course, but his role has been vastly reduced). James and Varejao are clearly better players now than they were two years ago, while West overall is about the same player that he was. Each of the five new players in the playoff rotation is clearly superior to his predecessor: Williams has replaced Gibson (who, like Ilgauskas, is still on the roster but with a much reduced role), O’Neal has supplanted Ilgauskas and Parker has taken Szczerbiak’s spot, while Jamison and Moon are getting the minutes that went to Wallace and Smith in 2008.

Superficially it looks like Boston has not had quite as much turnover but even though the top five players remain the same their roles have changed: Rondo has emerged as an All-Star and is arguably the team’s most important player, while Garnett—who was the backbone of the team’s suffocating defense during the 2008 championship run—has been hobbled by a knee injury and is no longer a dominant rebounder (7.3 rpg during the regular season, his worst average since his rookie year) or defender (he averaged a career-low .8 bpg this season). Pierce and Allen have both shown signs of age at times, though their overall production now is comparable to their production in 2008. Perkins has improved since 2008, becoming one of the league’s top defensive centers while also ranking second in the NBA in field goal percentage this season (.602). A big difference between the 2008 Celtics and the 2010 Celtics is that the 2008 squad had a deep bench comprised of playoff-seasoned veterans Cassell, Brown and Posey, plus young big man Powe (who later suffered a knee injury and is now a reserve for the Cavs), while the 2010 squad has a bench that is much more suspect: Davis is a solid contributor and Tony Allen has had some good moments, but Wallace has been a huge disappointment both literally—in terms of the excessive pounds he is carrying around his midsection—and figuratively.

Although the 2008 Celtics proved to be one of the most dominant defensive teams in recent memory en route to winning the championship, the Cavaliers pushed them to the brink, extending the series to seven games before dropping a 97-92 decision in the Boston Garden as Pierce (41 points, five assists, four rebounds) and James (45 points, six assists, five rebounds) staged a duel for the ages. James and Pierce are still the closers for their respective teams; James is now a consistently effective jump shooter, while Pierce added career-high three point shooting accuracy (.414) to his already deadly midrange game.

The 2008 Celtics led the NBA with a 10.2 point differential and a .419 defensive field goal percentage while ranking second in points allowed (90.3 ppg); the 2008 Cavs ranked 15th in point differential, 11th in defensive field goal percentage and ninth in points allowed, though some of those numbers are a bit skewed because the Cavs made some trades and dealt with some injuries to key players: by the time the playoffs rolled around, they were playing at a higher level than those regular season statistics portray, as demonstrated by how competitive the Cavs were versus the Celtics. However, one statistic that really jumps out from that season is that the Celtics ranked second in field goal percentage (.475) while the Cavs ranked just 27th (.439); perhaps lingering memories of that Cleveland team’s struggles on offense explain why some people still carp about Coach Mike Brown’s alleged deficiencies as an offensive coach but the reality is that the 2010 Cavs are a very potent offensive team, ranking third in the league in field goal percentage (.485), just ahead of fourth place Boston (.483). The Cavs have also improved defensively since 2008, ranking in the top five this season in point differential (second), defensive field goal percentage (fourth) and points allowed (fifth). The Celtics ranked ninth, ninth and sixth respectively in those categories this season.

The teams split the 2009-10 season series 2-2 but—as is often the case—you can largely disregard the statistics from those games: Cleveland’s first loss to Boston took place in the season opener when the Cavs were still getting used to their new roster additions, while the second loss happened on April 4 when O’Neal was out due to injury. Cleveland’s first win against Boston came on February 25 when the Cavs were nearly at full strength (missing only Ilgauskas) while the Celtics were without the services of Pierce, but the second win was a bit more significant: a Cleveland team without both O’Neal and Ilgauskas beat a full-strength Boston squad 104-93.

One weird statistic about the 2010 Celtics is that they actually did better on the road (26-15) than they did at home (24-17). That does not bode well for the Celtics, because the Cavs have been almost unbeatable at home the past two seasons and they are just as good on the road as the Celtics are, matching Boston with a 26-15 road record this season. The home team won every game in the 2008 series and has been very dominant in general when these teams have faced off during recent seasons, but those statistical splits suggest that Cleveland is more likely to get a win in Boston than vice versa.

Cleveland’s homecourt advantage could obviously prove to be significant if a game seven is necessary but I do not expect that this series will go the distance. A dominant 2008 Boston team stacked with three healthy future Hall of Famers barely defeated a Cleveland team that was not as deep or talented as this year’s Cleveland team, so it hardly would be logical to expect that an older, less dominant Boston team will beat the Cavs this time around. The one X factor, as every Cavs fan certainly knows by now, could possibly be the status of LeBron James’ mysterious elbow injury—but even though the troublesome joint has caused James some discomfort and even temporarily affected his play, overall he has been performing at an extremely high level for weeks despite this problem, so at this point it does not seem that the injury is likely to get worse in the course of normal game action nor does it seem likely that it will seriously impair James’ productivity or efficiency.

Cavaliers and Lebron are eager to start the Playoffs

Lebron James Shooting StarsThis is the first time the Cavaliers will face the Bulls in a playoffs series since the Michael Jordan era. It is also the time to erase a lot of bad memories for Cavaliers’ fans and Cavaliers’players.

Shaquille O’Neal will start at center, his first game since he injured his thumb on Feb 25. He is back 20 pounds lighter and in a much better shape than when he went down with an injury. He is also hungry to fulfill his goal of winning a Championship for the city of Cleveland and “win a ring for the King”.

“It’s a chance for me to do something special, personal-wise, city-wise, LeBron-wise and everybody wise,” Shaq said. “We have a pretty good shot at it. If we go out and do what we’re supposed to do, then we’ll be fine.”

Lebron James is more focused than ever before and ready to release “different monster”. He has been waiting for this day since the early exit last season when the Cavaliers lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference and Lebron stormed out the court with disgust.

“I’ve been waiting personally on this since Game 6 of the Orlando series,” James said. “It kind of hurts for a long time. You kind hold that in for all summer and all regular season to get back to this point. I’ll be happy Saturday when I get the opportunity to release it.”

Last week, James made a speech to his teammates, reminding them of what’s at stake.

“I basically just said this is the time,” he said. “This is what everyone was brought here for. This is what everybody worked hard in the offseason all year long. This is the time now. There’s no time to look backwards. It’s all about straight forward and just the vision of us winning an NBA championship.

“We want to win every series, we want to take every game like it’s our last. But our whole vision is to win an NBA championship and we have to believe it first.”

[polldaddy poll=3063925]

Matchups to Watch in the Cavs-Lakers Game

Lebron James leading Kobe Bryant for the MVPThe 22-8 Cleveland Cavaliers have won seven of their last eight games and have gone 2-1 so far on their four game road trip, which concludes with a Christmas Day showdown versus the defending NBA Champion L.A. Lakers. The Lakers own a league-best 23-4 record, are riding a five game winning streak and have won 16 of their last 17 games. Here are some key matchups that will determine which team wins this much anticipated and much hyped game:

1) Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James

What, did you think that I was going to feature Sasha Vujacic versus Danny Green? Naturally, much attention will be focused on the battle between 2008 regular season MVP/2009 Finals MVP Bryant and 2009 regular season MVP James. They will likely guard each other at some point during the game and they will each have a lot to do with their respective teams’ success at both ends of the court. The Lakers brought in Ron Artest as Trevor Ariza’s replacement specifically to guard bigger small forwards like James, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, so I expect Artest to guard James at the start of the game and likely for most of the contest (a bit of a change from the past when Bryant would guard James more than James would guard Bryant). It will be very interesting to see what the Lakers do defensively late in the game if the score is close. Will Bryant insist on guarding James in that situation? Now that the Cavs have Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon in addition to Delonte West I think that James may guard Bryant even less often one on one than he did in previous seasons, though foul trouble (and West’s availability) will influence Coach Mike Brown’s thought process in that regard; also, James is much better equipped physically to check Artest than the other Cavs’ wing players are, so James will likely guard Artest when Artest is in the game (Parker, Moon or West could easily guard Ariza, a player who is both less physically imposing and less offensively versatile than Artest).

This season, Bryant–who for many years has possessed the best all-around skill set in the league–added yet another weapon to his arsenal, training with Hakeem Olajuwon to learn the finer points of the post game. Bryant was already an excellent scorer in the post, but working with Olajuwon enabled Bryant to add more moves to his repertoire; early in the season before Bryant broke the index finger on his shooting hand and before the injured Pau Gasol returned to action, Bryant ranked second in the league in points in the paint, an amazing statistic for a shooting guard. In many ways, Bryant is playing better than ever, posting a career-high .488 field goal percentage, tying his career-high with a 2.2 spg average (third in the NBA) and producing the fourth highest scoring average (29.3 ppg) of his illustrious career.

James is having another excellent season, featuring career-high shooting numbers from the field, the free throw line and beyond the three point arc in addition to his usual well rounded stat line of roughly 28 ppg-7 rpg-7 apg. However, despite his size and athletic gifts he has still not developed a post game, nor is he a reliable midrange jump shooter. According to the NBA.com “Hot Spots” tracker, James is “cold” in four of eight midrange areas, “lukewarm” in three of them and “hot” in just one (left baseline); in contrast, Bryant is “hot” in four midrange areas, “lukewarm” in three and “cold” in just one (ironically, left baseline). Overall, Bryant has six “hot” areas, six “lukewarm” ones and two “cold” areas, while James has two “hot” areas, eight “lukewarm” areas and four “cold” areas. James shoots nearly .700 in the paint but less than .340 outside of the paint, while Bryant shoots .604 in the paint and .423 outside of the paint. James’ inconsistent shooting outside of point blank range does not matter so much against inferior teams, because James can simply punish them by going to the hoop at will–but elite defensive teams that limit his drives and force him to shoot midrange jumpers can hold James to a low field goal percentage and induce him to commit more turnovers by sagging off of him and picking off his passes. Although James is a willing passer he still has a bad habit of wasting time dribbling laterally and then settling for long jumpers as opposed to attacking the basket to score, draw a foul or dish to an open teammate.

2) Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol versus Shaquille O’Neal/Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Pau Gasol missed the first 11 games of the season due to injury but largely thanks to Kobe Bryant–who had four games with at least 40 points during that stretch, with the Lakers winning each time–the Lakers went 8-3. The Lakers are 15-1 with Gasol, losing only on the road versus Utah in the game after Bryant broke the index finger on his shooting hand. Ever since coming to L.A., Gasol has thrived as the team’s second offensive option; he never shot better than .538 from the field during his six-plus seasons in Memphis but he shot .589 in 27 games as a Laker in 2007-08, .567 in 81 games last season and .543 so far this season. Players do not generally become better rebounders as they get older–rebounding is usually a task for the young and bouncy-legged–but Gasol is averaging a career-high 12.6 rpg this season, nearly three rpg better than his previous best. A significant portion of that increase has taken place on the offensive boards, where Gasol is averaging a career-high 4.0 rpg; defenses are tilted so heavily in Bryant’s direction that Gasol and Andrew Bynum have a free run to the offensive boards, much like Allen Iverson’s big men did during Iverson’s prime (except that Bryant has a better shot selection and higher shooting percentage than Iverson).

Bynum emerged as the Lakers’ second offensive option during Gasol’s absence but since Gasol returned Bynum has not only regressed offensively but his rebounding has also dropped off tremendously; Bynum is a young player whose effort defensively and on the boards is still far too linked to how many touches he gets offensively and you can be sure that Lakers’ Coach Phil Jackson is once again emphasizing to Bynum that when the Lakers are at full strength his primary role is defender/rebounder, not scorer.

The Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O’Neal specifically to match up better versus physical post players like Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins, the starting centers for championship contenders Orlando, L.A. and Boston respectively. When O’Neal is in the game the Cavaliers should not have to double team any of those guys and thus should be able to guard more effectively on the perimeter instead of always having to rotate defenders. In the first quarter, the Cavaliers generally make a concerted effort to feed the ball to the “Big Bill Cartwright” in the post, so the challenge for Bynum will be to avoid picking up two quick fouls–but I suspect that Bynum will fail that test, thus providing Lamar Odom with extra playing time and forcing the Lakers to use a smaller lineup with Gasol at center and Odom at power forward.

Two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas started nearly every NBA game that he played in prior to this season but the acquisition of O’Neal relegated Ilgauskas to a reserve role. A very reliable outside shooter who loves to run the pick and pop play with James, Ilgauskas struggled with his shot early in the season–probably adjusting to his new, reduced role–but he has shot .543 from the field in December, highlighted by a season-high 25 points on 10-14 field goal shooting in Cleveland’s 117-104 overtime victory versus Sacramento on Wednesday. When Ilgauskas is in the game his shooting ability will force Bynum or Gasol to leave the paint to guard him, opening up lanes for other Cavs to drive or cut to the hoop. When Ilgauskas goes in the paint his length makes him an effective rebounder–particularly on the offensive glass–and enables him to alter/contest shots.

3) Lamar Odom versus Anderson Varejao/J.J. Hickson

Some Cleveland observers who do not watch many Lakers games have developed an exaggerated fear of Odom’s capabilities, largely based on Odom’s 28 point, 17 rebound outburst when the Lakers beat the Cavs in Cleveland last February. Contrary to what some people think, Odom’s production did not necessarily reflect some fatal weakness in the Cavs’ frontcourt; Odom took a season-high 19 field goal attempts (in part because Bryant was under the weather) and thus tallied a season-high point total but he is unlikely to match those numbers against Cleveland–or anyone else: Odom had just six other 20 point games all season long and in the Lakers’ other game against the Cavs he managed just eight points and 10 rebounds. Odom is averaging a career-low 8.6 ppg on .423 field goal shooting (his worst field goal percentage since 2001-02) and has yet to exceed 16 points or 14 rebounds in a game this season. Anderson Varejao’s scoring and rebounding numbers are nearly identical to Odom’s but Varejao is shooting .509 from the field. J.J. Hickson’s role has expanded this season but if he is not in tune defensively and on the boards then Coach Brown will likely use a quick hook and insert Varejao.

4) Bench play

As I explained last summer, “the 2008 Lakers were a deep team but not quite as talented as some people suggested. Although the 2008 Lakers had eight players who averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the playoffs, the talent level at the top of their rotation could not be compared with the Celtics, whose roster includes three future Hall of Famers. This year’s Lakers are probably a little more talented than last year’s Lakers but because the production of several bench players declined markedly the 2009 Lakers are not as deep as the 2008 Lakers; only six Lakers averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the 2009 playoffs.” The 2010 Lakers strengthened their starting lineup by swapping Ariza for Artest but their bench is at least as thin as it was last season. As NBA TV’s Chris Webber correctly observed after the Lakers needed every one of Bryant’s 40 points to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, “They have Shannon Brown coming off the bench and that’s about it.” Technically, Odom is a bench player as well but the way that the Lakers use him he is a de facto starter; Odom and Bynum split the minutes as the big who plays opposite of Gasol and Odom is often the closer at that spot, which is more important than being designated as a starter. Webber added, “You look at other teams with the guys they have coming off the bench they have a whole other team ready to bring energy and a different type of play.”

Webber’s description of what the Lakers lack fits Cleveland’s roster perfectly: the Cavaliers currently are bringing three players off of the bench who started for the team that led the NBA with a 66-16 record last season (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao and Delonte West). The Cavs’ top five reserves–Ilgausaks, Varejao, West, Daniel Gibson and Jamario Moon–have all started playoff games at some point during their careers; other than Odom–who, as mentioned above, is not playing particularly well or efficiently this season–the Lakers’ top reserves are Brown, Jordan Farmar and Josh Powell. While the Cavs have 10 players who average at least 18.6 mpg and have appeared in at least 20 games, the Lakers’ ninth man is the seldom used Josh Powell (10.8 mpg in 21 games, .387 field goal percentage) and their 10th man is the oft-injured Luke Walton (10.6 mpg in just nine games, .424 field goal percentage). Sasha Vujacic–who was a decent reserve during the 2008 regular season but who did not perform well in that year’s playoffs and has not been the same since then–is averaging just 6.6 mpg (13th on the team) and shooting just .375 from the field; the self-nicknamed “Machine” seems to be broken beyond repair.

5) Three point shooting

The Lakers and the Cavs are both just a little bit above the league average for three pointers attempted per game but the Cavs rank second in the NBA in three point field goal percentage while the Lakers only rank 20th. Both teams do an excellent job of defending against the three point shot: the Lakers lead the league in that category, while the Cavaliers rank fifth. Four Cavaliers have attempted at least 70 three point shots–Mo Williams, LeBron James, Anthony Parker and Daniel Gibson–and three of those players are shooting well over .400 from beyond the arc, with Parker and Gibson ranking first and second in the league in three point field goal percentage. Delonte West has shot just 1-12 from three point range in spot duty this season as he battles personal and legal problems but he was a top notch three point shooter last season (.399) and is certainly capable of hitting big shots from long distance.

The Lakers also have four players who have attempted at least 70 three point shots but only Ron Artest has shot better than .350 from long distance (42-115, .365). Jordan Farmar (24-74, .324) and Lamar Odom (21-73, .288) are hardly pure shooters, so their numbers are not likely to increase by much. Bryant has spent most of the season camped out in the post or feasting on midrange jumpers, so he is on pace to attempt his fewest three pointers since the 2003-04 season. Bryant is shooting just .278 (25-90) from three point range; in a five game stretch after Gasol came back and before Bryant broke his finger he shot 11-23 (.478) from beyond the arc but since suffering the finger injury Bryant has yet to make more than one three pointer in a game and his percentage from that distance will likely not increase much until that finger heals a bit. Derek Fisher has shot 24-69 from three point range, a .348 percentage that is his worst since the 2006-07 season and one of the worst of his entire 14 year career.

The overall key to this game for the Cavaliers is to find a way to contain Bryant without committing so much of their defense to him that Gasol, Bynum and Odom have free runs to the rim for dunks, layups and putbacks. Offensively, the Cavs will try to get Bynum in early foul trouble by posting up O’Neal. If the Lakers have to double team O’Neal and/or James then the Cavs must punish the Lakers by draining three pointers.

The Lakers want to see consistent effort and production not only from Bryant and Gasol but also from Bynum and Artest, plus whichever bench players see action alongside Odom. The Lakers are obvious favorites considering their record and the fact that they are playing at home while the Cavs are playing their fourth road game in six nights but if O’Neal makes the most of his early touches, Delonte West plays like he did last season and Mo Williams makes open jump shots then the Cavs are certainly capable of winning.