Tag Archives: Cleveland Cavaliers

Defensive-Minded Celtics Spoil Cavaliers’ Home Opener

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.”

The Evolution of Cleveland’s Roster Since 2007

In 2007, the Cavaliers surprised many pundits—but not this writer—by making it to the NBA Finals, where a veteran San Antonio Spurs team promptly swept them. The Cavs had perhaps reached the championship round “a year early,” but rather than stand pat to see if that group could return to the Finals, General Manager Danny Ferry soon blew up the roster, adding more depth and versatility. Injuries and holdouts prevented the Cavs from completely jelling in 2008 but the new unit–buoyed by the addition of Mo Williams—posted the best record in the NBA in 2009 and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

True to form, this summer Ferry has again made aggressive moves to strengthen the roster, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Parker while discarding Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak are not certain to be back; youngsters J.J. Hickson, Tarence Kinsey and Darnell Jackson could work their way into the rotation and/or Ferry may yet make additional trades/free agent signings.

Now is a good time to take a detailed look at exactly how significantly Ferry has changed Cleveland’s roster since the team’s 2007 trip to the NBA Finals.

Here are the top 10 players in Cleveland’s playoff rotation from the past three years (based on mpg):

2007 Playoffs

LeBron James 44.7 mpg

Larry Hughes 35.5 mpg

Zydrunas Ilgauskas 32.5 mpg

Sasha Pavlovic 30.8 mpg

Drew Gooden 30.3 mpg

Anderson Varejao 22.4 mpg

Daniel Gibson 20.1 mpg

Eric Snow 12.8 mpg

Damon Jones 12.6 mpg

Donyell Marshall 10.7 mpg

2008 Playoffs

LeBron James 42.5 mpg

Delonte West 34.8 mpg

Zydrunas Ilgauskas 30.2 mpg

Wally Szczerbiak 28.8 mpg

Daniel Gibson 25.8 mpg

Ben Wallace 23.4 mpg

Joe Smith 20.2 mpg

Anderson Varejao 18.5 mpg

Sasha Pavlovic 13.9 mpg

Devin Brown 11.5 mpg

2009 Playoffs

Delonte West 42.2 mpg

LeBron James 41.4 mpg

Mo Williams 38.6 mpg

Anderson Varejao 30.0 mpg

Zydrunas Ilgauskas 29.1 mpg

Joe Smith 16.7 mpg

Wally Szczerbiak 12.8 mpg

Ben Wallace 12.6 mpg

Daniel Gibson 12.3 mpg

Sasha Pavlovic 8.3 mpg

Cleveland’s increased depth has enabled the coaching staff to give more rest to LeBron James, whose playoff mpg decreased from a team-high 44.7 mpg in the 2007 playoffs to 42.5 mpg in the 2008 playoffs to 41.4 mpg in last season’s playoffs, when James ranked second to Delonte West. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has also seen his minutes decline slightly as forward/center Anderson Varejao assumed a much more significant role. Daniel Gibson made a name for himself with his clutch shooting in 2007 and moved up to fifth in playoff mpg in 2008, but injuries—and the addition of Mo Williams–limited Gibson to just 12.3 mpg in the 2009 playoffs. James, Ilgauskas, Varejao and Gibson are the only players who ranked in the top ten in playoff mpg for the Cavs each of the past three seasons.

Larry Hughes was James’ “sidekick” in 2007, first playing shooting guard and then shifting to point guard so that Sasha Pavlovic could start at shooting guard. When injuries sidelined Hughes in the last two games of the Finals, Gibson started at point guard. Just two years later, both Hughes and Pavlovic are no longer on the roster and Delonte West is firmly entrenched as the starting shooting guard.

One obvious indicator of just how much depth Ferry has added to the roster is that Pavlovic and Gibson combined to average more than 50 mpg for the 2007 Finalists but barely played 20 mpg in last year’s playoffs. The 2007 and 2008 teams did not have a legitimate, top flight point guard, but the 2009 squad featured Mo Williams, who earned his first All-Star selection; Williams may not be a prototypical pass first point guard but—unlike Hughes—Williams is not playing out of position and he is a much better long range shooter than Hughes.

Three of the top six players from the 2007 playoff rotation—including Hughes plus two players who started in the Finals, Pavlovic and Gooden—are no longer on the team; in 2009, their roles were filled by Williams, West and Varejao. The signing of free agent Anthony Parker means that the Cavs are deeper than ever on the perimeter, as Williams, West and Parker are all proven shooters. West and Parker are also good defenders, while Williams—who was not previously known for his defense—earned raves from the coaching staff last year for his work at that end of the court.

The Cavs’ three man rotation of bigs changed from Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao in 2007 to Ilgauskas-Wallace-Smith in 2008 to Varejao-Ilgauskas-Smith in 2009. With the addition of Shaquille O’Neal this summer, Cleveland’s new three man rotation of bigs will be O’Neal-Ilgauskas-Varejao. The talent upgrade since 2007 is clearly evident:  O’Neal will have more of an impact than Gooden did and Varejao is a better player now than he was in 2007, while Ilgauskas has remained consistently productive for the past several years. The only cautionary note regarding the frontcourt is that under Ferry’s watch this group is getting older (Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao had an average age of just under 27 in 2007, while O’Neal-Ilgauskas-Varejao have an average age of more than 32); it remains to be seen if Ferry will be able to draft/acquire/develop adequate younger replacements for O’Neal and Ilgauskas.

During last year’s playoffs, TNT commentator Mike Fratello noted that the Cavs had at least 10 players on their roster who had been starters for playoff teams at one point in their careers. That statement is still true now but the current Cavs team matches up better—at least on paper—with the league’s other top contenders such as the Lakers, Magic and Celtics. If Ferry succeeds in prying restricted free agent Jamario Moon away from the Miami Heat, then the Cavs will add yet another player to the mix who has started for a playoff team and has the length and athletic ability to defend top notch wing players.

Can you look so bad and still look so good?

The Cavaliers were slightly off their game Friday night but with major help from the bench they were able to come away with a 79-68  victory over the Detroit Pistons and take an almost insurmountable 3-0 series lead(no team has ever won a best of 7 series after trailing 0-3).

The starting backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West combined 1-18 and only 4 points collectively. Cleveland’s starters only managed 49 points with LeBron claiming 25 of them,  James missed a triple double by only 1 assist, he had 25 points 11 rebounds and 9 assists.

It was a great time for Joe Smith to have his playoff career high draining 6-8 from the field and 6-7 from the foul line scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 boards. His previous high this year was only 13 and that came way back when he was still a member of the Thunder.

The Cavs kept a steady lead for most of the game until late in the 3rd when Detroit went on a run and the game headed into the 4th quarter tied at 53. Halfway through the quarter Mo Williams threw up an alley-oop to James,  in the midst of  an 18-2 run by the Cavs that helped them  to seperate themselves and eventually finish off the game.

The Cavaliers for the most part of the first 3 quarters looked terrible, but to play that poorly and still come away with a victory, and a road win on top of that is remarkable. It truly speaks volume for NBA coach of the year Mike Brown and his teams defensive mentality. Everyone was wondering what the Cavaliers would do when they faced adversity, well they took the test and they passed with flying colors.