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 14, 2010 2:44 am
BOSTON – At the end of a playoff series he’d been very much a part of winning, Kevin Garnett was asked the obligatory question about what LeBron James’ next few weeks will be like.
Garnett did better than answer it. He offered LeBron a piece of advice.
“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can’t get youth back,” Garnett said Thursday night after the Celtics eliminated the Cavs 94-85 with the help of his 22-point, 12-rebound performance straight out of 1998. “I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d have done it a little sooner.”
Garnett, one of the original high-school-to-the-NBA stars, will turn 34 the day after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic. Fifteen years in, he is chasing his second championship. The only thing loyalty got him was 12 years in Minnesota with one trip past the first round of the playoffs.
“I don’t know what’s going through his mind,” Garnett said of LeBron. “He’s a different individual. I haven’t spoken to him or anything, but the world is his. Whatever he wants it to be, whatever decisions he makes are probably going to be best for him – not only him, but for him and his family.
“He’s the face of basketball,” Garnett said. “I think his desire is definitely there. It’s going to be the talk of the summer because, you know, everyone’s going to be tuned in. It’s not just him, but D-Wade and Chris Bosh and all the other solid free agents available this summer. It’s going to be an interesting summer.”
A summer that started early for LeBron, in large part because Garnett found his health and his youth and some puzzling defensive schemes perpetrated by the Cavs. After Garnett had caused major problems for Antawn Jamison in the first five games of the conference semifinals, Cavs coach Mike Brown’s counter move was starting the game with Shaquille O’Neal defending him – a matchup straight out of 1995, and one that should’ve stayed there. Garnett picked-and-popped Shaq right out of that defensive look, and nobody else had much luck with him, either.
“It’s my 15th year, and I have seen almost everything that you can possibly do in a basketball game,” Garnett said. “My mentality throughout these whole playoffs has been attack, attack, to be the presence. So when they put Shaq on me, my thought process didn’t change. It didn’t change at all.”
Something clicked for Garnett, and for the Celtics, once the playoffs started. He averaged 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in the series, and helped close it out Thursday night with a ferocious dunk that made it 88-74 with 5:53 left and a clutch hook shot off an inbounds play that wound up being the game’s last basket.
“He’s healthier and happier, which makes all of us happier,” coach Doc Rivers said. “With health, I’m assuming that brings confidence.”
And results, too.
Posted on: May 12, 2010 9:02 pm
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- Shaquille O'Neal, he of the enormous physique and four championship rings, made it clear Wednesday that he's a fan of LeBron James' leadership and also of the television hit LOST.
Before I had a chance to ask Shaq, "What lies in the shadow of the statue?" he'd also made it clear what needs to happen for the Cavs to save their season in Game 6 Thursday night in Boston.
"Nothing's wrong with him," Shaq said of LeBron. "It's our job as `others' to make him look good. We got to hit shots when he gives up the ball and we've got to play defense. We've got to open up the floor for him. When he's coming off the ball and kicking it, guys have got to hit shots. If you don’t hit shots, then that team's not going to respect other players and they're going to crowd the floor. He's playing the right way -- dribbling, and when they come, kick it to the guys. It's our job as `the others' to make him look good."
Though much of the focus has been on LeBron's 3-for-14 shooting night -- his third sub-par offensive performance in the series -- Shaq remained focused on the aspect of the game that has put the Cavs in the hole they're in.
"Our problem is not offense," Shaq said. "Our problem is, you can't let guys get historical triple-doubles and you can't let five guys get into double figures. So our problem is not offense. But is LeBron a great leader? One of the best I've ever played with."
Like LeBron, Shaq referred to the sense of panic that has descended on northeast Ohio as the Cavs face second-round elimination for the second straight year. Cleveland has been waiting 46 years for a pro sports championship, and everyone here thought this was the year.
"I wouldn’t say panic," Shaq said. "But it’s a beautiful city. It’s a great city. Forty-six years is a long time. And back in the day when they had Brad Daugherty and Mark Price, they almost had a chance. But I think this is a team that you look at and say, `This is our time.' I wouldn't call it anxiety or panic. It's just that 46 years is a long time to wait for such a beautiful city.
"We all know what's at stake here," Shaq said. "LeBron wants to win the whole thing. We all want to win the whole thing. We just have to make him look good and we just have to step it up on defense. ... Everyone knows what's at stake, and [Thursday] we'll see what we're made of."
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: May 11, 2010 3:48 pm
CLEVELAND -- On a cold, dreary day in the town that LeBron built -- I even saw a few snowflakes this morning, if you can believe it -- some dastardly news was unleashed on Cavaliers fans.
Posted on: May 6, 2010 12:25 pm
My thoughts on Celtics president Danny Ainge being fined $25,000 Thursday for throwing a towel in the air behind the basket in an effort to distract the Cavaliers' J.J. Hickson at the free-throw line during Boston's Game 2 victory? Oh, he deserved it. It was funny, but he deserved it.
The NBA's news release says Ainge engaged in "conduct detrimental to the game" and that he created an "unauthorized distraction."
That makes me wonder what constitutes an authorized distraction. But I can't argue with this penalty. Paying customers can whack Thunder sticks together, wave their arms, yell about a free-throw shooter's maternal relative -- pretty much anything they want to do, short of throwing something onto the court.
Players, coaches and team executives are held to a higher standard of conduct, and they should be.
Here's the YouTube clip of Ainge's actions, in case you missed it. Coincidentally, Hickson missed the first free throw with Ainge doing nothing. As Hickson is shooting the second free throw, you can see Ainge in a suit to the right of the basket (from Hickson's point of view), and you can see the towel fluttering into the air. Hickson made that free throw.
I wonder how much Ainge would've been fined if he'd missed it?
Posted on: April 19, 2010 11:12 pm
As I watched the Bulls force LeBron James to score 40 points to beat them in Cleveland Monday night, they reminded me of the team that kept playing and kept pushing the Celtics in the first round last spring – all the way to a nail-biting defeat in seven games.
This year’s Cavs are not last year’s Celtics, but this year’s Bulls aren’t last year’s Bulls, either. Every time Jamario Moon hit a 3-pointer or LeBron did whatever he wanted to do, the Bulls’ answer in Game 2 was, increasingly, nothing. A year ago, it was Ben Gordon.
Next year at this time, it’ll be _____.
The Bulls will be scary next year. That will be little consolation when they eventually lose this series to the Cavs – whether they win one or two games in Chicago or not. There was nothing to be ashamed of in their 112-102 loss to the LeBrons in Game 2, nor is there anything wrong with heading back to Chicago down 0-2 in the best-of-7 series. That was to be expected. This is what LeBron does, and it’s what the best team in the NBA is supposed to do.
But a year from now? With news Friday from David Stern that the salary cap could be $56.1 million next season – anywhere from $3 million to $6 million more than projected last summer – the Bulls will be able to bring this same team back to the playoffs with one exception. They’ll have someone to go shot-for-shot with LeBron.
That is, assuming it’s not LeBron; there’s no reason to believe it will be, and I hope it isn’t. Remember a few weeks ago, when LeBron lamented the lack of rivalries in today’s NBA? He’d go a long way toward bringing rivalries back by staying in Cleveland and standing toe-to-toe with whoever receives Chicago’s max money. Dwyane Wade, the ideal rival to LeBron, would be perfect – except he handles the ball too much to play with Derrick Rose and will have a hard time turning his back on South Beach once the Heat flex their salary-cap muscles to put more talent around him. Joe Johnson? Possible; he’d be a good complement to Rose and would’ve had something to say Monday night when LeBron started doing to the Bulls what Michael Jordan used to do to the Cavs in the playoffs.
However it works out, the Bulls will have an answer to LeBron next spring. They won’t need to resort to Joakim Noah’s made-for-headline quotes. With a lineup of Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Rose, a max player to be named later, Kirk Hinrich off the bench, and a moderately priced big man who can block shots, the Bulls won’t be facing the Cavs in the first round. They’ll be squaring off in the conference semifinals or finals.
That’ll be a rivalry – one worthy of a bigger, later playoff stage.
Posted on: April 11, 2010 1:40 pm
CLEVELAND -- Stan Van Gundy has been stumping for Dwight Howard as the NBA's MVP for a few weeks, as is his right. Not only is Howard Van Gundy's player, a very credible case can be made for him to win the award.
But with anticipation that LeBron James will win his second straight MVP and do it unanimously, Van Gundy said Sunday that we might as well just give him the trophy for the next decade.
"Obviously I'm biased," Van Gundy said before the Magic played the Cavs in Cleveland's regular season home finale. "I'm in a situation where I see a guy every day and know what he does. But look, I've said all along, too: We all know how the vote’s gonna go. I mean, LeBron will win the MVP every year until he retires.
"I think it is tougher for big guys, but there’s a lot of things that go into it," Van Gundy said. "For the next eight to 10 years, LeBron basically has to go into the year and lose the MVP award. I think you guys have already decided that he’s the MVP and he has to go in and lose it. That’s a pretty good position, and he ain't ever going to lose it because he’s a damn good player."
As usual, Stan the Man was on a roll, and there was no stopping him.
"I don’t even know if Jordan was as hyped as he is and then he goes out and lives up to the hype and sometimes exceeds it," Van Gundy said. "That’s not easy to do. He’s a hell of a player. I mean, I'm not going to argue when he’s the MVP, that’s for sure."
But Van Gundy did take issue with a couple of aspects of the voting. First, in basketball and all sports, Van Gundy said the MVP voting shouldn't be done until after the playoffs. To an extent, I agree. (Remember Dirk Nowitzki winning the MVP in 2006 and losing in the first round to Golden State.) But the NBA Finals MVP usually takes care of the best player in the playoffs, and it's not all bad to keep what essentially are two separate NBA seasons apart when it comes to awards.
"The year’s not over this week," Van Gundy said. "To disregard the playoffs, I don’t care what sport you’re in, when you’re picking an MVP doesn’t make any sense to me. Then again, I’m not running the league."
Secondly, Van Gundy believes scoring is given too much weight in the media's calculation of MVP worthiness. I can see both sides of this argument. On one hand, Howard will most likely be named the unanimous defensive player of the year, a well-deserved honor for his defensive and rebounding dominance. But shouldn't his impact on those areas of the game be given equal consideration with scoring average? There is a scoring title for that, after all.
"His scoring would have to go way up," Van Gundy said. "We’re a team that offensively is not going to help him right now win an MVP award. We’re built on much more balanced scoring than most of the other teams. It’s tough. [Steve] Nash did it as a point guard, but it’s tough to do it without averaging 25 right now."