(and about 17 points in the final 18 minutes). That, is Cavalier basketball.
Let's hit some of the positives first.
- LeBron James. I often leave him until the end, just because...he's LeBron James. We expect it now. But I love it when LBJ goes up against premier small forwards, and reminds us that we have the greatest trump card in the league. LeBron was spectacular tonight, opening the game on fire, and then closing it by controlling the rhythm of the fourth quarter in a game where it would have been very easy for the Cavs to lose their composure. Some really tough non-calls in that fourth quarter, and while LeBron did react, he never stopped attacking. Far easier said then done. And re: the battle with Danny Granger...I felt like because LeBron had such a torrid first quarter, he forced Granger to switch to him early, which led to Granger wearing out late. Even amidst the Cavs defensive intensity, DG was able to get some open looks in the fourth, but by then he looked like he had been knocked off his rhythm, which, in my mind, has a lot to do with the effect of dealing with LeBron on the other end. I think that gets overlooked a lot. That when LBJ can force another team's premier scorer onto him early, it bodes well for the Cavs late. Also, semi-overlooked is that LeBron is clearly playing at a higher level then even last year, when he won his first league MVP. The balance and consistency LBJ is showing on that jumper is outstanding! It's what makes all of these good shooting game seem like they're in no way related to a hot streak. I take it for granted quite often, but sometimes you just have to take a step back and say, wow, this guy is phenomenal...and whatever "flaws" exist in his game grow smaller by the day.
- Anderson Varejao deserves some early mention. He looked to be incredibly active after missing a game with a hip contusion, and AV played a significant part in getting the Cavs rebounding performance back into the realm of respectability. Just two nights earlier the Cavs were humiliated on the glass by the Wizards. Tonight, they out-rebounded the Pacers 47-41 and looked far more aggressive in that area. Also, I think AV deserves a lot of credit for how he's handling the ascension of J.J. Hickson. Mike Brown started making semi-unnecessary offense/defense substitutions toward the end of the game, and it's just really impressive to me that AV never seems to make a peep. Starter or not, 40 minutes or 10, the guy is a constant. When he's on the court, he will be going 110 mph. Every time he is out there.
- Speaking of J.J. Hickson...I thought tonight was a huge game for him. I got a little cynical after the Wizards game, and posted that it was nice to see that Darnell Jackson could do the job of Hickson if called upon. Darnell Jackson could not have played the game that J.J. played tonight. LeBron's young protege was strong around the rim, and quite a few of his 15 points required more then just punctuating a play gift-wrapped for him. Even better, he looked very composed for a 21 year old kid playing significant minutes, on the road, in a pretty physical game. I think that composure is the biggest thing we should be looking for from J.J. right now. A lot of times in the past, I've though his mental mistakes were coming as a result of his being flustered. Almost like things were moving so fast for him, that he was having trouble processing where he was supposed to be, what he supposed to do...even if he maybe he knew it at the morning walk through. Tonight, the game was moving pretty fast, Tyler Hansbrough looked to be handing out some gratingly aggressive body contact, and J.J. stayed in complete control. Which allowed him to use his superior athleticism to outplay the likes of Psycho T, or Troy Murphy. J.J. also came through with some of the finest defensive possessions of his career in the fourth quarter...a huge step. His rotations and pick and roll defense (while still needing improvement) have improved leaps and bounds in the past few weeks, and his individual defense in this game was even better (provided it was against against a natural power forward). J.J. seemed to realize that a guy like Hansbrough was not going to be able to easily jump over him, and therefore stayed down on his pump fakes...something that I don't think we'd have seen J.J. do earlier in the season. Or perhaps even earlier in the game.
- The end of the game lock down was a major plus and, I think, could be a tent-pole moment for the team. (Or the at very least, something to look back on fondly.) Focusing purely on the last 18 minutes of the game (because the first 30 minutes were pretty atrocious), this was one of the first times all season where it felt like the Cavs were able to use their defense as the catalyst for their success. Cleveland fell behind by 10 in the third quarter because (like in the Wizards game) their shots stopped falling, but the defense was not sharp enough to compensate. But with 5:41 left in the 3rd, that changed. I think (and hope) that what happened was similar to offensive awaken that seemed to occur around 7 games earlier. The awareness of individual responsibility seemed to be at a season-long high. The Cavs were communicating more effectively with each other, and hopefully that's something to build on.
- Is it a positive that the Cavs finally won a game when Mo Williams wasn't hitting (just 3-11 from the field)? Mo did have a positive effect on the game, and still went for 18 and 4, with a +5 in his 35 minutes.
- The first negative has to do with some nebulous sense of flux and dishevelment that I'm continually sensing over the whole of the team. I'm probably reading way too much into body language (and, as admitted in this blog's title, no one overreacts to small details as I do), and therefore I'm not even sure I'm right in sensing a problem at all, but I guess the best way I can verbalize it right now is this: doesn't the team just seem a little bit unsettled? Even in victory, which is what gave me such pause after the Magic/Heat back to back wins. It's only 13 games into this season, but the feel of this team, to me, is teetering ominously between 2007-08 Cavs (a constant shuffle of players and rotations), and 2008-09 Cavs (a pillar of unity and stability). I think the two most important things for the Cavs to do during the 2009-10 regular season are these: to have settled into a more comfortable groove come playoff time (obviously), and to emerge from this season with a core group of young, proven "starter-quality" contributors with which to move forward (those currently include: LeBron, Mo, AV, and the increasingly encouraging J.J. Hickson). I think that list is missing two players. One which will have to be added this season, and another who was on it at season's beginning...Delonte West.
- Perhaps I've been in denial for longer then most, but it hit me tonight that the likelihood that Delonte West makes it back into the starting lineup is getting pretty slim. Which sucks on a variety of levels. The most basketball relevant being, as much as I like Anthony Parker (and he continues to grow on me), that in taking a purely mathematical view of the Cavalier roster, it just makes us weaker. We had a versatile and defensively tenacious starting shooting guard, and now we don't. I think one of the reasons the defense has not yet found any type of a consistent stride is because Anthony Parker is not able to bring the same level of individual defensive presence (see: foot speed) as is Delonte. And just because of D-West's versatility in general, he is able to connect a lot of the dots between different lineups that are currently left unconnected. Hence, dishevelment. The one potential positive in Delonte's reduced role could end up being the level of accountability for the backcourt that it will force Mo Williams to take. That said, I'd rather have Delonte on the court for 35 minutes a night.
I posted this late...the Cavs are back home to take on the Sixers at 7:30. (Which is within the hour!) This is the Cavs fourth game in five nights, and should they be able to muster a semblance of the focus they displayed in the second-half last night against Indiana, they should be able to close out this run of games on a high note. Also, I'm pretty sure (for the Cavs' sake) we should write him off as trade talk fodder...but we get to take a peek at Elton Brand tonight.