On a day when the fallout hit the fan with alarming swiftness in Cleveland, it’s worth revisiting how the team with the best record in the NBA got in this predicament in the first place.
There were numerous factors. The health and playoff savvy of their proud opponent, the Boston Celtics. The failure to re-integrate Shaquille O’Neal into the starting lineup after he’d missed the last six weeks of the regular season. LeBron’s free agency. LeBron’s elbow.
All of it conspired to set a series of potentially devastating dominoes into motion. The first one – Mike Brown getting fired as the Cavs’ coach – didn’t tumble on Friday. But it’s teetering as violently as the emotions of fans all over northeast Ohio.
Amid a report by SI.com that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert already has decided to fire Brown, Gilbert and GM Danny Ferry held their season-wrapup news conferences Friday and said that wasn’t true. It isn’t true yet, is what they should have said. Gilbert, in effect, delivered that very message when he refused to answer a point-blank question as to whether he could say definitively that Brown would be back next season.
“I like the way you asked that question,” Gilbert said, and then he dodged it, saying everyone in the organization would be evaluated over the next 7-10 days.
“We are going to take a long, deep, hard look at every key position in this franchise from top to bottom,” Gilbert said. “We’re not going to react emotionally the next morning after unexpectedly losing a series.”
Essentially, the decision will be up to LeBron James, according to a person familiar with organizational dynamics. "That's where this thing is headed," said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss team business. "LeBron's going to make the call. That's what this is all about."
How could the Cavs be held hostage by James on the free-agent front and also have him deciding the future of their coach?
"Hey, they created this monster," the person said. "They kept giving in to him on everything and now you pay they price."
The notion that Brown is on his way out – after back-to-back 60-win seasons and only one year removed from being named NBA coach of the year – should be obvious to anyone who watched the Celtics-Cavs series. Boston coach Doc Rivers constructed a strategy aimed at attacking the Cavs’ biggest weaknesses, which is what any team tries to do. Few teams have executed such a plan better than the Celtics did. The fact is, as the aftermath engulfed the Cavs on Friday, the Celtics had to be amazed that their plan worked as well as it did.
This wasn’t X’s and O’s. It was shock and awe. The Celtics saw not only weaknesses, but vulnerabilities – which are like festering weaknesses in basketball. They thought if they attacked certain areas successfully, it would not only result in good outcomes on the court, but potentially lethal side effects for the Cavs. The most damaging side effect of such a strategy is dissension, which became the theme for the Cavs over the last two games of the series.
“You have to get a team to that point,” Ray Allen said. “It doesn’t involve taking shortcuts. You can’t just start games trying to go for the jugular right off the bat. It’s like an A, B, C all the way to Z process that all of us have to go through, and it requires everybody. When we’re as a team willing to put forth that effort from the offensive and the defensive end, then you can find those weaknesses and create that dissension.”
The Celtics knew that going into the series, Brown already was facing an uphill battle with Shaq’s return to the lineup. They knew he’d feel pressured by Shaq’s reputation and $20 million salary to play him if he was healthy. The more Shaq was on the court, the Celtics believed, the better. The more he was on the court with Antawn Jamison, who hadn’t played alongside O’Neal until the playoffs began, that would be better still.
The Celtics knew that Kevin Garnett would be able to attack Jamison, given that Garnett was one of the few opponents that Jamison ever faces with more size and length than he has. If the Celtics got Garnett going in a big way, that would free up Kendrick Perkins to wrestle under the basket with Shaq. All of this, they hoped, would lead to all kinds of griping and disagreements behind the scenes for the Cavs about who should be playing up front, and in which matchups. Sure enough, that’s just how it played out, with Brown eventually trying to re-insert Zydrunas Ilgauskas into the rotation in Game 5 – too late to quell the grumbling and insecurities in the Cavs’ locker room. Responding to the pressure of the unfavorable Garnett-Jamison matchup, Brown decided to start Game 6 with Shaq on Garnett and Jamison on Perkins. Um, that didn’t work, either.
But that was only a small part of it. The Celtics knew that Mo Williams is a less than willing defender, and that he wouldn’t react well to pressure from Rajon Rondo, or to hard, physical screens. Williams shying away from contact in the Heat of a playoff battle would, in turn, infuriate LeBron to the point where Brown would have to take Williams off Rondo for stretches in games. Brown’s inability to solve the Rondo problem – he switched to Anthony Parker in the middle of the series, then started using LeBron in certain situations in Games 5 and 6 – only resulted in more dissension, which ultimately undermined Brown’s authority.
The third key part of this divide-and-conquer paradigm was putting road blocks between LeBron and the basket and daring him to, 1) make the wrong basketball play by forcing his dribble into triple coverage, or 2) make the right play by passing to his teammates, who wouldn’t be up to the task. Time and again in the series, LeBron’s supporting cast melted under the pressure – from Williams, to Jamison, to Parker. The only one who stepped up consistently was Shaq, and the Celtics knew Shaq didn’t have enough left in the tank to carry his team for 48 minutes.
It was obvious that the Celtics’ strategy was working when I asked James before Game 6 if he wanted to or planned to have any input into the game plan. He didn’t say he didn’t want to, only that it wasn’t his place.
“It’s tough, because you don’t want to try to step on Coach’s toes,” James said. “It’s the whole coaching staff, and I agree with the system that they’ve put in. We’ve been successful in the postseason. We’ve been successful in the regular season. For me to go sit in the coaches’ meeting and say, ‘This is what I feel the strategy should be’, you only can go so far with that. You have to play the game and be around the game to understand exactly what I’m saying. You just can’t do things like that.”
James didn’t have much nice to say about Brown throughout the series, and he refused to come to his coach’s rescue in the postgame news conference Thursday night, when he questioned Brown’s in-game adjustments. The Celtics were probably busy preparing for their next divide-and-conquer mission, Orlando, by then. But somewhere, they were smiling.