A Little Too Cavalier: Five Overlooked Road Bumps in Cleveland's Title Run
The Cleveland Cavaliers have won 14 of their last 15 games.
The Cavs maintain a 57-15 record and lead the second-seeded Orlando Magic by seven games (with only 10 left to play) in the Eastern Conference.
Longtime center and fan favorite Zyrdunas Ilgauskas has returned following the team's acquisition of Antawn Jamison.
Shaquille O'Neal is mending a sprained thumb and should be ready for the playoffs. His absence has gone almost unnoticed as the squad has just kept winning without him (just like it did without Mo Williams and Delonte West a few months back).
All is well in Cleveland. The Cavs can now sharpen their focus on getting to the NBA Finals.
Not so fast.
While the Cavs are certainly the favorites to come out of the East and have all the above and more working in their favor, there are several potential problems that could come to unhinge Cleveland's title hopes.
The last thing the Cavaliers need to do entering the playoffs is assume the Eastern Conference crown is a foregone conclusion. All one needs to do is go back 10 months to remember how badly the Cavs were outplayed and embarrassed by the Magic (and, coming into that series, how nearly nobody mentioned how much the Magic's length, three-point shooting, and inside presence would trouble the Cavs).
If the Cavaliers aren't too careful during this year's playoff run, any one of the following could be the Cavs' 2010 playoff derailment.
1. Too Much Depth?
Yes, the Cavaliers have the deepest roster in the league.
On the front line, the team boasts MVP front-runner LeBron James, Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate Anderson Varejao, former All-Star Antawn Jamison, the ever-improving and imposing J.J. Hickson, and a pair of surprisingly effective forwards in Jawad Williams and Leon Powe, a key role player on the defensive end in the super athletic Jamario Moon, and two seven-footers anchoring the middle in Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Again, those are just the big guys.
Up top, the Cavs have a deadly mixture of shooting accuracy, flashiness, ability to facilitate the offense, and tough, ragged, stout defense. Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and Daniel Gibson give Cleveland three legitimate threats to hit the three. Williams and Delonte West are two capable ball handlers and facilitators, with Gibson being the insurance option in that department (he filled in wonderfully for Williams while the starter was out with a shoulder injury for 11 games). West and Gibson are both great lockdown defenders on the perimeter (West is one of the toughest athletes in the league).
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Of course it does. So, who gets to play?
With so much depth, head coach Mike Brown may find himself scratching his head to find the right combination and rotation at the right time during the playoffs.
Every playoff team in the East presents a need for the Cavs to counter with a slightly tweaked lineup, and with so many guys playing such key roles, Brown will definitely need to do his homework before and during each series.
2. Free Throws
The easiest shot in basketball.
Literally a free, thank-you-I'll-take-this basket, the free throw has been a bugaboo for the Cavaliers all season long (it will always baffle this author as to why any professional basketball player averages under 75 percent from the line).
As any basketball fan knows, close games are very frequently won not with last-second shots or steals, but at the free throw line. The ability to hit from the charity stripe becomes crucial in a hotly-contested playoff series.
Right now, the Cavaliers are shooting 72 percent as a team from the free throw line—second-to-last in the entire NBA. The Cleveland roster currently has eight players shooting below 75 percent on their free throws: Antawn Jamison (a disgusting 44 percent since becoming a Cavalier; this could become a major league headache for the Cavs in the postseason), Shaquille O'Neal (an expected 49 percent), Leon Powe (63 percent), Anderson Varejao (66 percent), J.J. Hickson (68 percent), Daniel Gibson (a mild surprise at 69 percent), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (a titanic suprise at 72 percent), and Jawad Williams (74 percent).
With three starters and several key reserves shooting worse than three out of four, the free throw stripe could dash the Cavs' hopes for the franchise's first NBA championship.
3. The Rise of Vince Carter and Matt Barnes
Should the Eastern Conference playoffs go the expected route, the Cavaliers and Magic will meet in the East Finals.
Last season, the Magic combined their length and shooting accuracy on the perimeter with Dwight Howard's inside dominance to bounce the East's best team from the playoffs.
Cleveland's offseason acquisitions of Shaquille O'Neal, Jamario Moon, and Anthony Parker, combined with Orlando losing Hedo Turkoglu and Courtney Lee (two pure Cav killers in the '09 ECF) to free agency, the trades seemed to better prep the Cavaliers for the Magic in the playoffs.
However, after a relatively slow first half of the season and an awful January, Vince Carter (acquired by Orlando in the Courtney Lee deal) has risen to become the legit, long perimeter threat Turkoglu helped give the Magic last season. In the month of February, Carter shot 51 percent from both the field as a whole and from three-point distance while averaging 18.6 points. He has continued his hot streak into March, shooting 49 percent from the field and 45 percent from three while averaging 19.4 points per contest.
Meanwhile, Matt Barnes has slowly become an intimidating, lockdown defender and capable scorer for the Magic. In March, Barnes has lit the nets on fire, shooting 58 percent from the field and 52 percent from three distance. If Barnes can continue his hot streak into the playoffs, Orlando will have yet another long, deadly shooter to throw against the Cavaliers.
In sports, it's become a cliché to say that the teams/players that are playing the best entering the playoffs are the most dangerous. If this holds true and Carter and Barnes continue their steady improvements, the Magic could use the same formula to dispatch the Cavaliers come late May.
4. The Charlotte Bobcats
Really? The Charlotte Bobcats?
Yes, the Charlotte Bobcats. Currently, the Bobcats sit in the East's sixth spot amid the logjam of mediocre squads vying for one of the conference's last four available playoffs slots.
With a 37-34 record, Charlotte doesn't seem like anything other than a middle-of-the-road team simply looking to get a taste of the playoffs for the first time in club history.
For the Cavaliers, the Bobcats are an incredibly dangerous team.
Charlotte boasts a quartet (Raymond Felton, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, D.J. Augustin) of very skilled, very fast players that routinely gives Cleveland problems.
The four games the Cavaliers have played against the Bobcats this season (three of which Charlotte has won) have seen Jackson (22 points on Jan. 3; 29 points, 8 rebounds Feb. 19) and Wallace (31 points, 14 boards on Nov. 27; 19 and 12 on Jan. 3 in Cleveland) explode on the Cavs twice apiece. Augustin shot the lights out off the bench (58 percent from the field and an astronomical 85 percent from three-point distance), and Felton has averaged over 12 points per game.
One of the four contests with the Bobcats also saw Antawn Jamison's ridiculous 0-for-12 shooting fiasco granted, this was Jamison's first game with Cleveland and anytime a professional basketball player misses all 12 shots he takes, it's not the norm).
Finally, Charlotte always seems to get up and get extra motivation to trounce the Cavs when the two squads meet. They've shown more hustle, effort, and heart (in addition to the aforementioned scary numbers) than Cleveland in their three wins over the East's beast. Should the Cavs meet Charlotte in the first or second round of this year's playoffs, they could be in some serious trouble.
5. Mo Williams
Along with LeBron James, starting point guard Mo Williams has been a go-to option for the Cavaliers' offense for the last two seasons. Williams' ability to initiate the Cleveland offense, create his own shot off dribble drives, and knock down deep looks have given the Cavs the consistent shooter they dearly needed prior to Williams' arrival in Cleveland.
While Williams has been a rock for the Cavaliers, there have been some periods of inconsistency from the seventh-year Alabama alum. Most notable is last season's playoff series with Orlando.
In Games One and Two, Williams played at a decent pace, scoring 17 and 19 points, respectively. However, Williams went a mere 1-for-6 from three in Game Two while committing three turnovers.
Games Three and Four showed more of the same. Williams' scoring (15 points in Game Three, 18 in Game Four) remained high, but he turned the ball over a whopping five times in Game Three and missed all three three-point attempts in Game Four.
It was also in Game Three of this series that Williams took a nasty cut to the eye from an elbow by Orlando's Anthony Johnson. While Williams picked up his scoring and three-point accuracy in Games Five and Six, he simply didn't look like his aggressive, confident self after taking the hit from Johnson.
Yes, this was a relatively small sample and yes, this was Williams' first time on a big playoff stage. But the fact remains that when Williams gets a bit rattled or his shot doesn't fall right away, his overall play declines. Being such a crucial piece of the Cavaliers' roster, Williams must be able to quickly shed any kind of shooting slump or turnover rash in order to keep the Cavs' title dreams breathing.