So when I started typing this update toward the top of the second quarter (with Cleveland down by 18), it was set to be a doozy. The Cavs had uniformly mocked any notion of a rivalry with the Wizards, and then come out flat. Those are the types of games I can't stand (well, really, any loss, but for the purposes of this opening...). Had the Cavaliers already forgotten that it was just a week ago when their 0-2 start had left them mired in (granted, irrationally premature) national doubt? As it turned out...they hadn't. On Tuesday night, the Cavs strung together their most effective 3 quarters of the season, and I strung together a more positive review.
I should really start with Shaq, who's performance tonight was quite notable, but I'd rather start with this:
- Boy, did Delonte West do a number on Gilbert Arenas. Agent 0, Caron Butler (who was also to be put on ice), and the rest of the Wizards were cruising early. Just shooting the lights out of the ball, penetrating at will, and when they did miss, they were offensive rebounding. Worse yet, it didn't look like reining them in was entirely under the Cavs control. Then, Delonte came in. His statistics were modest (4 points, 4 assists), but anyone who watched the game saw D-West absolutely hand it to a previously spry looking Arenas from the moment he stepped on the floor. The rest of the Cavs picked up their intensity as well, but rarely in today's NBA do you get the opportunity to watch a complete shut down of an elite player, and the only thing I noticed about Gilbert in quarters 2 and 3 was that Delonte was beating him to his spots. Every time.
- LeBron was able to corral Caron, and the rest of the team followed suit (Mike Brown deserves some credit here). Great defense all around, with a usual notable (Andy), and a not so usual notable (Daniel Gibson). If Daniel Gibson can consistently play defense like he did tonight...well, then maybe he's significantly better than the player I thought he was. At some point in the broadcast, someone quoted Ferry as saying that Daniel Gibson was the best (and let me preface the following with, "something along the lines of...") guard defender on the team. I'm pretty sure that was a misquote (with Ferry presumably talking about Delonte?), but regardless, it was a good omen. D-Gib was able to consistently stay in front of the Wizard penetration attempts, and I'm not sure I've seen that out of him before. It also didn't hurt that he was shooting the ball like he was a rookie and Detroit was in town. Great game for Daniel Gibson.
- And that brings us to Shaq, who had, far and away, his best game at a Cav.
- On a night that saw his rhythm and pace continue to improve, the Diesel put up 21 and 8 (on 7-9 shooting), and his impact on the game was far larger then that. After falling behind 31-17 after one quarter of play, the Cavs started pounding the ball inside where the Big Fella promptly threatened to foul out every member of the Wizards' front line. Additionally, Shaq forced the Wizards to pay far more attention to him then it seemed they wanted to, which once again opened up opportunities for our three point shooters, and led to some pretty wicked interior passing. For a few games in a row now, Shaq and the Cavs are getting good shots, and they're beginning to hit them with increasing regularity.
- One of the only significant names currently exempted from the parade is Anthony Parker. I don't want to disparage what he's brought so far (it's obvious he's exceptionally steady, and that's valuable for a team that relies so much on discipline), but AP is looking pedestrian out there. Three wide open 3's off LBJ passes in the second quarter, and not one went down. That happens some nights, but it's been the norm to open the season. I'm still betting he improves, but he's not proven to be a real difference maker thus far.
- Moving forward, I'm curious to see if this is one of those flash in the pan-type nights, where Shaq just finds a little extra bounce in his legs (and that's why his play improves), or if it's something we can rely on consistently. The Cavs won't need Shaq to do this every night, but it certainly would be nice to have on call.
- Rare is the player who goes for 27, 8, 6 and is barely mentioned. LeBron is the best player in the league, and his unselfishness as he allows everyone else on the team to find their way should be noted.
Sometimes it looks like the general lack of sizable athleticism on the roster is catching up with the Cavs. I've felt this way in the past too, but early tonight it seemed disturbingly evident.
This is going to sound like a horrible overstatement, but there's something to it:
There is no Dwight Howard in Cleveland.
Shaq is going to help significantly, but there is no athletic big currently here that is capable of running and jumping with an increasingly large compilation of athletic big men scattered throughout the elite of the league. Most clear are the effects of this void on the Cavs' rebounding statistics. Yes, it's early, but they currently sit at 26th in the league in rebounding (a sharp drop off from previous years). Worse yet, you can tell that's the case without looking at the stats.
So how does this get fixed? The Cavs will learn to compensate as the season goes along, and their numbers will improve. But what about personnel? We have J.J., but he's not yet looking comfortable enough to fill that role. And really, he's neither big enough to be an all-encompassing defensive dominator, nor has he yet displayed a true knack for rebounding (if we've lucky, I see J.J. landing in the effectiveness range of a Paul Millsap).
Other then just cleaning the glass, the lack of an athletic big creates a problem for our defense, in that there is no second line of defense. The first line (our perimeter defenders) are really good...but players like Dwight, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace (even Andrew Bynum)...those are the figures who allow truly elite defense to be played against truly elite teams. Which ultimately, is the goal.
Is that guy out there to be had?
On Thursday, the Cavs host Derrick Rose and the Bulls. I don't yet have too strong of a read on this year's Bulls, but if we're able to replicate the energy and focus we had tonight, it's likely to result in a win.
Still eyeing that Magic game...and was thrilled to see them lose tonight. What can we take from their defeat? Foul out Dwight Howard quickly. Like, 8 points, 5 rebounds, quickly.