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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the headline acts but Mo Williams stole the show with a game-high 29 points as Cleveland beat Miami 99-89 to improve to 28-1 in the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs are also an NBA-best 12-1 after a loss, as they managed to quickly put Friday night’s debacle in Boston behind them. Williams shot 10-15 from the field, including 6-7 from three point range. The Cavs repeatedly involved James and Williams in screen/roll plays, forcing the Heat to pick their poison between Cleveland’s two All-Stars. James struggled with his shot, making just five of his 15 field goal attempts, but he still managed to produce the 21st regular season triple double of his career (14 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds). James tallied the 3000th assist of his career, becoming the second youngest player to reach that total (24 years, 67 days; Isiah Thomas was 23 years, 322 days old when he joined the 3000 assist club). Wade also shot poorly (9-23 from the field) and he fell just two rebounds short of a triple double (25 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds). Delonte West added 19 points and six assists for the Cavs, while Jermaine O’Neal had his highest scoring game since becoming a member of the Heat three weeks ago (19 points on 7-10 shooting).
The Cavs blitzed the Heat 9-0 in the first 3:39 and never trailed the rest of the way. Four different players scored in that opening outburst, while the Heat looked like they were encased in molasses; both teams were playing the second game of a back to back but Miami looked much more the worse for wear, committing eight first quarter turnovers. The Heat eventually settled down and they only had three more turnovers the rest of the game..
The Cavs pushed their lead as high as 20 points in the second quarter and were up 50-36 at halftime. Both teams sleepwalked through the third quarter, perhaps following the tone set by their leaders during that stanza: James shot 0-4 from the field (though he did have four assists) and Wade shot 1-5 from the field. The Cavs stretched the margin to 19 but the Heat closed to within 70-61 entering the fourth quarter. The old announcing cliche–“As bad as (fill in the blank) has played, they are only down (fill in the blank)”–perfectly described the Heat’s situation with 12 minutes to go: they had shot .424 from the field and league scoring leader Wade had only scored 15 points on 5-16 shooting but the visitors still were within striking distance.
Wade’s three pointer at the 6:51 mark trimmed the lead to 80-74 and Cleveland was only up 84-76 at the 5:06 mark when Wade and Anderson Varejao contested a jump ball on Miami’s side of the court. I was seated next to ProBasketballNews.com editor Sam Amico and turned to him and said, “Watch Wade jump into Varejao’s body, steal this tip and possibly give Miami a chance to shoot an open three pointer.” Sure enough, Wade jumped into Varejao to nullify the Brazilian’s height advantage and then Wade tipped the ball to Mario Chalmers, who missed a three pointer. James got the rebound and on the next possession he passed to Williams for a jumper to extend Cleveland’s lead to 86-76. That was a big five point swing but the Heat recovered from that setback to make one final run, coming to within 91-85 after a Michael Beasley jumper at the 2:18 mark. Neither team scored for more than a minute and then Wade made one of his patented full speed drives to the hoop. He collided with Varejao but no foul was called and Varejao grabbed the rebound. An incensed Wade received his second technical foul; the automatic ejection that follows a second technical was the first time that he has been kicked out of an NBA game. Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra also got a technical foul. It certainly looked like Varejao fouled Wade, so I can understand Miami’s frustration, even though the technical fouls and ejection essentially killed their chances of winning the game; Williams made both technical free throws and the Cavs led by at least six points the rest of the way.
After the game, Coach Spoelstra said, “We did not come with the right energy, toughness and disposition to start the game. That’s the bottom line…We did show some fight and some resolve later on in the game not to let it go. That was encouraging but it became a frustration night. We were all frustrated, including myself. We saw some calls that looked differently (than they were called), but, regardless, the bottom line, I’m not sure if we deserved to win that game.”
Cleveland Coach Mike Brown acknowledged James’ triple double but said that Williams’ shooting was the key: “Mo Williams was terrific for us down the stretch, hitting some big shots time and time again when we needed baskets…We ran side pick and roll with LeBron and Mo and he (Mo) made big play after big play. It was great to see a guy like Mo being able to take over the game offensively to give a guy like LeBron a rest.”
The Cavs just finished playing five games in seven days, with James logging at least 43 minutes in three of those games. He and the Cavs generally stay true to their motto of being a “no excuse team” but when someone asked James if tired legs may have had something to do with his back to back 5-15 shooting nights, James replied, “It was a big factor. Personally, I felt good when I came in and worked out before the game but as the game went on, I could tell from my jumper that my legs did not feel particularly well. I tried to do the other things like defend and try to get guys open for shots. Even when I’m not feeling particularly well on the offensive end, I still can find ways to contribute to our team and help us win.”
When someone suggested to Williams that it might be said that James had an off game due to his low shooting percentage, Williams replied, “Stats aren’t all about shot attempts and what you shot from the field. It’s the effect you have on the game…He can be one for whatever and he is still going to draw double teams and triple teams.”
Williams said that it did not bother him that most of the pregame attention focused on James and Wade despite the fact that Williams is also an All-Star: “I’ve never been a person who wanted the spotlight. I’m happy where I am right now. I’m in the perfect position, being with LeBron. He gets all the spotlight and I’m the guy behind closed doors who just sneaks up on you and you don’t know where I’m at but all of a sudden I’m there.” Like the Lakers’ Pau Gasol, Williams has the perfect attitude and temperament to play alongside an MVP caliber player: Gasol and Williams are legit All-Stars can take over on their own at times but they understand and appreciate how much easier the game is for them on a nightly basis because of all of the extra attention drawn by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James respectively. Some players in Gasol’s or Williams’ shoes would let their egos get in the way and feel the need to prove that they are “the man” but perhaps years of being “the man” on teams that did not go anywhere helped them to understand that only a few guys in the NBA are truly franchise players and it is a blessing to have one of them as a teammate.
Notes From Courtside:
During his pregame standup, someone asked Coach Spoelstra about the impact that the newly acquired Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon have had on the team and how quickly they have meshed with Wade. Spoelstra said, “Jermaine has really helped. I think this goes understated all the time, the fact that he gives us a presence down there (in the low post) to balance out our attack has meaning. It really does, because he can catch and finish, we can also throw him the ball and run some offense through him that allows other guys to get easy baskets on cuts. We can vary our attack so that (Wade) can rest a little bit and we can play off someone else. The connection with Jamario is a little bit of a surprise. We knew that there were a lot of elements of his game that we liked but the type of connection that he and Dwyane have already with back cuts and lobs and things of that nature–that usually takes a little bit longer to develop.”
Coach Spoelstra has done very well in his first season as an NBA head coach. I asked him, “What has surprised you the most about the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach? What part of that adjustment has surprised you?”
Coach Spoelstra answered, “You think you know what it is when you are just in the other seat but until you are actually making the decisions and sitting in that chair 12 inches away (you don’t really know). Your meals, after losses, are a little bit tougher to eat. Your sleep patterns have changed a little bit. I always used to joke about those things with (former Miami Coach) Stan (Van Gundy) and (former Miami Coach) Pat (Riley), because I never had a problem sleeping or eating but now as a head coach it definitely affects you a little bit more.”
I then asked Coach Spoelstra, “Is your relationship with the players different now?”
He replied, “That’s natural. As an assistant coach, your role a lot of times is to bridge communication between the players and the head coach or to help communicate a message but also to connect on a friendly level. I’ve created a lot of friendships with players over the years as an assistant coach. You still try to do the same thing as a head coach but that is not always realistic because you don’t have as much time and you don’t have as much interaction on a day to day level as you do as an assistant coach, when you are working the players out on the court after practice, before practice and in meetings. So, the way you communicate is a little bit different but I still try to reach out to the guys as much as I can.”
It is sadly ironic that Ben Wallace was on the cover of Cleveland’s gameday program, because he has been sidelined for six games with a broken leg. The Cavs are 5-1 since Wallace got hurt, with their only loss coming on Friday at the hands of the defending champion Boston Celtics.
Wallace averages 3.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg in 24.0 minutes per game, so it is easy to belittle his impact, but the Cavs clearly miss the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. After the Miami game, the Cavs rank eighth in the NBA in points in the paint allowed (36.8 ppg) but their performance in this category has markedly declined since Wallace has been sidelined; they have been outscored in the paint 258-176 in those games, which works out to an average of 43.0-29.3. Even taking out Boston’s 58 points in the paint explosion on Friday, the Cavs are still giving up several more points per game in the paint than they were when Wallace was playing. They have been outscored in the paint in five of those six games; the Heat only rank 19th in the NBA in points in the paint but even in a losing cause they bested the Cavs 42-34 in that department.
The Cavs rank fourth in the NBA in rebounding differential (+ 3.0 rpg) but this is another area where they have not done nearly as well without Wallace in the lineup; the Cavs and their opponents have each grabbed 240 rebounds in the past six games. The Cavs have been outrebounded three times, outrebounded their opponents twice and tied their opponents once.
During Coach Brown’s pregame standup, I asked him, “How has Ben Wallace’s absence affected you in terms of giving up so many points in the paint?”
He answered, “He is a terrific defender–and player–for us. I don’t know what our points in the paint were with him and without him (because) I am not a huge stat guy but his presence is something that we miss–but just like when Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) was out with his length, we have to have other guys step up and we feel confident that other guys can step up and help hold that down. Whether he’s here or not, we’ve got to get that done.”
Wallace is a good example of a player whose impact on his team’s success is not accurately depicted by his individual statistics. Near the end of Coach Brown’s standup, the media throng around him thinned dramatically because James had just emerged for the trainer’s room for his pregame availability. This provided me the opportunity to ask Coach Brown several questions in a row relating to his perspective on basketball statistics, including how he utilizes statistics in game plan preparation, what numbers he most closely tracks to evaluate his team and his thoughts on Michael Lewis’ recent New York Times article about basketball statistics (I offered my take about the Lewis article here). I will present Coach Brown’s interesting comments about these subjects in a separate article that will be published soon.
After my interview with Coach Brown, I still managed to catch a good portion of James’ pregame availability. When I walked over, he was in the middle of answering a question about the MVP race. James said that Kobe Bryant had been the best player in the NBA in other seasons prior to winning the award for the first time last season and that he, Bryant, Wade, Paul Pierce and the other elite players are constantly trying to be the best players that they can be but this does not necessarily lead to winning the MVP trophy.
James also offered a humorous–if not quite mathematically sound–take on the race for the scoring title, saying with a smile, “The statistics that go with scoring are kind of crazy. You can score 50 points and go up two tenths of a point and then you can score 22 points and drop a whole point. Numbers are crazy how they work sometimes but if D. Wade continues to score 40 points I’m not going to keep up with that.” Of course, the only way for what James said to be literally true is if the 50 point game happened later in the season and was part of a larger sample of games, while the 22 point game happened earlier in the season when each game has a greater impact on the scoring average. The important thing for Cavs fans is that James is clearly not going to chase the scoring title at the expense of doing what is best for the team–but since part of what is best for the team involves James scoring a lot of points at times, he actually could still end up winning the scoring title anyway.
According to the media seating chart, Jay Mariotti was supposed to be seated next to me during the game but I did not see him until after the game, when he showed up for Coach Brown’s postgame standup. I joked that he must have found a better seat than the one assigned to him but Mariotti explained that he had spent most of the game working on a column after the news broke that Terrell Owens had signed a one year contract with the Buffalo Bills. It took Coach Brown a bit longer than usual to show up, so I chatted with Mariotti about the twists and turns of his career. I told him that I remembered reading some of his earliest Chicago Sun-Times’ columns when he was covering the great Bulls-Knicks playoff series. Mariotti said–half joking and half seriously–“You’re bringing a tear to my eye,” noting how the newspaper business has basically completely died in the intervening decade and a half. He mentioned that several of the newspapers he worked for during his career–including the great, short lived The National, Frank DeFord’s attempt to create a national daily sports newspaper–have gone out of business and I pointed out that Dick Schaap made a similar lament about his career in his autobiographyFlashing Before My Eyes. “At least I’m in good company,” Mariotti replied. He added that if DeFord started The Nationaltoday, it would all be online, which would eliminate the distribution problems that drove the paper out of business. I said that maybe DeFord was ahead of his time with the idea for The National and Mariotti agreed, suggesting that ESPN.com essentially represents an online version of what DeFord was trying to create. I held my tongue a bit with that comment, because I don’t think that the ESPN.com roster holds a candle to the team that DeFord assembled back in the day.
As for that long ago column about the old Bulls-Knicks series, Mariotti said that then-Chicago Coach Phil Jackson first fanned the flames of conspiracy theories by suggesting none too subtly that the NBA sent certain referees to certain games to get the desired result. It is not clear if Jackson really believed that or was just employing one of his countless mind games. Either way, Mariotti and I agreed that it definitely seemed like Hue Hollins had something against the Bulls in general and Scottie Pippen in particular. Every serious basketball fan knows about Hollins’ infamous blown call against Pippen that cost the Bulls a road win in game five of their 1994 series with New York–a series in which the home team eventually won all seven games–but I reminded Mariotti that Hollins was involved in several other questionable calls that went against Pippen and the Bulls, including one that possibly cost them a chance to have 73 wins in 1995-96 (and thus be the only NBA team ever to go through a season with single-digit losses).