LeBron, Cavaliers find old habits hard to break in Eastern finals
LeBron James' teammates were decidedly inactive in Game 1 loss to Magic
The Cavs' bench was outscored 25-4 by Orlando in East finals opener
Cleveland's stagnant offense was reminiscent of team's 2007 Finals run
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy needled his players at halftime Wednesday in Cleveland, zinging them in the locker room as they trailed by 15 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, by snidely referring to them as "witnesses." Playing off the well-worn LeBron James marketing campaign ("We Are All Witnesses"), Van Gundy criticized his team's passive defense, as opposed to, you know, being active participants.
Which would make James' teammates in that one, what, exactly? Bystanders?
Hardly innocent ones, though, the way they stood and watched as the Magic erased Cleveland's lead and ended the Cavaliers' run of playoff invincibility. James responded by reverting to his throwback One-on-Five mode, circa 2007 postseason. And in what became the great Circle of Strife, the other Cavs responded to that with more standing and watching.
It was a formula for success on par with Henry Jekyll's or New Coke's. Important Cleveland starters such as Mo Williams and Delonte West -- 10-for-32 combined -- were back to zero, as in no impact, in their plus/minus ratings by the end of the night. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a personal plus/minus in his individual matchup with Dwight Howard of minus-20. Then there was the bench, mustering all of five points (courtesy of Joe Smith) to the Magic subs' 25. Or to put that another way: Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and Ben Wallace were outscored 4-0 by that one-man gang, Marcin Gortat.
Now on most nights, and in Cleveland's two previous series this spring, a contribution of 57 points from the other Cavs added to an average game for James (28.4 ppg in 2008-09) would have been plenty. Their defensive average after the sweeps of Detroit and Atlanta was 78.1 points allowed. This one was out of whack, though, and could stay that way because of the pace at which Orlando plays and the bunches by which it scores. The most points allowed by Cleveland against the Pistons or the Hawks was 85; the Magic had that with 10 minutes to spare in Game 1.
And while the Cavs rightly blamed their defense -- Orlando shot 55 percent, scored 50 points in the paint and ran off 17 fast-break points -- their offense contributed to those breakdowns. All those shots Williams and West missed, their team's 3-of-13 struggles from the arc in the second half and the general flat-footedness at one end made it that much tougher for the Cavs to properly defend, or to even get set, at the other. Just as your defense becomes your offense in the playoffs, your shaky offense can become your shoddy defense.
"One of the things we have to do, we have to get the ball reversed," coach Mike Brown told reporters after practice Thursday. "We thought we were too stagnant through parts of the second half, and being stagnant allowed them to zone out and lock in very easily. So we got to get the ball moving from one side of the court to the other. We got to get bodies moving. We have to do a better job of falling into something."
They also have to follow when James leads. LeBron has been reliable in getting the others involved early in games, with the idea that one, two or more of them will ignite from the spark of a drive-and-kick or his pass threaded across court through arms and hands. It's what Kobe Bryant does, only without any who-says-I-can't-make-them-better defiance; James is like a bandleader giving his instrumentalists room to solo. But if they're simply not going to play, well, then it's blow, big man, blow in a one-horn town.
Backups always are at the mercy of their minutes, so Sasha Pavlovic is off the hook for the moment; he had a DNP-CD on Wednesday and has played five minutes total in the past three games. Whatever his defensive liabilities, though, Pavlovic does have some length to pester Magic shooters and he did score 11 points in 30 minutes combined in the first two games against Atlanta.
For those who did play off the bench Wednesday, though, minutes were not the problem.
Szczerbiak, if he isn't shooting, is bringing very little, and the career sharpshooter has had just eight field-goal attempts in 35 minutes over the past three games. Brown admitted he ran only one post play for Szczerbiak, a maneuver that would at least get him to the line (one FTA over three games).
Gibson has been a mess, going scoreless since the middle of the Hawks series and shooting 2-of-10 in 44 minutes since the Detroit sweep. Two years ago, he was the feel-good story of the Cavs' postseason, the rookie with the funny nickname (Boobie) and the steely nerves. Now, not so much (2.8 ppg, 26.9 percent playoff shooting).
Smith has been scoring about what you'd expect, but he grabbed only one rebound in Game 1. Wallace, you don't even expect points from, but he has just three rebounds, no blocks and no steals in his last 31 minutes of sub work.
And again, it wasn't just the bench. Williams, an All-Star during the regular season, hasn't played at that level lately, his scoring down from 17.8 to 15.0, his three-point shooting dipping from 43.6 percent to 35.5. He shouldered much of the blame after his 6-of-19 performance in Game 1: "I was too amped up, to be honest. ... I just couldn't get a rhythm shooting the basketball, which is tough."
Don't neglect West and Ilgauskas, though, who took a combined 24 shots without getting to the foul line even once. Williams shot just three free throws and even James, with 10, was a little light when the referees were calling fouls like the phantom one that disqualified Howard in the final minute.
But the Cavs' superstar did launch 30 shots from the floor, scored 49 points and brought back memories of his unconscious night in Game 5 of the East finals two years ago, when he scored 29 of Cleveland's final 30 in a double-overtime back-breaker of the Pistons. Trouble is, based on the way "his" supporting cast had been upgraded and had played en route to 66 victories this season, those sort of heroics were intended to remain just that -- memories. The Cavs were supposed to be so over that, until they reverted to retro in Game 1.
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