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The Cleveland Cavaliers produced the best regular season in franchise history in 2008-09 but the joy and excitement generated by a league-best 66-16 record were tempered by the 4-2 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Were the “real” Cavs the team that stormed through the regular season and easily swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs or were the “real” Cavs the team that squandered homecourt advantage in the first game of the Orlando series and never recovered from that setback?
In the wake of Cleveland’s loss to Orlando, there is a natural-though unfortunate-tendency to belittle everything that the Cavs accomplished prior to that series. It is important to remember that the Cavs ranked first in points allowed (91.4 ppg, nearly two ppg better than the second place San Antonio Spurs), first in scoring differential (8.9 ppg, 1.3 ppg better than the second place L.A. Lakers) and tied with the Boston Celtics for first in defensive field goal percentage (.431). The versatile and deep Cavs also ranked second in three point field goal percentage (.393), third in rebounding differential (3.3 rpg) and fifth in fewest turnovers per game (11.99). Over the grueling 82 game schedule the Cavs proved to be a well rounded team that does not have many weaknesses in the game’s fundamental areas (defense, shooting, rebounding, ballhandling).
Coach Mike Brown has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since the Cavs hired him and it is unfortunate that a trip to the NBA Finals, two Eastern Conference Finals berths, the 2009 Coach of the Year award and Cleveland’s emergence as one of the league’s best defensive teams have not completely silenced Brown’s detractors. Brown came to Cleveland with the goal of transforming the Cavs into a defensive-minded team much like the San Antonio Spurs, a franchise that won the 2003 championship when Brown was an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich-and the defensive statistics cited above show that the Cavs are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Just as significant as the numbers, though, is the undeniable fact that Brown’s superstar player LeBron James clearly buys into Brown’s defensive program and that therefore every player on the roster follows suit. Until the Orlando series, Coach Brown had never lost a playoff series that the Cavs were expected to win but he led the Cavs to one clear upset (over Detroit in 2007 en route to the NBA Finals) and forced the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in 2008 despite James setting records for poor field goal shooting in the first part of that series; that Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics proved just how good the Cavs can be defensively and showed that they are not simply a one man team.
What happened versus Orlando? There are three main reasons that the Cavs lost to the Magic:
1) All-Star Mo Williams was markedly less efficient offensively than he had been in the regular season; his field goal percentage plummeted from .467 to .371. If I were running the Cavs the first thing that I would try to ascertain-by talking to the coaching staff and Williams himself and by watching game film-is what caused Williams’ productivity to slide so suddenly and so dramatically. Williams was brought in to be the team’s second offensive option and if he cannot fill that role at a championship level then the Cavs have to act accordingly but I would be wary of giving up on Williams after one bad playoff series.
2) During the regular season the Cavs had 10 players who averaged at least 16.0 mpg and all 10 of those players were productive but only five Cavs averaged at least 16.0 mpg versus the Magic and only three of those players-LeBron James, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao-were consistently productive (relative to their roles/regular season output).
3) The Cavs had numerous defensive breakdowns, primarily consisting of leaving three point shooters open and not making sure to foul Howard instead of letting him dunk.
In my Eastern Conference Finals preview I picked Cleveland to beat Orlando because I thought that the Cavs had the necessary frontcourt depth to single cover Dwight Howard for the most part, thus enabling Cleveland’s perimeter defenders to stay at home on Orlando’s brigade of three point shooters. I also expected that homecourt advantage would be significant for a Cleveland team that went 39-2 at Quicken Loans Arena during the regular season and I concurred with NBA analysts Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello, veteran NBA observers who noted that the Cavs have a deep roster filled with players who have been starters for playoff teams.
Ironically, in the NBA Finals the L.A. Lakers followed the prescription listed above to perfection and defeated the Magic in the manner that I had thought that the Cavs would: the Lakers held Howard to 15.4 ppg on .488 field goal shooting while also limiting the Magic to just 38-115 shooting (.330) from three point range and the Lakers set the tone for the series by pounding the Magic in game one in L.A. Although the middle three games of the series were highly competitive-which puts the lie to the fiction that Orlando only posed matchup problems for the Cavs but not for the Lakers-the Lakers claimed the championship with a dominant road win in game five. In contrast, as Cavs’ fans know all too well, Howard had a tremendous series versus Cleveland (25.8 ppg on .651 field goal shooting) and the Magic shot 62-152 (.408) from three point range.
Coach Brown elected to go with several crossmatches defensively, putting small forward LeBron James on point guard Rafer Alston, shooting guard Delonte West on small forward Hedo Turkoglu and point guard Mo Williams on shooting guard Courtney Lee. Although the Magic supposedly enjoyed matchup advantages at several positions, the Cavs consistently built double digit first half leads while using these crossmatches; if the Cavs had won the series, people would likely be praising Brown for his “innovative” defense! Instead, the Magic recovered from those deficits to make the games close down the stretch and then they hit big shots late in most of those games to prevail.
It has become fashionable to say that Cleveland simply matched up poorly with Orlando-some people (most notably Charles Barkley) made that point before the series and many others chimed in after Orlando won. However, that is oversimplifying things to the point of being deceptive; as Albert Einstein once said, “Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler.” Most contests between two good NBA teams involves various matchup problems for both sides. It is true that guarding Dwight Howard in the paint can be challenging and that the Magic surround Howard with three point shooters much like the mid-1990’s Magic did with Shaquille O’Neal and the mid-1990’s Rockets did with Hakeem Olajuwon–but the Cavaliers also presented matchup problems for the Magic, most notably LeBron James, who lit up the Magic with one of the greatest individual playoff series in NBA history; the biggest single mismatch in the series turned out to be James versus the Magic, as he averaged 38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg in the Eastern Conference Finals.
When the Cavs led Orlando 63-48 at halftime of game one as James set a franchise playoff record with 26 first half points it hardly looked like Orlando’s matchup advantages mattered very much. However, although James finished with a playoff career-high 49 points, the Magic rallied to post a 107-106 victory. The story of that game turned out to be that James received very little offensive help from a supporting cast that had made significant contributions throughout the season. Mo Williams shot poorly (6-19 from the field) and no one else picked up the slack. Despite the subpar shooting, though, the Cavs led 106-104 with :25.6 remaining but they inexplicably allowed Rashard Lewis to take an uncontested three pointer that proved to be the game-winning shot. Game one winners go on to win the series roughly 80% of the time, so in a very real sense the Cavs were playing from behind for the rest of the series. Anderson Varejao not closing out on Lewis on that critical late game play is just as big an error as Jameer Nelson giving Derek Fisher airspace in a similar situation in game four of the Finals.
So much has been said about the Cavs being smaller than the Magic at key positions but the 6-3 West almost exclusively guarded the 6-10 Turkoglu and held him to 17.2 ppg on .390 field goal shooting; Turkoglu averaged 18.0 ppg on .492 field goal shooting in the Finals versus the 6-8 Trevor Ariza. On the other hand, Rashard Lewis did hurt the Cavs much more (18.3 ppg on .493 field goal shooting) than he hurt the Lakers (17.4 ppg on .405 field goal shooting) but the bottom line is that in both series one of those guys shot well and one did not-it’s not like the Lakers shut down both players or the Cavs let both players run free. The difference is that the Lakers contained Howard offensively without having to commit so many extra defenders that their overall perimeter defense (not just against Turkoglu and Lewis but also the supporting cast) was compromised. The Lakers accomplished this primarily with Pau Gasol guarding Howard, as Andrew Bynum played fewer than 20 mpg and was constantly in foul trouble.
Gasol is not bigger or stronger than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, though he obviously is more mobile. Gasol did a good job of making Howard catch the ball outside of the paint so that Howard could not simply turn and dunk. The Lakers did not trap Howard often on the catch but when Howard put the ball on the floor they had a guard or a forward “dig” at the ball, taking advantage of the fact that Howard is not a great passer when he is on the move (the same thing was true of Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan in the early stages of their careers).
Most importantly, the Lakers all but eliminated dunking from Howard’s repertoire by fouling him virtually every time he was close enough to the hoop to throw one down; one of the biggest plays in the Finals happened near the end of regulation in game four, when Kobe Bryant fouled Howard and the Magic center missed both free throws, setting the stage for Fisher’s three pointer versus Nelson. In the Cleveland series, that play would likely have been a Howard dunk and possibly a three point play opportunity; indeed, if I had to pick one moment that turned Cleveland’s season around I would choose the opening stretch of overtime in game four versus Orlando when Howard repeatedly scored at point blank range without the Cavs making any attempt to foul him to prevent layups/dunks.
That had nothing to do with “mismatches” but was simply a matter of the players on the court understanding the situation and making the right read. Howard did not have a dunk in game one of the NBA Finals and that was because the Lakers not only made him work for post position but whenever he got free they made sure to foul him.
There is speculation that the Cavs will try to acquire Shaquille O’Neal. While O’Neal is certainly a big body who can pose a potential challenge to Howard at both ends of the court, he is also a 37 year old who has a disturbing recent history of injury problems, though he was relatively healthy last season. O’Neal has never been fully committed to exerting himself at the defensive end of the court, particularly on pick and roll plays-a staple of Orlando’s offense. The Suns acquired O’Neal two seasons ago to match up with their big man nemesis, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, but while O’Neal helped the Suns to win a couple regular season games versus the Spurs when push came to shove in the 2008 playoffs the Spurs once again prevailed.
O’Neal said that he would accept a lesser offensive role in order to facilitate Amare Stoudemire’s development but it did not take long for him to undermine new coach Terry Porter (who has since been fired) and not so subtly demand more touches. This year the Suns did not even make the playoffs. O’Neal’s tenures in Orlando, L.A. and Miami all ended acrimoniously and he seems to have worn out his welcome in Phoenix very quickly. Even if the Cavs can acquire O’Neal without giving up core players-the Suns are likely more interested in dumping salary than trying to obtain equal value for O’Neal-I am not convinced that this would be a good move; the Suns brought in O’Neal out of desperation because their championship window was rapidly closing and their Steve Nash-led nucleus had never even made it to the Finals but LeBron James has already been to the Finals once and his championship window is certainly much more wide open than Nash’s, meaning that it is less necessary for the Cavs to make high risk moves.
While the way that Cleveland’s season ended was disappointing, the Cavaliers as presently constituted are without question a championship caliber team-it would be foolish to say otherwise about a team that is talented enough to win 66 games, ranks at or near the top of the league in vital defensive categories and is led by the league’s MVP. That does not mean that the roster cannot be improved but it does mean that the front office should be very leery of making change for change’s sake.
In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks made it to the Finals and then they went 67-15 the following year but after both of those campaigns did not result in a championship the team made several personnel changes and then switched coaches-and promptly descended from being an elite team to being just another playoff team, even though their superstar player, 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, is still performing at a high level. If the Cavs can add some size to their frontcourt and/or obtain a reliable 6-6 or 6-7 wing player then they should by all means do so but there certainly is nothing wrong with standing pat with a group that defends as well and wins as consistently as this Cleveland team does.