Posted on: May 14, 2010 4:59 pm
Edited on: May 14, 2010 10:04 pm
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.
Posted on: May 12, 2010 8:37 pm
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – After a loss that shook his title aspirations and $100 million payroll to their respective cores, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was both strident and measured in comments to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. While Gilbert didn’t point fingers at anyone, the importance of his message wasn’t lost on coach Mike Brown.
“Our entire franchise has done everything in its power to put all of our players and its coaching staff in the best possible position to execute when it counts,” Gilbert said. “And to deliver to the highly supportive fans of Cleveland a proud, intense, impassioned all-out drive to achieve a championship.
“The last two home playoff losses and the manner in which we lost these games does not come close to being anywhere near the high expectations all of us have of our organization. Our fans and supporters deserve more.”
Brown, under scrutiny for his use of personnel in the series against the Celtics, had those comments read to him Wednesday by members of the media, along with this one: “Above all, the fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as the entire franchise, deserve and need our players and coaches to dig deep within themselves.”
Brown could find no cause to argue with any of it.
“If what he said wasn’t the truth, I shouldn’t be here,” Brown said. “We’ve got to do better. The coaching staff's got to do better. The players have got to do better. We’ve got to go into Game 6 and win that game and make it a one-game series. I don’t know if what he said was not true or wrong or anything like that. The fans have been great. Ownership has been great. There's nothing that I can say even negative about it. We’ve got to do better.”
Given all that is riding on this season for the Cavs – the financial commitment from Gilbert and LeBron James’ looming free agency – Brown almost certainly would be fired if the Cavs lost in the conference semifinals for the second straight year. As Gilbert pointed out, it’s not just the losing, but the 50-point margin of defeat in the last two home games that is particularly disturbing.
The Celtics have gained a strategic advantage at every turn, exploiting the Cavs’ two weakest defenders, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison. Couple that with the Celtics’ 36-7 advantage in second-chance points in Games 4 and 5, and Brown has been left searching for combinations on his bench that have not only backfired, but left players uncertain of their roles at the most crucial point in the season. Jamison has been lit up by Garnett in the first five games, while Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen have taken turns torching Williams. In Game 5, Paul Pierce had his first impactful game of the series with 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Brown called the criticism of his coaching in this series “part of the business” and “expected.” In fairness, Brown went into the playoffs with Shaquille O’Neal rejoining the starting lineup after a long layoff that didn’t give he and Jamison enough time to get comfortable playing alongside each other. After what Brown termed one of the best film sessions the team has had all season, he said he wasn’t planning any lineup changes for Game 6 Thursday night.
“We've thought about everything,” Brown said. “But right now, there is nothing that has changed.”
Given a chance to speak up on Brown’s behalf Wednesday, James took a pass.
“The coaching staff, they put us in position to win games,” James said. “It’s up to us to go out there and execute that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can’t question the effort that we had.”
Asked about assertions – such as this one – that Brown has been getting outcoached, James said, “I’m not going to get involved in that, man. That’s for you guys to write. You guys are at a point right now where you’re trying to divide the coaching staff and the team, the players. I’m not going to get involved in that. As players, we can control what we want to control. And right now, the most important thing is Game 6.”
When Gilbert’s comments were read to LeBron, it became clear that the owner’s opinion was one area where Brown and James can agree.
“It’s an owner who cares about our team and cares about the fans,” James said. “It’s a reaction that I guess he’s supposed to have. I don’t get involved in what owners say. That’s how he feels.”
Posted on: April 4, 2010 1:34 pm
Edited on: April 4, 2010 2:19 pm
BOSTON -- The video of Andrew Bogut's horrific arm injury was bad enough. The specter of a late-season injury to their own teams was enough to make stomachs turn Sunday at TD Bank Garden.
Ray Allen, a former Buck who had been preparing for possibly facing his former team in the playoffs, said, "This is a tough time of the year because they are making playoff plans, selling playoff tickets and they’re right there in the hunt. I think every coach dreads that."
Rivers was adamant -- and I agree -- that Bogut was not the victim of a dirty play. Running out for a court-length pass and breakaway dunk Saturday night against the Suns, Bogut dunked ahead of Amar'e Stoudemire and tried to hang on the rim in an effort to protect himself and Stoudemire.
"If he could've hung onto the rim long enough to get his feet back, he wouldn't have been injured," LeBron James said. "Just a freak accident."
There was no significant contact from Stoudemire, who may have had a hand on Bogut as he went up -- if that. The issue was that as he tried to protect himself by grabbing the rim, Bogut lost his grip and tried to brace the fall with his right arm, which bent catastrophically beneath his entire body weight.
And with it, the Bucks' aspirations of going deep in the playoffs crumpled, too.
Posted on: February 11, 2009 12:05 pm
I like Mike Brown. Contrary to what some of you may think, I like the Cavs. If the Lakers are No. 1 when you're handicapping title contenders, Cleveland is 1(a) and Boston is 1(b). Even if they don't make a trade by next Thursday, the Cavs have an excellent chance of winning Cleveland's first major pro sports championship since the Browns in 1964.
Some of you took it the wrong way when I criticized the Cavs -- and their owner, Dan Gilbert -- for constantly whining about officiating and the fact that Mo Williams was passed over twice for an All-Star spot. Politicking is one of the jobs of a coach. After the Lakers ended Cleveland's 23-game home winning streak Sunday, I wrote that LeBron and Gilbert should zip it when it comes to these topics and let their coach do the dirty work for them.
So I am pleased that Brown took my advice. After LeBron was called for a questionable foul on the Pacers' Danny Granger with two-tenths of a second left Tuesday night, Brown took direct aim at the official in question, Joey Crawford. Replays showed LeBron got his hand on the ball, but fouled Granger with his body. Granger made 1 of 2 from the foul line to seal a 96-95 victory, the Cavs' second straight loss. A foul you'd normally see called that late in the game, against one of the league's premier superstars? Nope. Which is why Brown did his job, ripped Crawford (though not by name), and decided to take one for the team (and his superstar) in the form of what undoubtedly will be a hefty fine.
"That last call on LeBron was the worst call I've ever been a part of," Brown said after the game. "I cannot imagine another worse call than that by that official. It was an awful call and for him to take away a basketball game from a team with (.2) seconds on the clock is irresponsible. That is an irresponsible call."
We can debate whether it was a foul or not, or whether Crawrford should've blown the whistle. But clearly, the most significant thing that comes out of this is that Brown and his superiors -- Gilbert and G.M. Danny Ferry -- have decided that the gloves are off when it comes to how LeBron is officiated. This is a good thing, because it's the coach's job to crtiticize the officials and the league, not the players' job or the owner's job. (Dan, there can only be one Mark Cuban.)
After the Lakers beat the Cavs Sunday, I asked Lamar Odom how much of an edge coach Phil Jackson gives L.A. by going to bat for his players and incessantly working the officials.
"It makes us want to work harder for him," Odom said. "When a coach has your back, you’ll always have his."
Some of you Cavs fans out there disagreed with what I wrote and ripped me six ways till All-Star Sunday about it. So if the Cavs rally around Brown's bolder approach to criticizing the officials, and if the Cavs get more calls against the Lakers than they otherwise would have, I don't expect any thank you notes. I'm good. But I'll be back to say, "You're welcome."