Saturday, October 31, 2009

Game 4 Review (2-2)

On Halloween night, the Cleveland Cavaliers finally started to look like themselves.

Delonte West

Delonte West returned to action, and the Cavs (in their home whites for the first time this season) ran away from the Charlotte Bobcats in the second half to even their record at 2-2.

I think I like to preface my reviews with a little bit of negativity, so as to (via some form of telekinetic fandom) encourage the Cavs to keep improving...but in all truth, tonight was a pretty good night for the #1 sports team in North-East Ohio.

Yes, there are kinks to be worked out...but hey, they've already worked out a few.
Yes, the Cavs played the Bobcats...but hey, the Bobcats are better then the Timberwolves.
Yes, the Browns look disastrous...but hey, this is a Cavs blog.

Game Review:
A lot to cover...
Mo Gotti is returning to form
  • The resurgence of Mo Williams continues. Mo scored 24 points on 14 shots, and hit the Bobcats with a barrage of 3's in the 3rd that helped open up the lead. Mo really seems to find a comfort zone with LeBron and Delonte out on the floor. With those two being such gifted creators, Mo is free to play the hybrid guard position at which he thrives. Tonight, we saw a familiar two man game with Mo and LeBron, and perhaps the start of a developing report* with Shaq.
*(Stephen Colbert has deprived me of the ability to properly spell this word off the top of my head)
  • This was the first game where the Cavs seemed to take a net gain from having Shaquille O'Neal on the court. In fact, they did. Shaq was +5 in his nearly 27 minutes, the first time in four games he's achieved a positive +/-. He still wasn't very effective working solo in the post (he finished just 3-7 after a hot start), but both Mo and LeBron were able to take advantage of a Charlotte defense that frequently collapsed on Shaq by rotating the ball for wide open looks. There is significant room for improvement in this area, but let's not discount that tonight itself was a significant improvement. Also notable was Shaq's most effective defensive game yet. Granted, this was the Bobcats, and granted, Shaq still struggled to handle Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin in pick and roll situations, but the Big Fella's presence around the basket altered numerous shots and helped to keep a struggling Charlotte offense completely under wraps.
  • Speaking of abnormally large centers who had significant impacts...Zydrunas Ilgauskas had, by far, his best game of the young season (if not his best game in much longer then that). Z blocked 5 shots, changed many others, and saw his jumper finally start falling for the first time this year.When the Cavalier bigs play like they did on Saturday, Shaq's proclamation that he & Z together comprise "the best center in the NBA" doesn't seem far-fetched. Also of note, Saturday was the first game Mike Brown didn't utilize the Twin Towers lineup (with Shaq and Z playing together for extended minutes). Be it the matchup with the Bobcats, or just a rotation tweak to accommodate Delonte, it seemed a more natural fit. The less sizable Cavs were more able to play with Z or Shaq when they weren't both on the court at the same time. I'm not saying there is no place to employ the Twin Towers, just that there may be few.
Unselfish Superstar
  • It was still a single digit lead in the 3rd quarter when LeBron James started the Cavalier rally by (really for the first and only time all game) attacking offensively. He scored a few straight baskets, and then allowed his teammates to take over. The amount of defensive attention it takes to corral LeBron is so vast, that when the Cavs are willing to move off the ball, a good shot is nearly always available. The cross court looks that LeBron makes...the passes that often result in weak side 3's...are a thing of beauty. There are so few people in the league capable of making that pass, and LeBron makes it look beyond routine.
  • Anthony Parker had his best night as a Cav (which was kind of a theme for the evening), and I think it had to do with two things. One, his continued assimilation into the Cavalier offense. He hit his spots with more authority, and by doing so, seemed to have a few feet of extra space all night long. In a shade over 30 minutes, AP was 5-8 from the floor (3-4 from three), with 2 rebounds and 2 assists. In my opinion, that's what we want to develop into an "Anthony Parker night". And secondarily, I think it helped him to have Delonte back. A vital cog back in the machine = less heavy lifting for our saavy new recruit. Which leads us to...
  • Boy, was it good to see Delonte West out on that court. Actually, you know what...this deserves it's own section.
Welcome Back Delonte West:
Boy, was it good to see Delonte West out on that court.

Mike Brown says it frequently, but the guy certainly seems to have the type of body that never gets out of shape. No sign of rust at all, a very game (and slightly thinner) Delonte stepped back into the Cavalier lineup and provided a remarkably effective 24 minutes. Final line:

13 points (5-7 shooting, 1-2 three), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and some typically hellacious perimeter defense.

Delonte's contributions extend so far beyond his statistics. Even as a fan, seeing D-West back on the court just lifted my spirits. The building was energized, and effect seemed to be mutual.

The Cleveland Cavaliers (with honorary alums TK & Wally)

The team rallied around Delonte (as they have tended to do for one another) and that is a good sign. It's what has the opportunity to make the team more then a sum of its parts (which are nothing to sneeze at), and it's what makes them so fun to root for.

Mo Williams whispered something to Delonte as the buzzer sounded, and while he would not reveal his words, he did reveal his message:
Stay with us.
On Halloween night, he did. And all seems well in Cleveland.

Up Next:
Tuesday night, the Cavs welcome the Washington Wizards to the Q. It's two days before the game, and already DeShawn Stevenson can't feel his face.

Closing Thoughts:

Are we now blaring a "truck horn" at the Q whenever Shaq does something good? And is it okay that I kind of like it?

Also, they say not to look ahead in basketball, but in blogging it can't hurt. Is it unrealistic to expect the Cavs to enter a November 11th game in Orlando at 6-2? I don't think so, and that's what I'm eyeing. It's been 3 months, and I think I can safely speak for Cavalier nation when I say I have not moved on. Good Lord, I hate the Magic.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Game 3 Review (1-2)

Segment One: Preface
Well, that was better.

LeBron James

The Cavaliers took the first step toward righting their ship Friday night, defeating the Timberwolves 104-87 in a game reminiscent of so many last year. Save for another moderately harrowing second quarter swoon, it was a pretty dominant performance at a time when the team desperately needed one.

Yes, it was the Timberwolves, and yes, the Timberwolves were not even at full strength (Kevin Love is out with a wrist injury, and Al Jefferson and his new ACL are just now cracking 25 minutes a night), but for this Cleveland team, I get the impression that it didn't really matter how they took their first step...just that they got were able to get themselves moving in the right direction.

Also, somewhere in this analogy, the Minnesota Timberwolves represent an escalator.

Segment Two: That's More Like It
The interior passing in the first half was phenomenal. Phenomenal. Shaq to LeBron. LeBron to Andy. Andy to Z. The ball was moving, and it never hit the ground. A sight to behold, and a reminder of how easy basketball can look when everybody is on the same page.

The issues with Shaq still persisted (more on that later), but they were less impacting on the team as a whole. Shaq was able to play some effective minutes, and the rest of the Cavs were able to play a lot of them.

I'm feeling (and hoping) that this game could be step one in the resurgence of Mo Williams.

All-Star Mo Williams

As referenced in my prior post, it's been easy to forget of late that this guy is a really good basketball player. Tonight saw a relatively minor improvement statistically, but for the first time this season, Mo looked like Mo. He was able to penetrate into the teeth of the Timberwolves' defense (snicker...)
, and just looked generally more comfortable with what he was doing. There's a ways to go to get back to the level he was playing at last year, but like the team as a whole, it felt like tonight was a step in that direction.

A few thoughts as I look over the rest of the roster:

LeBron was LeBron. He came out smoking hot, and could have easily won this game by himself tonight. He didn't have to.

Andy was very active defensively, on the boards, and gave constant movement on offense. It's easy to overlook, but when Andy is active offensively, he is able to open up a lot of space for everyone else (Note: when I write "active offensively", I mean active off the ball. I think it's time the Andy post-up play be stricken from the offense).

Anthony Parker is exceedingly solid. That said, it's going to be a huge boost to get Delonte West back (provided he's able to perform anywhere close to last year's level). AP can knock down threes, hit his marks defensively, and is a sneakily effective passer. What he doesn't seem to be able to do is create his own shot against athletic defenders, or be the type of game-changing, junkyard defender that Delonte can be. Every good team needs an Anthony Parker. But not every good team has a Delonte West.

On to something that may quickly become a more notable storyline as the season progresses...not too much J.J. Hickson tonight.

J.J. Hickson (rare 'in game' photo)

He played a shade over 7 minutes, and the Cavs were up big the entire second half. Have yet to see anybody comment on that. The issues here are, in most cases, unspoken. Ideally, J.J. would be able to serve one of two functions this year: Effective 4, or promising trade bait. To be either, he's going to have to crack double digit minutes.

Segment Three: The Continued Analysis of all Things Diesel and Lithuanian:

All things considered, tonight was better. Really, much better.

I think it's apparent already that Shaq will fare better against traditional centers (Al Jefferson), then vs. the hybrid guys (Andrea Bargnani) that we're perhaps better equipped to handle without him. For now, the most important issue of the Cavalier season continues to be how to hold on to what was so special about last year's team, while integrating Shaq's mammoth presence on both ends of the court.

Offensively, Shaq continues to get unbelievably deep post position. The only thing holding him back right now is himself. The Diesel is shooting a strikingly low .483 from the field, and a perhaps even more astounding .000 from the line. Why is this happening?

An interesting tidbit from Mike Brown:
I've just got to keep playing him minutes. He's going to continue to work himself into great game shape. He's in pretty good game shape right now, but . . . he's got to get his feet underneath him a little bit.
I hope the Diesel doesn't take offense to that, but after watching him play so far, something about Mike's comments seem to ring true. In each of the three games, Shaq has gotten his shots. He's just shooting them like someone might if he hadn't touched a basketball in a few months.

High Percentage Shot?

At first glance, it looked to me like Shaq was rushing. But after reading Mike Brown's comments, it seems pretty plausible that Shaq's timing is just off. Even for someone who isn't notorious for his deft shooting touch, that matters. Whatever the culprit, it looks like the capability is there. And that, is encouraging.

Defensively, I thought both Shaq and Z were much improved tonight. Minnesota doesn't really have the personnel to challenge them on too many fronts, but they both did their best to get out to shooters, and at the same time, neither pulled themselves so far from the basket that they game up their strength (that they're both freaking huge and it's not easy to get around them).

Where they seemed most vulnerable was in transition, and it's becoming increasingly clear that other teams will continuously try to target them this way. Tonight, it was Ryan Hollins, running faster and more consistently then I'd ever seen him do in an NBA game. And while this was the first time I'd ever seen Ryan Hollins in an NBA game, he was still running a lot (just kidding Ryan Hollins...see below*).

* (Ryan Hollins in a prior NBA game)

As Mike Brown learns the capabilities of our bigs, I have to believe the ways we deal with covering for them will improve. I'm curious to see how we deal with this when he hit Orlando in two weeks. Because Dwight Howard can run, and unlike Ryan Hollins, he can finish over Andy.

Part Four: Epilogue
A well rested Cavs team moves on to face Charlotte tomorrow night from the Q, and Minnesota grabs an early lead in the race for "most favorable Finals opponent."

Mo Williams

Okay. I've calmed down from the two game, season opening debacle. Sometimes, the gate opens and the horse runs the wrong way. On to the positive. I've come to have this realization prior to game 3:

Mo Williams is really good. Remember? Range, handle, tats. Total package.

The artist formerly known as Mo Williams

He's kind of been letting us forget these things lately, but that doesn't change the fact that, at his core, on this team, Mo Williams is a major plus. We just haven't seen it since the playoffs started last year. And if the playoffs can be written off on account of Mo hitting the wall after a Bucks-length season...that would seem to be hinting real Mo is on the way back soon.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Game 2 Breakdown


Well, yikes. That was an inauspicious start.

Where to begin...

Segment One: Game 2 (0-2)

Shaq and LeBron

It's a little shocking to see how unsure of themselves the Cavs currently look. That's LeBron included (although, individually, the guy looks better than ever and makes me feel like I'm eating ice cream every time I watch him play). In some ways, the start to this season brings to mind memories of 2007, when Andy Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic were coming off holdouts, and the team hovered around .500 for much of the season. Of note of '07, they were disheveled, unorganized, and never really got it together. Also of note, that season ended with a massive trade.

The 2009-10 Cavaliers are far more talented then that bunch. However, through two games (which, granted, is an encouragingly small sample size) they seem to lack a singular direction on either end of the court. Or, phrased more loosely, they have no idea what they're trying to do.

With that thought it mind, here are some early season observations in the appropriately titled...

Segment Two: What the F

It was pretty obvious Wednesday night that the most effective lineups the Cavs trotted out were the ones that most closely mirrored last year's "small ball" teams, with LeBron at the 4 and Andy at the 5. Shaq's most effective minutes came with that bunch as well. I'm a big Brian Windhorst fan (as all Cavs fans probably are), and he wrote the following of the third quarter:
"This is how the Cavs played often dating back to 2007 and you could see LeBron, Williams, Varejao and Daniel Gibson fall into a comfort zone at both ends. Shaq and Anthony Parker figured it out, too, mostly because they understood it. James was setting everyone up and it got them more into the game defensively and Varejao got on Andrea Bargnani's nerves and drew a few fouls and the Cavs were rolling. The old Cavs."
The way the Cavs alternated dominance and discombobulation last night was amazing. I hope they find some consistency with the former in the games to come.

One other thing about that third quarter and the small ball rotations: It's the one way the Cavs are able to consistently run the offense through LeBron. To win a championship, it is once again apparent that they'll need to find equally effective alternatives to that. It's been a point of contention for years now, and that's the case because it's true.

Within a few weeks I expect Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to become progressively more effective as they become familiar with what the Cavs are doing defensively. That leaves the following as the biggest issue going forward:

What the F do we do with Shaquille O'Neal?

Defensive Stance?

What seems to be missing here is any idea of how to build something productive off of what Shaq brings. Every time he got the ball in the post, it was as a means to his own shot attempt. That's not necessarily his fault. There were no fluid cuts, no swift ball movement, and no real offense in place to take advantage of a (kind of?) collapsing defense.

So what's left is Shaq in the post with no other option off of that look. And while he's catching the ball deeper in the post then any post player of the LeBron era, Shaq isn't (yet?) converting at a rate that is any more valuable then what Z did last year.

Defensively, I kind of have to equate Shaq to Z. As analogies go, that would be like equating a slow, heavy tortoise to a lankier, more ethnic one. Most discouraging to me was his lack of ability to even get a hand up on shooters who's range extended beyond the foul line. Mid-way through the third quarter, Andrea Bargnani came off a curl and caught a pass literally standing on the left elbow. Where he shot the ball uncontested from the foul line. I told my dad yesterday he would have made 75% of that shot. So did Bargnani.

This is not really meant to be about Shaq not living up to his billing. He is. The Cavs really haven't had a player like him before. He's an anchor in the middle of our defense. The only caveat being that our defense is currently structured to function like a speed boat.

Now, because I put the word "over-reactive" in the title of this blog, I feel like I have to address this: Mike Brown and staff have their work cut out for them. As an ardent Mike Brown supporter, who is constantly in the position of defending him to Laker fans (I live in Los Angeles; the belly of the beast), I have to at least admit to myself that I'm not entirely sure how this one plays out. Mike Brown's greatest assets, to me, have always been his lack of ego, and his unwavering ability to get the team to buy into defense as the means to an end. The challenge on the horizon is more all encompassing.


In closing, and because I'd prefer this blog to more funny then harrowing...

Chris Bosh?

He really does look like the Predator.