Cleveland Cavaliers: One Down, One to Go (and then Another Two)
Well, this has the potential to be a series. Obviously, if we couldn’t come up with Game 3, we were cooked. And obviously, as shown by every other team that came home down 0-2, we were supposed to win this one. So Game 3 was just us taking care of business, and now it’s on to Game 4. Though not a definitively, a loss in Game 4 would put us into an insurmountable hole, while a win put us exactly where we want to be – needing to steal one in Boston to take the series.
Now, we can’t look past Game 3 too quickly. After all, it was a lot of fun to watch. Especially in the first quarter, you know, when we dominated. I have to admit, I thought our lead was tenuous through the 2nd and 3rd. I kept expecting their mini-runs to be met by the occasionally cold spell of theirs to the point where the lead would have hit single digits by the time we got into the 4th. Chalk me up as one of those who were pleasantly shocked by our ability to work an offense for 4 quarters.
Most shocking, Lebron was pretty awful once again. At least offensively, he was. Defensively Lebron was the man, and he did what every superstar struggling with his shot needs to do – use his presence and the oppositions reaction to it to make things a little easier for his teammates. His 5-16 showing upped his series shooting percentage to 22.4%. On the other hand, he has improved from 11% to 25% to 31%, so by Game 7 he might be going off to the tune of 15-18, and we’re not losing that game even if it’s on the road, in Siberia, outdoors, against a team for wolves. After all, Dwayne Jones spends his summer hunting wolves up in the Northwest Territory. That’s a good piece of trivia for you.
So like I said, Lebron was bad but still good. Normally, that wouldn’t be enough to put an elite team like the Celtics, but in Game 3 absolutely everybody else, 2-8, came up like gangbusters.
It started with Delonte West. He was pushing it early. How novel – we push and jump out to a lead because we can dominate the boards and nobody can stop Lebron in the open court. But even after the first, as the pace slowed and each possession grew in value, Delonte continued to dominate the ball and run the offense. Lebron, while still getting plenty of touches, acted as a great off the ball decoy, taking the defense with him, opening up driving and passing lanes for Delonte, who finished with 21, 7 and 5.
I don’t want to call it a surprise, since I expect it every night from each of them, but another, um, pleasantly astonishing occurrence was the great play of Ben Wallace. Not expected to play as little as an hour before the game – less, if his being introduced while Andy ran down the low-five line is any indication – Wallace game in early with defense, energy, rebounding and movement around the rim that led to the sorts of easy shots he wouldn’t allow Garnett at the other end. He ended up with a staggering 7 offensive rebounds and kept KG from getting to double digits.
Another non-surprise was Joe Smith. He was seemingly automatic down the stretch, so his shooting struggles so far in the playoffs seemed like the exception, proven by his 7-8 performance tonight, hitting some big shots to end those Celtic mini-runs that scared me so.
Wally Szczerbiak came through with another solid performance, proving he’s one of our most consistent players. He hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet much, but he does move on offense, with and without the ball, looking for better shots and helping to bail out trapped teammates. Defensively, he’s proven he’s able to chase Ray Allen and long enough to keep a hand in Allen’s face. Frankly, as everyone lauded the "Big 3", I was confused as to how Ray Allen was considered superior to Wally and I think he’s play thus far has beared out my opinion.
Since we only ran 8 deep, I guess at this point I need to mention everybody. Z continued to be stellar. Despite only 12 and 8 in Game 3, I still feel comfortable calling him our best player so far this series. Plus, his 6 assists were a playoff career high. As he’s continued to punish the Celtics, they’ve been forced to give him more and more attention and since he’s so involved in the offense, he’s happy to keep the ball moving and the defense scrambling.
And Andy has been Andy. For whatever reason – hold out, injuries, inflated ego – less is more with Andy and in Game 3 he was willing to as he was told, not dribbling, simply shooting when the ball game to him in an open spot. Fortunately, he’s banged knee wasn’t too serious, as our already shortened rotation would suffer if we were forced down to 7 men, 3 bigs.
A game like that, with an average showing from Lebron, will give us a great chance to win in Cleveland or Boston. Hopefully the positive reinforcement of this success was enough to have everybody – especially Delonte – keep playing aggressive and forcing the Celtics into defensive positions that even they can’t handle.
But wait a second, I can’t go through this whole post without laying out the credit to the man who deserves the most of it: Mike Brown, offensive guru. Just go back and watch the first quarter and you can see his imprint on the game.
First, he had us off and running. When has that ever come back to haunt us? Delonte is capable and Lebron is unstoppable. Z, Wallace and Joe Smith are all solid outlet passers, while everybody leaking out can punish the Celtics in the open court, whether it’s Delonte or Lebron (or even Wally finishing), Boobie drifting to the corner or… well, that’s the rotation now.
Which is reason #2 Mike Brown is a good coach. Who did you want to see play, Devin Brown or Sasha Pavlovic? Which gave us a better chance to win? Whose flaws were most minimized against the Celtics? It doesn’t matter. Now we have aggressive ballhandlers and shooters playing the 1, 2 and 3 all 48 minutes. With our youth and the time off the playoffs affords, there is no reason our 3 guards can’t play extended minutes. Delonte did a great job running the offense and deserves full fledged starting PG honors. The Celtics have been glued to Boobie (hence only 2 shots, both in garbage time), which opens the rest of the floor. Wally is definitely started quality, and consistency and touches will only improve his game. With just over 100 minutes to share between them, 30-40 minutes apiece is perfectly reasonable and it looks like Mike Brown has finally gone that route.
And then there is the actual half court offense. The biggest flaw to Mike Brown’s tenure in Cleveland. 85% of our offense, as has been admitted by Mike Brown and Lebron, is the same tired pick and roll from the top of the key that leaves Lebron double teamed 25 feet from the hoop. In Game 3, throughout the game, but especially early, we added some variety to that set. For starters, as I mentioned with Delonte running the offense, it wasn’t always Lebron getting the screen. As an added wrinkle, we’ve seen the success in having a guard screen for Lebron, and now it seems we trust either Lebron or Delonte with the ball, forcing the Celtics to not double or – as they did in Game 3 – rotate quickly.
And in another spark of genius from Mike Brown, he anticipated that extra rotation. How often do you see Ben Wallace with 4 field goals? He was helped immensely by the Cavs readiness to pass underneath to exploit the rotating Celtic defense by anticipating the gaps when they came up to double Lebron and pressure the screener. Now we’re showing that they actually need to guard everybody on the team and that means 108 on only 83 possessions.
Now heading in to Game 4, we’ll see if it happens again. Doc Rivers (Tom Thibodeau) will cook up some adjustments and the pressure will be back on Lebron. God do I hope we run the offense rather than just pounding away 20 seconds and hoping to win by hitting 80 first.