Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Morning After: Game 4

Eastern Conference finals, Game 4
Cavaliers 91, Pistons 87
Series tied 2-2

In the NBA Playoffs, you are only one win away from feeling a whole heck of a lot better about yourself, so let's not overblow the depths of the Pistons sorrow as they head home for a pivotal Game 5 Thursday night.

The Cavaliers do not yet have the Pistons "on the ropes." What they do have is an even series and the knowledge that if they can figure out a way to win two of the next three, they will advance to the franchise's first-ever NBA Finals.

(Aside: How crazy-good does it feel to say "Cavs" and "first-ever NBA Finals" in the same breath? So close, and yet, still so far at the moment.)

What the Cavs also have is a thoroughly-frustrated Pistons club that is searching for answers. The Pistons got away with a pair of shaky games in their house when the Cavs failed to hit enough clutch shots. The Cavs, on the other hand, surged ahead in the fourth quarter with great authority in their two home wins.

In short, the Pistons survived Games 1 and 2. The Cavs made huge statements with Games 3 and 4. The series is tied, but there is no question which team feels like it has the momentum heading into Game 5.

But now, the real test: Cleveland has to get at least one win on the road to win the series. One win with the crowd cheering against you. One win in which the Pistons are likely to get some home-cooked calls while LeBron James get steamrolled to the tune of utter silence from the refs' whistles.

But this is how good teams become great: They figure out how to deal with the petty injustices of being the underdog without letting it get under their skin.

I've said it all along: This series is a litmus test. If the Cavs are good enough to fight through the bad calls and non-calls, if they are good enough to stick some clutch baskets and win a game or two at The Palace of Auburn Hills, they will be good enough to win this series, and possibly good enough to vie for a championship this year. If not, we're going to have to wait a bit longer, like it or not.

But back to Game 4...

The cast of heroes probably isn't going to change much from win to win. You know LeBron is going to factor heavily into any Cavs postseason win, and he did again on Tuesday night. It wasn't as spectacular as his 32, 9 and 9 outburst in Game 3, but LeBron still dropped in 25 points, 13 of them in the fourth quarter.

And until further notice, LeBron and Daniel Gibson are officially Cleveland's Butch and Sundance. Batman and Robin. The King and Boobie.

Larry Hughes ended up starting, thanks in large part to a pre-game cortisone shot in his ailing foot. But once again, it was Gibson, not Hughes, on the floor in crunch time.

Gibson scored 21 points, but not how you'd expect it. He went just 1-for-4 from beyond the arc. Tuesday, he did his damage by driving to the hoop and drawing fouls.

At the free-throw line, in a season in which the Cavs could easily have earned the nickname "Mikey's Rimbangers" for their atrocious free-throw shooting, Gibson turned in one of the greatest free-throw shooting performances in Cavs playoff history. He took 12 free throws, and didn't miss one of them.

In a game won by four points, every single one of those converted free throws was crucial.

LeBron got in on the act as well, making 8-of-9 from the stripe, including 5-for-5 in the fourth quarter, which included the Cavs' final two points of the game, essentially securing the win.

Drew Gooden also gets major props for having his 15-foot jumper working all night, en route to 19 points. Of course, most of us would rather see him make his living down low, but if the shot is falling and he has confidence taking it, let he who is without recreation-league jump-shot sin cast the first stone.

LeBron and Gibson are the stories of the past two games, but perhaps the story of the series to this point is Cleveland's ability to stifle Chauncey Billups.

Billups had 23 points, but finished just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc and was once again harassed into critical turnovers. Billups, a sure-handed point guard who averaged two turnovers a game during the regular season, has been averaging about five per game in this series. Tuesday, he hit that mark, including a costly throwaway to Drew Gooden in the closing minutes.

Shortly before writing this, Joel Hammond and I had a brief conversation about the series. Joel feels the Cavs are in Billups' head. He might be right.

I chalk it up to Mike Brown's defensive schemes and the players' willingness to execute them. As I told Joel, Brown might have a ways to go as an offensive strategist, but give him a large amount of credit: His defensive schemes so far in the playoffs have been nearly flawless.

Brown knows that Billups is the engine that makes the Pistons go at both ends of the floor, but particularly on offense, where the Pistons don't possess a true go-to superstar like LeBron. Contain Billups, and you are going to make life a lot harder on Detroit at the offensive end.

Based on the Pistons' point totals of 79, 79, 82 and 87 so far in this series, Brown knows what he is doing on defense, and his players realize he knows what he is doing on defense.

If you're Brown, you don't change a thing heading into Game 5, and just hope that your team can handle the fourth-quarter pressure of a road playoff game better than they did during their first two tries at The Palace.

It's a tall order, but one that can be accomplished by a team that is suddenly starting to think in terms of this year, not just next year.

Up next: Game 5, Thursday, 8 p.m. at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Hughes doubtful for Game 4

ESPN's Rachel Nichols called the news "short but devastating." Others among us might call it the best thing that could have happened to the Cavaliers.

But no matter how you slice it, Larry Hughes probably isn't playing in Game 4 tonight, and might be out longer than that.

An MRI following Game 3 revealed the reason Hughes was limping following a first-half drive to the hoop Sunday. He tore a heel muscle. Hughes' delicate body has betrayed him yet again.

His loss does potentially hurt at the defensive end. Though Hughes isn't really a point guard, he was big enough to match the size of Chauncey Billups, which is hard to do. Billups' size is a big reason why he gains the advantage in so many postseason point guard matchups.

Hughes at the offensive end ... that's another story. He has scored just 23 points in the entire series on 8-of-24 shooting, including his infamous miss of a seven-footer with the clock winding down in Game 2.

Hughes' injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Daniel Gibson, who came off the bench in Game 3 to score nine points and play a huge role in the fourth quarter. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn't give up much to Billups at the defensive end.

Gibson and Eric Snow will likely tag-team the point guard position in Hughes' absence, which could extend to several weeks. The mixture of the hot-shooting rookie with energy to spare and the wily veteran who specializes in defense actually seems kind of promising.

The Cavs have held Billups and Rip Hamilton in check all series, and it's not all due to Hughes. All the guards have done a good job defensively, as they have for most of the playoffs.

Now, much like Ryan Garko forced Eric Wedge to play him by sheer performance, Gibson has a chance to stake his claim to the fourth quarter. With one clutch performance under his belt, Gibson's role will now be expanded.

Of course, there is a flip side to that: The Pistons will be able to prepare for Game 4 knowing Gibson is going to play big minutes. Kelly Holcomb proved that sometimes, losing the element of surprise is the true devastating blow when you're used to coming off the bench.

Regardless, if the Cavs are to make a series of this, LeBron's main wingman might be a quick, undersized rookie. Hughes looks primed to fade into the background, the victim of yet another injury.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Morning After: Game 3

Eastern Conference finals, Game 3
Cavaliers 88, Pistons 82
Pistons lead series 2-1

A recipe for Grandmama's Famous Home-Cooked Playoff Win:

  • 1 cup sellout crowd at city's first conference finals game in 15 years.
  • 1 cup superstar player, twice beaten.
  • 2 tablespoons hot-shooting bench player.
  • 1 stick Larry and Eric's "Get The Fat Off The Floor" light margarine.
  • 1 pinch saucy-dressing reserve guard to run the point.
  • Mix in a large seating bowl with Charles Barkley. Bring to a boil.
  • Cover and simmer for the final 12 minutes. Serves about 20,000.

Like Chunky Soup does for Donovan McNabb, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, and just about any other NFL player who has ever hired an actress to play his mom, Sunday night's Game 3 win filled Cavs fans up right.

The shift from the Palace of Auburn Hills to The Q had the desired effect for LeBron James and Co., as the friendly confines of their home court helped give the Cavs the added push they needed to turn the narrow losses in Games 1 and 2 into a narrow win in Game 3.

The seeds for the win were planted early in the first quarter when LeBron decided to stop sharing and become selfish. It's out of character for him, but at home, with his team clutching their last chance to make a series out of this, LeBron knew he had to step up and start scoring.

In the first two games, LeBron was a little too cognizant of the fact that Detroit was going to basically sit on him with their defense and force the other four Cavs on the floor to beat them. So LeBron shared the ball, giving his teammates a chance to do just that.

The trouble is, those shooting problems that have plagued the Cavs all year didn't magically disappear, and LeBron's passes resulted in a metallic chorus of leather hitting steel. That's how you score 76 points in consecutive games.

Sunday, no such problem. LeBron came out less concerned with the teeth of the Piston defense and more concerned with doing whatever it took to win. He finished with 32 points, nine boards and nine assists. Nearly triple-doubling the Pistons is kind of like nearly no-hitting the 1995 Indians. It's a statement, to say the least.

LeBron was the centerpiece of the effort, as LeBron usually is when the Cavs win. But, as you will learn when you climb Mount Zen and sit at the foot of Phil Jackson, an eagle cannot soar toward the Western Sun with but one wing. The ox cannot slay the boar with but one horn. The No. 57 Spicy Pork Combo Platter needs the fried rice to, in fact, exist as a combo platter.

Yes, young grasshopper, no matter the greatness of LeBron, he still needs help. And Sunday, that help came in the form of Daniel "Boobie" Gibson.

Gibson's stat line doesn't look all that impressive: Nine points on 2-for-4 shooting with two rebounds. But it was about quality, not quantity.

Gibson had several huge three-pointers down the stretch, the kind that gave the Cavs breathing room just as the Pistons were about to go on a game-changing run. He also played spirited defense on Chauncey Billups, and while he didn't shut Billups down, he did enough to not look like a defensive liability against the Pistons' small boulder of a point guard.

Gibson's defensive play allowed him to stay on the floor with the game on the line, which in turn left Eric Snow, Lary Hughes and their jump-shot masonry on the bench. Any fourth quarter when you can put players on the floor who are actually capable of making clutch shots, it will probably increase your chances of winning.

Mike Brown actually went with a very small backcourt for much of the second half. Damon Jones made a rare cameo at the point in lieu of Snow, who did not play. Jones didn't really affect the game, going 0-for-2 from the floor in nine minutes, but it was more about the implied threat of his outside shot, aimed at spreading Detroit's zone defenses.

The Cavs won the game with clutch shooting by LeBron and Gibson, but the foundation for the win was laid, in true Brown fashion, with defense. With Billups (13 points) and Rip Hamilton (7 points) continuing to have low-wattage series thanks in large part to Cleveland's perimeter defense, Detroit coach Flip Saunders was forced to do some of his own experimenting, playing his other Flip, former Cav Flip Murray, for 20 minutes.

Murray injected some life into the Piston attack in the first half, but as we found out last year, his lack of size and inconsistent outside shot will frequently be his undoing. Murray finished with eight points, and by the second half, Saunders was back to basics with Billups and Hamilton.

If the Cavaliers rally to win this series, the symbolic defining moment for me will have come late in the fourth quarter Sunday. With the scored tied at 68, LeBron found a seam down the left side and came face-to-face with Rasheed Wallace. Well, navel-to-face is more like it, as LeBron levitated, went up with the right hand and crushed home a dunk in Wallace's face. Wallace was literally sent spinning out of the way by his faceful of LeBron.

A root beer float on a hot summer day. The smell of freshly-cut grass. Few things in life are as satisfying as watching LeBron posterize Rasheed Wallace and his big, fat, constantly-flapping mouth.

Message to Dan Gilbert: If you ever offer a Fathead of that dunk, please reserve one for me. Thank you.

Up next: Game 4, Tuesday, 8 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Border War


Woody Hayes hated the state so much he wouldn't buy gas there, or so the legend goes. He wouldn't even refer to it by its proper name, calling it "that state up north."

Of course, much of Hayes' burning dislike of Michigan centered on maize and blue and the city of Ann Arbor. And that's where most Ohio sports fans aim their venom. Ohio State and Michigan have a ready-made blood feud that gets renewed on the football field every November, usually with a Big Ten title, BCS bowl berth, national championship game berth, or some other heavy hardware on the line.

If you're a Cleveland fan, it's about the only reason you've had to not like Michigan for the past half-century, unless you are into pure, raw jealousy over the sports scenes in each state's largest metropolitan area. The pro sports teams of Cleveland and Detroit have taken divergent paths. No one needs to tell anyone on this side of the state line who took the low road.

It's not just the eight pro sports titles Detroit has won since Cleveland's last in 1964. It's the fact that, for the most part, Cleveland hasn't even been there to challenge Detroit. And on the lone occasion a Cleveland team -- the Indians -- improved to the point that it could vie for a title, its Detroit counterpart was mired in a 15-year stretch of miserable baseball.

In short, when it comes to pro sports, Cleveland and Detroit have largely been like ships passing in the night.

Sure, there were the four NFL title games the Lions and Browns played in the '50s, with the Lions winning three, but that's like finding the building blocks for a rivalry in the 1908 Cleveland-Detroit AL pennant race, in which the Tigers edged the Naps by a half-game. Most people old enough to remember that are dead. You can look it up.

When the Pistons were good enough to win it all in 1989, the Cavs were only good enough to bother them, not knock them off. Then a man named Jordan got in the way of a possible Cavs-Pistons playoff series with a rather famous jumper over Craig Ehlo.

Hockey ... should I even bring this up? The Red Wings are one of the Original Six, with a rich history that includes Gordie Howe as the centerpiece. Cleveland had one of the premier minor league hockey teams -- the AHL Barons -- until 1973, but since then, our pro hockey scene has been a fractured mess that included a two-year tango with an NHL team that was on the verge of bankruptcy, and had to be merged with the Minnesota North Stars to avoid folding.

So, as a Cleveland fan, you can be excused if all this Cleveland-Detroit rivalry stuff is rather new to you. But the flames are being fanned, aren't they? You are starting to really not like losing to Detroit.

With the Cavs trailing the Pistons in a playoff series for the second straight year, you are starting to grind your teeth when you see Rasheed Wallace's huge mouth and goofy grin. You are starting to feel the bile welling in your esophagus when you hear the talking heads in the national media constantly stroke the egos of the Piston players, talk about how they embody the concept of "team" and how Joe Dumars is a genius architect who gleaned mismatched parts to put together a champion.

You want to throw the remote at the TV when Rip Hamilton tells Ahmad Rashad how the Pistons need to win a title for C-Webb and Antonio McDyess, because they weren't there the last time Detroit won it all, way back in '04. (Man! 2004? Might need to dust some cobwebs off that trophy pretty soon.)

Your anti-Michigan reflexes were tested when you had to watch Jim Leyland, he of the store-bought 1997 Marlins, lead the Tigers out of nowhere and into the World Series last year. You felt some measure of satisfaction watching the Tigers implode against the Cardinals, just so you wouldn't have to watch Leyland -- an Ohio turncoat, no less -- win another championship.

Now the Indians and Tigers are locked in what should be a season-long duel atop the AL Central. Two young, pitching-based teams trying to figure out how to beat each other, with each loss adding another layer of resentment for one side or the other.

The centerpiece of the Ohio-Michigan rivalry will always occur on the last weekend of the Big Ten football season, but the Border War is gaining more dimensions than ever before. The Pistons are no longer just another opponent from a nearby city. An Indians-Tigers game is no longer just another lazy evening at the ballpark. Now, we play to beat these guys.

With the Browns unable to locate the same competitive zip code as the Steelers and Ravens, with the combination of an unbalanced schedule and interleague play choking the Tribe's rivalries with the Yankees and Red Sox, Detroit sports is filling the us-against-them void that Clevelanders seem to crave.

They're more established. They're bigger. They have many more rings. And they're just across the border. Heck, you probably know some of their fans. They might even be in your family, which only makes it more personal.

Welcome to Ohio vs. Michigan, just as the founding fathers envisioned it: Heated, passionate, and now, all-too-familiar.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Morning After: Game 2

Eastern Conference finals, Game 2
Pistons 79, Cavaliers 76
Pistons lead series, 2-0

Same score, different lightning rod.

In Game 1, it was LeBron James' pass to a wide-open Donyell Marshall that drew the criticism. This time, it might very well have been Larry Hughes' miss of a wide-open seven-footer off an offensive rebound that sealed the Cavs' fate.

In short, the Cavs are not paying Hughes more than $13 million this year to miss wide-open seven-footers with the game on the line. Had Hughes made the shot, Cleveland would have been up by one, inside of 15 seconds.

Hughes' miss, combined with Rasheed Wallace's make of a teardrop jumper from the baseline on the preceding possession, underscored the current difference between Detroit and Cleveland in the clutch.

For the second straight game, Detroit didn't play particularly well, but for the second straight game, Cleveland couldn't make up the difference.

Up by 12 at the half, the Cavs predictably let the Pistons back into the game in the third quarter. Unlike Game 1, however, the Cavs didn't let Detroit take the lead and dictate the remainder of the game.

The game see-sawed throughout the fourth quarter with the Cavs and Pistons both leading by as much as five. But Cleveland once again made critical blunders, including five straight turnovers midway through the quarter, and a crucial botched possession leading 77-76 in which they treated the ball like a hot potato. LeBron had the ball inside with the shot clock winding down, then rifled a pass outside to Sasha Pavlovic, who looked like he was going to hoist a three, then changed his mind mid-air when the Pistons applied defensive pressure. The result: another turnover.

The Pistons kept leaving the door open until Hughes missed his jumper, Anderson Varejao missed a putback, the Pistons secured the ball and the whole thing reeked of Game 6 in last year's Cavs-Pistons series.

Mike Brown was livid after the possession, drawing a technical foul. He apparently thought LeBron was fouled on the shot attempt that led to Hughes' miss. By the time the final buzzer sounded, Brown was worked into a full-on lather, and it appeared that as he left the court, he broke stride to confront a heckler. Cavs GM Danny Ferry intervened before anything happened and escorted Brown into the tunnel.

Such is life for a coach who was an assistant with the Pacers in his prior job and has probably been on the losing end against the Pistons one too many times.

Despite the frustrating nature of both losses, the Cavs leave Detroit with the knowledge that the gap between them and the Pistons isn't all that wide overall. But the gap widens considerably when the fourth quarter clock ticks inside five minutes.

When the game is on the line, the Pistons have done enough to win. The Cavs have done enough to lose. It's that simple.

The Cavs have had opportunities to pull both games out despite the fact that LeBron is having a brutal series by his standards. LeBron's 19 points led all scorers in Game 2, and he did block six shots, but he had zero points in the third quarter as the Pistons erased their halftime deficit, and the rim wasn't friendly to him in the final minutes, as he missed a pair of would-have-been clutch shots.

LeBron isn't finishing at the rim the way we all know he can. The Pistons defense has taken him out of his rhythm and has made him think about missing shots and getting shots blocked down low. It was Detroit's game plan heading into this series, and so far, it's done enough to give them a 2-0 edge.

They are now halfway to their third NBA Finals berth in four years.

Cleveland has one last stand it can take: The next two games will be the first Eastern Conference finals games in Northeast Ohio since 1992. The Q will undoubtedly be rocking, in stark contrast to the seemingly jaded, "Wake me when we get to the Finals" Detroit crowds.

Cleveland absolutely, positively must win Games 3 and 4 in order to have a chance in this series. If the Pistons take even one of the next two in Cleveland, the Cavs' last toehold might be removed, and it will be time for Ferry to start thinking about the offseason moves he needs to make to get his team past the Detroit blockade next spring.

Up next: Game 3, Sunday, 8:30 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Jordan factor

Prior to the 1980s, the basketball-watching population at large had a certain mental picture of what a dominant NBA player should look like.

Chances are, he was about seven feet tall with a wingspan that made him look like an albatross with gigantism. He could swat shots and grab rebounds at will, score inside with ease and probably had a pet-move hook shot that was virtually impossible to defend.

He had a name: Kareem. Wilt. Russell. He was the player who separated the boy teams from the man teams, the player whose mere presence automatically vaulted his team to championship-contender status.

Then came the 1984 NBA draft, and the world was turned upside-down.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson might have introduced the modern idea of the dominant wing/backcourt player, but Michael Jordan became the archetype. Great wing players who arrived on the scene since Jordan have all been measured against him, usually falling short.

Jordan introduced a set of characteristics that all dominant players since are supposed to have. Those who don't fit the mold are found to be inadequate on some level.

Jordan disciples need to have a competitive fire rivaled in heat only by the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor. They are supposed to be both masters of the fadeaway jumper and high-flying athletes, encompassing both old Jordan and young Jordan simultaneously. They are supposed to treat every possession as if the game hinges on it.

And, above all, they are supposed to take -- and make -- every clutch shot.

So far, only Kobe Bryant has come anywhere close to true Jordan-ness, but ever since the 2004 Finals, Bryant's "killer instinct" has been exposed as a narcissistic love affair with his own greatness. Post-Shaq titles won: Zero.

So the media and fans found a new heir to the Air. As of 2003, the boy wonder who was supposed to follow Jordan from a take-over-the-world standpoint was LeBron James. Growing up, LeBron wanted nothing more than to be the next Jordan. He copied the Jordan moves almost too perfectly, even startling the man himself with his rendition on the occasion the two met.

LeBron wore the number, got the shoe deal, mastered the dunks. He shared DNA with Jordan, it seemed.

But then something happened, something that not even LeBron himself might have expected: Somewhere between being anointed "The Chosen One" as a high school junior and zipping a pass to Donyell Marshall for a would-be game-winning three-pointer on Monday night, LeBron outgrew his teenage idol worship.

Somewhere along the line, LeBron became his own player. And the rest of the world doesn't seem to like it.

In a post-Jordan NBA, a superstar who passes out of a clogged lane to an open teammate with the game on the line is decidedly un-Jordan-like. In a post-Jordan NBA, that player might not even be a superstar at all. He's a blatant coward who is shirking his duty to take the game-winning shot.

And that's the line on LeBron after his fateful Game 1 decision to let Donyell Marshall take the deciding shot.

Coaches across the league would call passing to an open teammate the right call from a basketball standpoint. From a superstar standpoint, it isn't what Mike would have done, which in the eyes of many casual observers, makes it the wrong call, and in turn, makes LeBron measure inadequately on the Jordan Greatness-O-Meter.

LeBron is programmed to be a team player. The media endlessly lauds team players and scolds selfish players who hog the ball. It's why Tim Duncan is held up as an example for all basketball-playing children to follow, while the likes of Stephon Marbury are called team cancers.

But the wholesomeness of team play appears to go out the window when the game is on the line. Then, the fans don't want to see great players who get the other four guys involved. We want to see bloodlusting predators who kick their teammates to the curb and shove the dagger themselves.

Unfortunately, LeBron will always find himself between a rock and a hard place. If he takes the shot and misses, he's a bad shooter. If he takes the shot, draws the foul and bricks his free throws, he can't handle the pressure. If he trusts his teammates and passes the ball -- something fanciers of old-school basketball can't get enough of -- and that teammate misses the shot, he's afraid of taking the last shot.

Any way you slice it, LeBron's basketball IQ, among the highest in the league, certainly among early 20-somethings, will never be totally appreciated because he'll never be totally allowed to stand on the merits of his own talent, win or lose.

LeBron is on his way to becoming a generation-defining player. Unfortunately, that generation happens to be succeeding the Jordan era, and LeBron doesn't stack up to Jordan.

The real reason is that LeBron isn't the same kind of player. Not even close, save for the thunderous dunks. But that's not good enough for the NBA fans and media who have come to expect buzzer-beaters out of their heroes.

To them, LeBron might never be anything but a bland sequel to the original.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Morning After: Game 1

Eastern Conference finals, Game 1
Pistons 79, Cavaliers 76
Pistons lead series 1-0

If you're a Cavaliers fan, this is where you start to worry a little bit, because the Pistons played a lousy game by their standards and still managed to come away with a 79-76 win.

Detroit let the Cavs dictate the tempo of the game in the first half, jump out to a lead of as large as nine and head into the locker room up 41-35. All in all, the Pistons looked the part of an arrogant team that figured it had cleared their biggest hurdle to another NBA Finals berth when they beat Chicago.

The only thing that really saved the Pistons was Cleveland's typical zombie-like performance at the start of the second half. The Pistons scored the first seven points of the third quarter before Mike Brown called a timeout to re-discuss everything that he just discussed in the locker room.

Against New Jersey, the Cavs could come out flat at the start of the second half and still win the game. Against Detroit, even a three-minute snooze at any point in the second half could cost you the game. The Pistons are simply too good, and generally they get better as the game goes on.

If this is the worst game Detroit plays all series, it had better also have been the worst game Cleveland plays all series, otherwise we're going to be talking about the Cavs trying to avoid a sweep.

All in all, this is about how I expected a typical Cavs loss to play out in this series. The Cavs had numerous chances to tie or pull ahead late, but missed shots and and overall lack of offensive sharpness killed them and tilted the game in Detroit's favor.

The hot-button postgame topic was LeBron's decision to pass out of a forest of Piston defenders to a wide-open Donyell Marshall with the Cavs down by a basket and the fourth-quarter clock inside 10 seconds. Marshall's three would have put the Cavs up by one.

Trouble is, Marshall is now averaging about one meaningful basket per month, so Game 6 against the Nets should set him until sometime during the 2008-09 season.

Marshall clanged the three, Chauncey Billups grabbed the loose ball down floor, and only Sasha Pavlovic's foul prevented the clock from hitting zero.

LeBron's army of critics will jump all over this as yet another example of LeBron's spinelessness with the game on the line.

Since having a hero with a fatal flaw makes for good drama, we can make believe that LeBron drove inside with every intention of taking the game-tying shot, looked at the hoop, felt his blood run cold at the prospect of missing the shot or -- worse yet -- getting fouled and being sent to the line for pressure free-throws, and decided that if anyone should be the goat, it should be anyone but him.

So he passed it. And Marshall did what Marshall has normally done this year -- exhibit his rapidly-declining shooting touch.

Sure, there's something to the idea of not wanting LeBron on the free-throw stripe with the game on the line. But the same goes for the entire team, sans Zydrunas Ilgauskas. They aren't a good free-throw shooting team, and when you aren't a good free-throw shooting team, you think about missing shots under pressure.

LeBron didn't take the game-tying shot because LeBron isn't programmed like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Jordan redefined the characteristics a great player should have, among them a lust for shoving a dagger down the throats of 20,000 opposing fans with a killer shot. Ever since, a player's greatness has always been measured by his Jordan-ness.

But LeBron's default setting is "Make the proper basketball play." Like it or not, when the defense collapses on him, he will always look to make the pass to the open man. In this case, Marshall.

My question is, where is Brown's culpability in all this? Why wasn't Damon Jones, or even Pavlovic, in that corner to take LeBron's kickout? Game 6 against New Jersey notwithstanding, I never trust Marshall to make a three anymore. Who honestly does?

Yet there was the Cav who is quickly making Eric Snow look young and spry, ready to hoist another brick.

Along with the maturation of LeBron, Brown is going through his own maturation. He has to get a better feel for the number he should be calling in a given situation. With the game on the line, it should never come down to calling on Marshall to shoot a three-ball. Not anymore.

The good news is, the Cavs hung tough with the Pistons Monday night. They are capable of winning games in this series. But the breakdowns at the start and end of the second half showed the difference between the Cavs and the Pistons.

Up next: Game 2, Thursday, 8 p.m. at the Palace of Auburn Hills

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Oops, they did it again

The Cavaliers don't like being predictable. If watching 91 combined regular season and playoff games to this point has taught us anything, it's that.

In retrospect, we should have seen coming the team's putrid effort in Game 5 Wednesday night, if for no other reason than the end of Game 4 and the response it elicited around Northeast Ohio.

The Cavs gutted out an ugly 87-85 win over the Nets that was touted as "real playoff basketball." In the Tuesday and Wednesday editions, The Plain Dealer declared the team to be playoff-mature, embracing their coach's defensive gospel and, above all, achieving a new standard of mental toughness.

Then came Wednesday night's 72-point effort in which the Cavs managed to hold the Nets to six fourth-quarter points on 1-for-15 shooting and still lost by 11.

See? The defense was there. The offense ... eh, well let's be honest. Kent State's defense could have stymied the Cavs' offense Wednesday. It's not that difficult to do when Larry Hughes insists on jacking up jumper after jumper on the way to 3-for-17 shooting while LeBron James keeps finding himself receiving the ball 40 feet from the basket.

Wednesday night, LeBron might as well have added to his extensive tattoo collection with some ink that said "Trap Me Against The Sideline, I'm 25 Feet From The Nearest Teammate" across his forehead.

So are we to assume that the Cavs regressed from playoff-tough to JV-sloppy in the span of 48 hours? Probably not.

If you've sat through all 57 wins and all 34 losses this team has produced since the start of the regular season, you'd know that mysterious stretches of inexplicably bad basketball are in this team's DNA. I used to want to chalk it up to Mike Brown, but despite the offensive lapses, I wonder if I can.

Fingering Brown and his purported inability to grasp offensive basketball lets Hughes, LeBron and their rim-clanging cohorts off the hook. On nights when they insist on hoisting a barrage of 20-foot jumpers and miss 80 percent of them, LeBron and Co. very much deserve the blame when the Cavs lose. And that's where I'm placing the blame for Wednesday's debacle.

The Nets worked hard to stay alive in the playoffs Wednesday and deserved to win. The Cavs should have expected that, but maybe they didn't. Maybe they thought the series was over when they stole Game 4 and took a 3-1 lead. Maybe they forgot about all those playoff games that Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter have played.

The Cavs simply got worked over by a team that wanted it more. There are plenty of examples to point to on that front, including home losses to the Knicks and Hawks and a couple of road losses to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats.

If you DVRed any of those games and are still fuming over Wednesday's loss, watch one of them. You'll see a familiar pattern of settling for outside jumpers, standing around on offense and watching LeBron, and lethargic defense. Afterward, you won't be so surprised that the Cavs laid an egg.

And you'll be one step up on the Cavs players, who were surprised not only by the Nets, but by their fans' reaction to their sluggish effort. Hughes called the fans' booing "a bad way to go." Donyell Marshall, who is barely even a factor in games anymore, was so shocked and hurt that fans would boo his 0-for-5 shooting performance that he gave the fans a return shot thinly-disguised as a "no comment":

“If I say something, it’s not going to be the right thing to do,” he told The Plain Dealer.

Well, yes Donyell. Unless you were going to say "I now realize the error of my ways. I am not, in fact, a good enough three-point shooter to constantly camp out on the arc and wait for a kickout pass. From this point on, I vow to earn my paycheck fighting for rebounds down low," it probably wasn't going to be the right thing to do.

Fortunately for Marshall, he was just one of 15 players who seemed to have a hard time understanding what was going on Wednesday.

Following Monday's Game 4 win, Bill Livingston, the PD's resident basketball connoisseur and sometimes elderly crank, declared these Cavs to be worlds different than the Lenny Wilkens Cavs of 15 and 20 years ago.

Those Cavs, he said, stood around contemplating their shoetops after Charles Barkley pummeled Craig Ehlo in a pre-flagrant foul rule playoff game. No one retaliated.

These Cavs, on the other hand, learned something when Rasheed Wallace laid open Zydrunas Ilgauskas' head last season, he said. These Cavs are tougher. They stand up for each other and don't cower in the face of bullying. They have not, nor will they ever, take flack from Mikki Moore.

Good for them. They shouldn't take flack from Mikki Moore. And if Mikki Moore was even close to the the most ominous threat facing the Cavs heading into Game 6, it would be a noble pursuit.

Unfortunately, it appears the Cavs' greatest adversary is once again between their own collective ears. That is an enemy that needs to be defeated right now, otherwise we're going to be in for a far-too-exciting Game 7 showdown on Sunday.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Searching for the next Paul Shuey

For the past five years, Indians fans have been searching for "The Next."

Who is going to revive the magic of the 1990s? Is Travis Hafner "The Next Jim Thome?" Is Josh Barfield "The Next Roberto Alomar?" Will Jhonny Peralta ever be good enough to even carry the dirty undergarments of Omar Vizquel?

How burned into our subconscious is that seven-year run of revivalist baseball? We're even searching for Paul Shuey's spiritual heir.

You remember Pauly. Mid-90s fastball, knee-buckling curve and filthy split. I mean, that split was X-rated enough to make Larry Flynt blush. He was supposed to be the next great reliever in baseball. But he couldn't stomach the pressure, injured just about every joint in his body thanks to a violent delivery, and retired a couple of years back as a forgotten player.

Except in Cleveland, that is, where we always like to find barometers by which to measure failure.

Ever since Jason Davis first came on the scene in 2002, we started to assume he was the man to bear the Shuey torch. He possessed a great arm, capable of sniffing the upper 90s on a radar gun. But he never lived up to the hype. In his first few seasons, he was too jittery, prone to compulsively hurl pickoff throw after pickoff throw to first base, until he finally uncorked the magic sinker that skipped past Ben Broussard and allowed the runner to reach third.

In recent years, he's become more controlled on the mound, but when he was asked to take something off his fastball, it became mediocre in the process.

Now Davis and Broussard are teammates once again in Seattle, thanks to a Sunday deal that sent Davis out west. JD is free from the Shuey yoke, which never really suited him anyway. He wasn't groomed for a relief role until recently.

But for every door that closes, another opens. Much in the same way that the departure of Manny Ramirez made us realize just how bad a baserunner Vizquel was, the departure of Davis shifts the spotlight to Fernando Cabrera.

Suddenly, the Shueyness of Cabrera is startling.

As if on cue, hours after Davis was traded, Cabrera took the mound and gave up a game-losing three-run meatball to minor-league wonder child Jack Cust in the Tribe's 10-7 loss to the Athletics Sunday.

After three-odd weeks of crazy-good dominance reminiscent of the Cabrera of late last season, Cabrera has regressed mightily since posting a win over Texas on April 25. Since then, he's lost twice and his ERA has steadily climbed from 1.50 on April 28 to 3.24 as of Monday.

Great stuff. Sporadically dominant. Gets your hopes up. Teases. Falters. Gives up big hits and too many walks. Makes any nearby female member of your family say "Maybe you should go outside for a while" after you made the cat sprint for the safety of the bedroom by practicing primordial scream therapy at the TV.

Paul Shuey did it. Fernando Cabrera does it.

Cabrera is the reliever who will always make your stomach churn because you don't know if Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde is going to jog out of the bullpen gate. Yet he has the full faith and backing of Eric Wedge, as Shuey did with Mike Hargrove and Charlie Manuel.

All this time, you thought it was Davis. You didn't care enough about Davis. None of us did. But Cabrera, out there, trying and failing to take a game into extra innings and salvage a .500 road trip, you definitely noticed that.

If Shuey doesn't have anything else to mark his checkered past in the Indians' bullpen, he at least has a successor.

An important game

As I am writing this, the tip-off of Cavaliers-Nets Game 4 is minutes away. Great time for some last-minute thoughts:

A must-win for the Cavs? Tonight's game probably can't be classified as that. Not when they're up 2-1. But it's one of those "They'd better win if they know what's good for them" games.

A Nets win, of course, ties the series. It also makes Game 5 in Cleveland a crucial hinge-point in the series. If the Cavs lose tonight, all the pressure is on them to win Game 5.

Back-to-back sweeps was too much to ask. Even the mighty Pistons couldn't pull it off. But I don't think it is too much to ask LeBron and Co. to close out the Nets in five.

Saturday's 96-85 loss was your classic Cavs defeat: The team took the floor with no energy, let the Nets scamper out to a 15-4 lead, clawed back to within two at halftime, then let New Jersey score the first eight points of the second half. The team was listless, looked sloppy at both ends of the floor and allowed New Jersey to outrebound them by 13.

That should never happen to the Cavs, a very good rebounding team with top-notch low post athleticism, against New Jersey, who counts rail-thin scrapper Mikki Moore as their best big man.

If the Cavs win the rebounding battle at both ends of the floor, chances are they'll win tonight. If they let themselves get pushed around again -- and LeBron doesn't crack the 20-point barrier again -- it might be a long plane ride back to Cleveland.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Supporting the King

LeBron James is a man of many names, most of them alluding to something biblical or royal, or at the very least presidential:

The Chosen One.
King James.

But I have another one: The Eclipse.

If no one else can call him that, his teammates sure can.

Ever since LeBron entered the NBA four years ago, the widely-held belief is that he has been surrounded by an inadequate cast of one-dimensional schmucks and no-dimensional stiffs. Four years ago, when he entered the league with Ricky Davis and Darius Miles as his wingmen, it might have been closer to the truth. As a rookie, LeBron was plugged into the remnants of a team that had won just 17 games the year before.

But closely-held beliefs die hard, and a "Dime Smack" blog entry on FoxSports.com Wednesday shows the anti-LeBron-supporting-cast prejudice is still alive and well:

"Anyone not wearing stunner-shade-sized wine/gold/blue BLEEP glasses knows this team isn’t that good outside of LeBron."

It's not LeBron's fault. He's as good as he is, which is good enough to overshadow about 98 percent of potential teammates in the NBA. It's not the fault of his teammates, who, as part of said 98 percent, won't get a lot of love, at least nationally, simply because they play in LeBron's shadow.

Because LeBron is the megatalent that he is, there will always appear to be a colossal talent chasm between him and his teammates, unless his teammates happen to be Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett or the like, which is highly unlikely in any foreseeable scenario.

To the casual national media observer peeking around the corner from New York or Los Angeles once a week, it's easier to fill in the blanks with preconceived notions about LeBron's supporting cast (i.e. Drew Gooden is soft, a municipal water tower has more mobility than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, etc.) than to actually tear oneself away from covering Steve Nash's bloody nose to get an accurate, current picture of LeBron's humble supporting cast here in flyover country.

And that accurate, current picture is this: While ESPN was busy following Roger Clemens around like a sex-starved groupie, the Cavs have somehow managed to build a team around LeBron.

Some of it was by design. Some of it, like finding out that Larry Hughes is a better point guard than second scoring option, happened by accident. But the Cavs have now rattled off six straight playoff wins, and 10 overall, without LeBron doing all the heavy lifting.

The Cavs are the NBA's hottest team not just because LeBron has stepped up his game, but because Hughes, Gooden, Z and Sasha Pavlovic have joined him in forming a strong starting lineup, one that has dominated the boards against Washington and New Jersey, one that has tag-teamed to keep Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson in check.

It hasn't been pretty in style, but Mike Brown doesn't coach his team to be pretty. He coaches his team to win with defense. And the Cavs, with a starting lineup that counts 6'-5" Larry Hughes as the runt of the litter, have the big-boy team to play Brown's kind of defense. So far in the playoffs, it's worked like a charm with the game on the line.

Maybe the 2007 playoffs are all about myth busting for the Cavs. LeBron has no supporting cast. LeBron doesn't know how to win. Brown can't reach his players. All of it has been hung out to dry since the regular season ended.

Of course, this is the Cavs, a team with a history of teasing you with good play, then regressing at the slightest sign of adversity. The real test of this team's mettle will occur when they lose a game in this postseason. In the second season, they cannot afford to take two weeks to get their heads out of the sand following a tough loss, or their offseason will have begun.

But at the moment, it's all coming together just the way Brown and Danny Ferry drew it up two summers ago. Well, not exactly how they drew it up, but they're winning in May.

Not that anyone from a national media outlet is going to pay serious attention until the Cavs end up as huge underdogs against the Pistons in the conference finals, should they get that far. With a two-game lead against the Nets, history is on their side. The Nets have never won a seven-game playoff series after trailing 0-2.

The national media endlessly praises team's teams like the Spurs and Pistons, teams that have rosters stocked with guys who realize they are only a small part of something bigger, teams that share the ball, keep their noses to the grindstone and churn out wins with little fanfare. Those are the teams you'd want your daughter to bring home -- figuratively, of course.

Teams like the Cavs get far less respect because, from 500 miles away in New York, they look like all flash and no substance due to the fact that they they have a high-gloss superstar who, unintentionally in LeBron's case, deflects the light away from everyone else in the locker room. The Cavs are the Sanjaya Malakars of the NBA: Nice hair, but can he play an instrument?

Detractors will make the following argument: "If you took LeBron away from the Cavs, they would be a terrible team." But that's flawed thinking. The entire team was constructed around LeBron, with LeBron in mind. Take away the central cog, of course the team won't be good.

No matter how fundamental the Cavs get, they'll never be held up as an example of how the game should be played. LeBron's teammates will not get their dues as a greatly-improved supporting cast that is winning the way their coach wants them to win.

The Cavs are too rust-belt for the Kobe crowd that loves hot sauce on their Mexican food. They're too flashy for the steak-and-potatoes, Pistons-loving crowd that longs for the days when there was a jump ball at the start of every quarter.

It's the rest of the country's loss. Not only are they ignoring the finer points of the maturation of LeBron, they're also missing the development of a pretty good basketball team.

But hey, for once, those of us in Ohio can get in on the latest craze before the jet-setters on the coasts have any idea what is going on.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cavs vs. Nets

You can go here for my extended thoughts on the series, but here are a few brief thoughts:

1. It would really help the Cavs if they could win the first two at home. The Nets are playing well enough that the Cavs probably don't want to go down the road of surrendering homecourt advantage and giving New Jersey a chance to take the series lead in their house.

2. Mike Brown values defense over offense, which is why Larry Hughes and Eric Snow never get the hook even when they're chipping paint off the rim with their shots. With that in mind, now is the time for Hughes and Snow to earn their sizeable paychecks at the defensive end by clamping down on Jason Kidd.
Kidd had a monster series against the Raptors and the Nets still barely won. If Hughes and Snow can do the jobs that Brown has them on the floor to do, the Cavs could clinch this series with a game or two to spare.

3. You think LeBron is going to be jacked up for this series? His boy Jay-Z is going to be watching courtside, along with his tasty-looking girlfriend Beyonce. If the Nets really wanted to demotivate LeBron, they'd force their world-famous minority owner to watch the series from home.

4. Mike Brown vs. Lawrence Frank. Al Roker vs. Doogie Howser. Has there ever been a less-intimidating coaching matchup in the history of the NBA playoffs?

5. The Cavs have Game 7 at home if they need it. It's a huge safety net, especially if they have trouble closing out games in New Jersey. And I never assume that the Cavs can close out games on the road. I've been burned too many times. They have to prove it to me.

6. If you're dying to know my prediction and don't want to scroll all the way back up and click on the link above, you're really lazy. You're also in luck, because I'll give it here:

Cavs in seven. It's a conservative prediction and I know we're all hoping the Cavs don't make us sweat through a deciding game. Or get pushed to the brink of elimination at any point. Cleveland is a deeper, bigger team that should own this series under the basket, and that should get them the win before we start sweating over an early exit. But the Nets are red hot shooting from the perimeter right now, and that could counteract Cleveland's inside game.

Bottom line: If the Nets cool off from the outside, they are in trouble. If they continue to smoke it from the outside, they can stay in this series. Cleveland's defense will play a huge role one way or the other.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Historical perspective

Monday, the Cavaliers finished off a sweep of the Wizards to advance to the second round of the playoffs. And Cleveland, as a population, nodded in approval, straight-faced, and went back to fawning over the Browns.

It's about what you'd expect for a basketball team playing a less-than-compelling series in a football-crazed town during an NFL Draft in which the local football club might have just transformed the entire future of their franchise.

LeBron James rules Cleveland when it comes to individual sports figures, but if it's a question of football versus basketball, of brown and orange versus wine and gold, sorry Cavs, your seats are in the back. We'll revisit your standing when and if you reach the NBA Finals.

There might not have been many reasons to get pumped for a Cavs-Wizards rematch. The Wizards were greatly hindered without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. The Cavs were expected to take care of Washington in short order, and they did.

It's like expecting the waiter to bring your order to your table at a sit-down restaurant. The waiter is supposed to do that. You only take notice if the food doesn't arrive.

But what the Cavs completed on Monday night is still noteworthy, if only because Cavs playoff history has been so lackluster. No amount of success can be taken for granted right now.

Let's count the ways the Cavs made and revisited history on Monday:

Monday's win marked the first-ever sweep of a playoff series in team history. The closest the Cavs had previously come to sweeping a series was in defeating New Jersey 3-1 in the first round of the 1992 playoffs.

This is the first time since 1993 that the Cavs have won playoff series in consecutive years. One more series win would equal the most successful two-year playoff stretch in franchise history, in which the Cavs won a total of three series in the '92 and '93 playoffs.

Monday also marked the first time the Cavs had ever won back-to-back playoff games on the road. That's right. Thirty-seven years of franchise history, and prior to Games 3 and 4 of this series, the Cavs had never won consecutive road playoff games.

The Cavs have now won six playoff series in franchise history. Three of them have come against Washington -- in 1976 as the Bullets, last year and this year. Two of the remaining three series wins have come against the Nets, Cleveland's likely opponent in the next round.

The Cavs are fortunate to be awaiting the winner of the Toronto-New Jersey series. Both cities are east of Cleveland. For whatever it's worth (not much, I'm guessing), the Cavs have never won a playoff series against a team from a city west of Cleveland. They are a combined 0-7 against the Bulls, Pacers and Pistons.

Obviously, if the Cavs want to reach the NBA Finals this year, that streak would have to come to an end in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they would face the winner of the upcoming Chicago-Detroit series.

Should the Cavs get to the East Finals and win three games, it would mark the deepest penetration into the playoffs in team history. The Cavs have won two games in each of their two previous trips to the conference finals, 1976 and 1992.

But we can cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, let's take the time to enjoy the fact that the Cavs are starting to build a respectable postseason resume.