Monday night was the first time many NBA fans have seen the usually mild-mannered Mike Brown come out agitated and frustrated, so much so that he raised his voice while talking to reporters and, yes, was even bleeped out during his postgame press conference.
He had every reason to be. At this time a year ago, his Cleveland Cavaliers were well on their way to a ruthless, merciless four-game sweep of the overmatched Atlanta Hawks in this very round of the playoffs.
It may have been experiences like that very series that now have Brown's Cavs feeling a little bit of a sense of entitlement after coming out with two lackluster performances to open their second-round bout against the Boston Celtics. And instead of being in firm control of the series, the Cavaliers—picked by many to capture their first-ever NBA title this spring—now head to Boston for game three tied at 1-1 in this best-of-seven.
Questioning his team's energy and focus is fine, but if Brown wants to dig a little bit deeper to find answers as to why his team has struggled so much so far in these first two games against Boston, then he needs to take a look in the mirror.
In particular, Brown needs to ask himself why he is not finding more minutes for sophomore big man J.J. Hickson, who has been a heck of a spark for the Cavaliers this season whenever they have been matched up with Boston. In game one of this series, Hickson only played 12 minutes, but he scored 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting while the Cavs were plus-five with him on the court.
In game two, Hickson played 19 minutes, but he still left an imprint on the game by attacking the rim hard and getting to the rack whenever he had the chance. He finished with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting while going 5-of-7 from the charity stripe. The Cavaliers, who were drubbed by 18, were only minus-seven as a unit when Hickson was on the floor.
Brown, however, has chosen to go more with Shaquille O'Neal over Hickson. Sure, if this was either a legends contest or a Shaq from 10 years ago, this would never be an argument. But Shaq is 38, the oldest player in the league, and simply has not meshed well with the Cavs in matchups with the Celtics this year.
In game one, Brown played O'Neal for 20 minutes, and although he didn't put up gaudy numbers, Shaq did end up getting some key plays down the stretch to help the Cavs take the 101-93 victory. However, in game two, O'Neal played the same number of minutes as Hickson, but only put up nine points on 4-of-10 shooting. Cleveland was minus-18 with him on the floor.
What seems like simple logic would seem even simpler when you see that this is not some sort of breaking news for the Cavs. In a regular season game earlier this year in Boston, the Cavs struggled to a slow start against the Celtics in falling to a double-digit deficit. Then Celtics forward Glen Davis inadvertently hit Shaq's right hand, leading to a sprained right thumb for the Cavs center.
In came Hickson following the injury, and the Cavaliers, who were trailing by double figures at the time of O'Neal's injury, roared back to administer a back-alley whipping on the C's, 108-88. The Cavs were minus-10 with Shaq on the floor but wound up plus-27 with the 6'9", 242-pound Hickson.
Shaq's size may come in handy later on in these playoffs against Orlando and the Los Angeles, but the Cavs have to dump the Celtics first to get that far. And O'Neal is every bit as detrimental against Boston as he would be advantageous against the Magic or Lakers.
Brown may or may not get a more focused and motivated team in game three. He does not control that as much as he would like. But one thing is for sure: he would definitely have a better team if he played the 21-year-old Hickson far, far, more than the 38-year-old O'Neal.
And that much he does control.