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In a matchup of two defensive minded teams with legitimate championship aspirations, Cleveland defeated Houston, 99-90. LeBron James bounced back from a sluggish first half (eight points, two rebounds, two assists, five turnovers) to finish with game-high totals in points (27) and rebounds (nine). He also had five assists, three steals and one very impressive block. Mo Williams once again ably filled the role of James’ trusty sidekick, contributing 23 points, four assists and four rebounds. Rafer Alston led Houston with 20 points on 8-11 field goal shooting in his first game back after missing four games due to a strained left groin. Yao Ming had 19 points and five rebounds but he shot just 3-10 from the field. Tracy McGrady, hobbled by various injuries throughout this season, was completely worn down as the Rockets played their fourth game in five nights; Houston Coach Rick Adelman rested him for nearly half of the fourth quarter and then put him in the game for less than two minutes before shutting him down the rest of the way. McGrady ended up with just four points on 2-7 shooting, later admitting that he did not have the legs to shoot over the shorter defenders that the Cavs used against him. McGrady still managed to drive, draw double teams and dish off a game-high six assists.
The score was tied at 47 at halftime, with both teams shooting well over .500 from the field; the Cavs clamped down defensively in the second half, holding Houston to .333 shooting while shooting a respectable .463. The flow of the game was marred by several questionable calls by the officials; partisans for both teams probably felt that their squad was singled out but the total number of fouls and free throws ended up being pretty close: I thought that it was a poorly officiated game, as opposed to a game with biased officiating favoring one side or the other.
LeBron James and Ron Artest guarded each other for significant portions of the game. Both players are used to pushing around whoever is matched up with them but the strength factor seemed to be canceled out in this encounter; each player did his share of bumping, pushing, slapping down the other guy’s arm and other tactics to gain a physical or psychological advantage. Neither player seemed to crack until the last minute, when it was clear that Cleveland would win. Artest grabbed an offensive rebound and tried to score but Anderson Varejao fouled him. James was involved in the play defensively as well and Artest gave him a shove after the play was over, prompting an immediate technical foul call against Artest. Officials stepped in between Artest and James but James is far too smart to do anything that would get him suspended. After Mo Williams made the technical free throw and Artest split his pair of free throws, James grabbed the rebound with the Cavs up nine points and just :17.9 remaining. Artest hounded James defensively all the way up the court and James eventually stepped out of bounds. Artest missed a long jumper as time expired. He walked over to greet James after the game and James responded much the way Bill Belichick does when he encounters Eric Mangini at midfield; James is not going to go off half cocked because of Artest’s antics but he is not going to share hugs and kisses after the game with him, either.
Ben Wallace finished with six points and six rebounds in 29 minutes, while Anderson Varejao had six points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes. It is easy to look at those numbers and conclude that neither player contributed much–but that would be a serious mistake. Along with Zydrunas Ilgauskas (11 points, three rebounds in 27 minutes before fouling out), they comprise a three headed power forward/center monster that anchors Cleveland’s formidable defense; the Lakers may have a frontcourt stocked with players who are better known and/or more highly regarded at this stage of their careers, but Cleveland’s bigs play an integral role in the team’s success. When the Cavs began to build a working margin late in the third quarter, Varejao was in the middle of one of the key plays. Artest was hounding James all over the court, so Varejao set a solid back pick near the top of the key, freeing James to score a layup. That play is not recorded in any fashion in the boxscore but it is much more valuable than just two points:
1) Varejao turned the tables on Artest by delivering some punishment to him instead of letting Artest deal out punishment without response; this is something that the Laker bigs never did in last year’s Finals. Pau Gasol set strong screens and rolled aggressively to the hoop in playoff series versus San Antonio and Utah but versus Boston he treated the paint like he was one of those dogs being chained by an invisible electric fence. Ilgauskas, Varejao and Wallace are not afraid to set screens and get “dirty” (in the best sense of the word, meaning to play with mental and physical toughness, an edge that shows they will not be pushed around).
2) Doug Collins often mentions that when a scorer is struggling one layup or a couple free throws can get him off; just seeing the ball go through the hoop works wonders. In this particular instance, James had already gotten himself going after his quiet first half, but Varejao’s willingness and ability to set these kinds of screens means that on occasions when James is struggling there will always be a simple way to get him an easy hoop or a trip to the free throw line.
Cleveland led 73-66 after the third quarter and pushed that margin to 82-68 early in the fourth quarter but the resilient Rockets made a run to cut the deficit to 86-85 by the 5:34 mark. They did this by making Yao the centerpiece–literally and figuratively–of their offense. Yao shot 1-7 from the field in the fourth quarter but he made all 12 of his free throws, scoring 14 of Houston’s 24 points in the final stanza. Cleveland answered with a couple of three pointers by Daniel Gibson, both of which were assisted by James. The Rockets never got closer than five points the rest of the way. Cleveland led 96-89 at the 1:05 mark of the fourth quarter when James made the most spectacular play of the game. James timed Yao’s move perfectly (a la Michael Jordan versus Patrick Ewing back in the day) and came over from the weak side to pin his shot to the backboard. Houston retained possession but Alston missed a three pointer after the inbounds pass and then Cleveland sealed the victory by making free throws.
Cleveland Coach Mike Brown’s postgame comments are always well prepared and well thought out (see Notes From Courtside): “I thought that was a tough-played ball game. Both teams showed toughness. I like that down the stretch we defended. I think that in the fourth quarter one of my coaches told me that they ended up shooting 21% from the field and obviously they missed some looks, they had a couple of looks but I thought that our guys hung in there and kept trying to rotate and protect one another throughout the course of the ballgame and even in the fourth quarter when both teams were fighting through the physicalness of the game. I thought that the energy that Ben (Wallace) gave in the beginning of the game was huge; he played terrific for us, in the beginning especially. I thought that Daniel Gibson played big for us; he hit a couple of big shots for us late (in the game) but at his size to come up with six rebounds in this ballgame is phenomenal. He boxed out guys that are twice his size, basically, to stop them from getting rebounds, so he played a terrific floor game for us. Mo (Williams) was big for us down the stretch to increase the lead. We went to him in pick and roll situations and he created good shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. The last guy I’d like to mention, obviously, is LeBron. LeBron showed a lot of toughness tonight. He had to guard a lot of different types of players from Tracy McGrady to Shane Battier to Ron Artest to sometimes Luis Scola. His ability to be versatile at the defensive end of the floor was huge. I’ve said it time and time again: people need to start looking at him for the All-Defensive Team because he’s having a heck of a year at that end of the floor and he’s not getting enough credit for it.”
Coach Brown also talked about two in game strategic adjustments but he did not take credit for either one; he said that when Cleveland’s offense went stagnant against Houston’s zone defense, assistant coach Mel Hunt suggested that the Cavs run one of their man to man plays versus the zone; this resulted in a wide open three pointer that Gibson made and that success discouraged the Rockets from continuing to play the zone. Late in the game, LeBron James suggested that the Cavs not double team Yao, thereby forcing him to score or draw fouls instead of simply kicking the ball back out to wide open three point shooters. Brown followed James’ advice and the Cavs extended their lead. Not every coach is so open to receiving input from his coaching staff and players, much less to publicly give them credit when their advice works. Like all successful people, Coach Brown surely has a healthy ego but he does not allow that ego to get in the way of doing what is right for the team, both in terms of listening to other people and in terms of making those people feel appreciated by publicly acknowledging the input that they had in tweaking the game plan.
James explained his thinking about how Cleveland should defend Yao late in the game: “It didn’t really seem that Yao was in the flow of the game offensively. He was baiting us to come down on the double team and he would throw it back out for them to make threes. We were up 14 and they hit a couple threes, which hurt us. We wanted to try and dig in and if Yao gets going we could double team him but we wanted him to make tough shots.”
In the Rockets locker room after the game, Artest held court in front of a small group of reporters, at times barely speaking above a whisper while trying to put this defeat into context. I asked him, “From your perspective, what happened on the play at the end with LeBron where they gave you a technical?” Artest replied, “They just gave me a technical and that was it.” I thought that Artest might try to plead his case or say that James had been pushing him also but Artest apparently decided that the best route to take is to simply defuse the whole situation.
Someone asked Artest why he guarded James so closely right up to the very end, when the outcome of the game had long since been decided. Artest said, “Play hard. If you’re going to lose, lose with dignity. If you’re going to lose, just go hard. I’m happy when I’m winning and I’m emotional and I still play hard, so when I’m losing I try to be the same way.”
Artest relishes the opportunity to battle James one on one, though he laments that with Houston he does not have the same chances to go back at James on offense that he enjoyed when he played for Indiana and Sacramento (at every stop in his career, Artest has always craved a larger offensive role then the one that the coaching staff designates for him). Artest added that the challenge of guarding the young guys like James, Kevin Martin and Joe Johnson “keeps me going.”
The Rockets have lost their games versus the league’s three top teams: Boston, the L.A. Lakers and Cleveland. Asked what this says about the gap between those teams and the Rockets, Artest said, “That is not good. That is not good–but we have a lot of room to look for improvement and we have a lot of games left, so time will tell what those losses to the three top teams meant.”
I followed up by asking Artest what specific areas the Rockets needed to improve in order to compete with those teams and he said, “To me, I think tonight we were challenged. With Mac (McGrady) going out, with my new role coming off of the bench, four (games) in five nights, Yao’s fouls. We were challenged by many different means–Rafer’s first game back. Playing against a really good team with our whole team for the first time this year, we stepped up to the challenge and we came up short.”
Based on Artest’s prior conduct, I know that some people might expect him to be some kind of raving lunatic. This is the first time that I’ve interviewed him. He is pleasant, soft spoken to the point of almost being inaudible and not the least bit overbearing, intimidating or menacing. Some players make it very clear that they are not interested in being interviewed and cannot wait for the process to be over and, intentionally or not, they position themselves in ways to accentuate their height and size; Artest was very approachable and did not do any of those things. That said, I think that there are hints of trouble in two of his answers. When he wistfully talks of formerly being able to go at James offensively, I sense the seeds being planted for complaining about not having a bigger role in the offense; Artest attempted 14 shots–more than anyone on his team and more than anyone in the game other than James–and he only made five of them, shooting 0-7 in the second half after going 5-7 in the first half. When/if McGrady is fully healthy, there will be fewer shots for Artest and he is not likely to willingly accept that. The second hint of trouble is his answer to my question about what specific improvements the Rockets need to make. If I were to ask that question of Coach Brown or LeBron James after a Cleveland loss, the response would likely focus on getting more defensive stops and playing with greater energy; they both have repeatedly said that the Cavs are a “no excuse team” and they would never mention injuries, scheduling or anything else as factors in a defeat. Everything that Artest said is true, to a degree, but great players do not look for excuses for losses–even excuses that have some validity to them. It is easy to picture Artest giving a similar kind of answer after the Rockets have been eliminated from the playoffs. Houston has most if not all of the pieces in place–from a talent standpoint–to make a run at a title but the onus is on the players to prove that they are mentally and physically tough enough to withstand the long grind of the regular season and the pressure packed moments of a playoff series; in contrast, there is no reason to have similar doubts about Coach Brown, LeBron James or the rest of the Cavaliers.
Notes From Courtside:
By league rule, NBA coaches have a 10 minute grace period after the game’s final buzzer before they have to face the media for their postgame standup. This gives a coach an opportunity to briefly speak to his players in the privacy of a closed locker room, look at the boxscore and give some thought to what message he wants to deliver to the media (and thus, by extension, the team’s fans, opposing teams and, basically, anyone who follows his team for any reason). Some coaches almost always preface their postgame question and answer sessions with an opening statement about what they thought were the key factors in the game; other coaches show up in front of the media and basically say, “Fire away.”
Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has a very well organized and well thought out routine. When he emerges from the locker room after the game to answer questions from the media, he is always carrying a boxscore that has various notations scribbled on it, including key phrases. Coach Brown singles out which Cavs played well, often mentioning players whose contributions would not be immediately noticeable simply by looking at the boxscore. He will give the players credit for things that went well and only occasionally mention criticism of things that the players need to do better; generally, if something went wrong he will say that it was his fault (whether or not this is really the case).
Brown’s method is very intelligent for a number of reasons:
1) He writes down his thoughts beforehand to make sure that in the heat of the moment he does not forget to mention an important point.
2) Before anyone has asked a question, Brown frames the story of the game the way that he believes that it should be portrayed; that often leads to follow up questions about themes he has mentioned, enabling him to further elaborate about those subjects.
3) He establishes a climate of accountability for the team by immediately taking the blame for most things that went wrong; that increases his credibility with the players and makes them more likely to listen to and accept criticism when he delivers it to them privately.
I think that there are a lot of aspects of Coach Brown’s coaching style–from his successful implementation of a stifling defensive game plan to the positive relationship that he has developed with young superstar LeBron James to how well organized and professional he is–that are not sufficiently understood and appreciated by Cavs fans, let alone national NBA fans.