It's impractical how easily a Cavs loss can ruin one's day, but boy...somebody buy me a cupcake. Truth be told, this one had all the makings of a loss well before the Cavaliers arrived at the Verizon Center. A beaten down Cleveland team, a particularly unfriendly venue, and Antawn Jamison (no revelation here - but what a good, veteran player) back to provide Rashard Lewis-esque match-up troubles. I was prepared for this loss...until the horrible tease that was the first 18 minutes of the game fooled me.
Indeed, the Cavs hot start was a mirage...and in a lot of ways, it was a microcosm of the 5 game winning streak. In each of those wins, the Cavs found themselves relying increasingly on their offense. Tonight, the offense dried up (relatively), and there was nothing left to stand on.
The Temporary Semi-Collapse of the Cleveland Cavalier Offensive Juggernaut
The greatest solace I can take from the offensive slip tonight is that it seems exceedingly apparent why it happened. Simply put: too many jumpers, and too little rebounding (which led to Wizard baskets, and less Cavalier transition). As the Cavs racked up 32 points in the first quarter, and extended the lead to 41-24 midway through the second, we were being treated to a lot of the goodies to which Cleveland fans have recently become accustomed: Great transition offense, plentiful ball movement leading to massive assist totals, and LeBron playing the role of perhaps the most offensively talented facilitator in the history of the NBA...consistently using the threat of his penetration to find our other wings for wide open threes. Even Z looked to be rounding back into form.
So what happened? Well, I remember two significant events. Mike Miller hit back to back threes (thereby quickly cutting the lead to a manageable 11, giving the Wizards a reason not to let the game get out of hand before halftime), and perhaps more significantly...the Wizards started giving some zone looks.
That is where the wheels started to slowly find their way off. Those Flip Saunders' pseudo-zone looks shouldn't have taken us completely by surprise, as I remember Flip Saunders' Detroit teams employing this strategy against us on many an occasion in the past. And perhaps it didn't catch us completely by surprise, because it sure seemed like the Cavs broke out the old '07 offense in an attempt to deal with it. Right about at the 6:00 minute mark of the second quarter, the offense began to slow down. And it continued to progressively decelerate all the way until the end of the fourth, when LeBron started pushing the ball again far too late.
Analyzing LeBron, and glancing at Mo
There is no way this name should be anywhere near the top of my 'how the game was lost' thoughts, but, screw it...let's talk about LeBron. It's hard not to second guess your criticism when it's leveled at a guy who goes 12-20 from the floor on his way to 34 and 9...but it's not so much the statistical gem of a game I take issue with as much as it was his approach. Specifically this, from Mike Brown (and if Mike Brown backs you, you gotta be right!):
“In general, our entire team—including LeBron—brought the ball to a standstill...which allows them to do whatever they did defensively.”Lack of ball movement against any kind of a zone will kill you, because it pretty much forces you to shoot a contested jump shot. And there aren't many teams winning on the road shooting nothing but contested jump shots. One set I would have loved to have seen some form of is the Team USA offense with LeBron coming to get the ball right between the elbows, and running some movement off that on the baseline and on the wings. That was the zone buster for the Olympic team. The Cavs did a touch of something similar early in the game, when, against a straight man defense, they gave LeBron the ball at the top of the key with his back to the basket a few times, while running some back picks off the ball. It looked similar to what they ran for the entire fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Magic series last year. And it still appeared to be an effective look tonight. But when things got dire, that was nowhere to be found.
*A note about LeBron's improvement as a shooter, and the resulting changes in his game: LBJ's balance, form, and consistency continue to shine like never before in his career. He now seems able to replicate those 'if LeBron's jumper is falling, there's nothing you can do' games from early in his career almost on command. And when we get into the games that matter, jeez...that will be just invaluable.
But I sometimes wonder (and this thought has so far been developed from an exceedingly small sample size), how that new found high percentage jumper will affect the Cavs regular season play this year. The thought being that now, more then ever, LeBron doesn't always have to attack the basket to get his points.
He can, he often does....but he has other means to score consistently on a game to game basis. So take quarters two and three tonight for example. LeBron was very effective, but doing his work on the perimeter, and by not attacking the basket LeBron never really put the Wizards defense all the way on its heels like he had earlier in the game. He doesn't beat anyone up, and he doesn't get anyone into foul trouble either (which was a major issue tonight). The point being, I believe this is how LeBron can have a massively successful individual game and not maximize the effectiveness of his teammates. Even while racking up 9 assists. That doesn't often happen, and it didn't even happen for a full game tonight, but I think it was an issue. The threat of LeBron getting to the rim, even more so then the most perfect of passes, is how he makes the other Cavs better. Tonight, at the most perilous points of the game, he really didn't do that. Over the course of an 82 game season, I'm thinking all Cavs fans should decidedly prefer this bit of evolution, so that LeBron can keep his body as healthy and fresh as possible for the playoff run. But on a game to game basis, LeBron is shooting a higher percentage of jumpers then in years past, and I suppose I'm just curious how it will cumulatively affect the way the other Cavs perform. Truth be told, with anything LeBron has thus far "evolved" over the course of his career...it eventually always seems to be a positive. So, with that... (end running stream of consciousness.)
Lastly, (in keeping with the LeBron theme) during the majority of the winning streak, LeBron has been playing the distributor, then turning it on late. The result has been a series of close games, finished off by a series of aggressive possessions by LeBron. Tonight, down by 3 entering the fourth, I just thought he needed to be in the game for us to have a shot. You could sense it getting away. Even with that said, I'm okay with Mike Brown giving the second unit a chance to play those minutes alone (Phil Jackson would have done it). But regardless, by the time LeBron came back in, the momentum was entirely on the Wizards' side. It was a 9 point Washington lead that went to 12 on LeBron's first possession back on the court. Just a different ball game.
Okay, let's transition. How about Mo Williams? In spite of the unnecessarily massive LeBron analyzation, the 'as Mo goes, so go the Cavs' theory continues to hold true. Mo looked like he never really got into the flow of the game tonight. He was shooting shots he doesn't normally shoot (and posting up Earl Boykins? I get it, but...that's not Mo), and when the offense bogged down, he seemed unable to do anything to rectify it. I never would have said this earlier in the season, but...I think Mo could have used Shaq out there tonight. Mo didn't seem like he got a lot of great looks, and I think hammering away at the Wizards interior with Shaq might have helped. Although the Wizards implied the contrary, I've always felt that Haywood has his way with Z.
Again, with the Defense...
This is kind of what I've been harping on even through the win streak. Yeah, it was frustrating to see the offense hit a speed bump like it did tonight, but...aren't we supposed to be prepared for that kind of occurrence? You know, like the defense oriented team we consider ourselves to be? The Cavaliers scored 91 points tonight, which on the road, is supposed to be enough to give yourself a chance to win. I think that's what I take issue with more then anything.
The Cavalier defense hasn't been there in full all season, but I feel like it will eventually round into shape. It always has (and really, the Wizards' 42.9 FG % tonight is in the realm of what the Cavs are shooting for). However, not in Mike Brown's 5 years as coach can I remember the Cavs rebounding so poorly. It is a major contributor to the large opponent point totals we've been seeing lately. I know Shaq and Andy were out tonight, but tonight was the exclamation point on the sentence: 'We have got to rebound better!' This has been an issue all year. The Cavs have to find a way to be more aggressive on the glass. Not defensive rebounding is akin to not stopping the run in football. You're just not going to give yourself a chance to win. Or in the Cavs case...win the big ones. I think the solution starts with a more concerted effort from the team in general, but it's pretty apparent that J.J. and Z each have their issues on the boards. Tonight they were forced to play together, and there was no other big who could mask their weaknesses in that area.
And now...because this review has come together over the course of the last four hours, thereby giving me ample time to cool down...
A Few Positives
For everything I just nit-picked him for above, LeBron continues to play really well. I'd like to see his monster assist first quarters start to continue through to the rest of the game, but LeBron just looks like he can do, quite literally, whatever he wants out there. And, as aforementioned, it's looking increasingly more like LeBron wasn't just hot with the jumper in the playoffs last year, or in the first 12 games of this season. It's starting to look like this dramatically improved shooting is now the norm for him (and Lord, let that not be the equivalent of a free throw streak acknowledgment).
Jamario played another nice game, and is proving to wield some pretty wicked hands both in terms of fielding rebounds, and handling LeBron's 80 mph passes. That dunk off LBJ's lob in the third quarter was spectacular all around, but perhaps most impressive was Jamario catching a high velocity chest pass at his waist, and basically turning it into an alley-oop.
Darnell Jackson seems fully capable of playing the role of J.J. Hickson, except two feet lower to the ground.
Delonte looked very rusty offensively, but is consistently looking as aggressive defensively as he was last year when he erased Joe Johnson in the conference semi-finals.
And finally (boy, I just vented out four days of reviewing energy...), in a lot of ways, this is probably as appropriate as a loss will get for the Cavaliers. It absolutely highlights the issues with which they're struggling...but sometimes you just catch a tough Wizards team on your second game of a back to back, in their place, on a night in which they get their best player back, while your best two big men are out. Yes, I think the Cavs might've won had they played a little harder and with a little more focus...but I always think that. This is as close to a schedule loss as you're going to get.
Another tough road game. At Indiana. Taking 3 wins out of this '4 games in 5 nights' gauntlet now seems like it would be a pretty major success. The next one (again sans Shaq, and maybe sans Andy too) will be the test.
Who We Lost To (New Segment!)
Am I a bad person if this doesn't make me feel any better?