While the biggest stars hardly shined, and the game was marred by turnovers and sloppy play, Thursday night’s Cleveland-Boston tilt was a glorious one—glorious because the annual return of basketball at its highest form is cause for hoop-heads to be tickled with rapture. The NBA season has finally arrived!
For the Celtics, the points of emphasis were to see if the team would miss the loss of James Posey, would continue to display the championship moxie that guided them to the 2007-2008 championship, and to see whether or not the team would be lazy after a short summer break. For the Cavs, would Cleveland’s offense truly be new and improved, or would they still suffer from a serious case of “stand around and watch LeBron-itis?”
Judging from Boston’s 90-85 victory, the Cavs have much more work to do than the Celtics to capture championship form.
Perhaps Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett’s jumpers were still relaxing on tropical beaches. Perhaps their shooting hands were bogged down by their new hardware. Either way, the two members of Boston’s Big Three decided to take the game off.
Allen’s jumper was nowhere to be found, and his normally uncanny decision making was AWOL as well—2-9 FG, 1-4 3FG, 4 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 4 TO, 8 PTS. Most egregious of all was a costly pass out of a double team into the rambling-gambling Mo Williams that resulted in a LeBron James dunk that trimmed the Celtics’ lead to three with just over two minutes to go.
Kevin Garnett was likewise the Big Mediocre—5-15 FG, 1-4 FT, 6 REB, 2 AST, 2 TO, 11 PTS. Garnett’s inability to box out under the rim was the prime reason for Cleveland’s eight offensive rebounds, and Garnett’s inability to make his free throws cost the Celtics a key point late in the game.
What else did Garnett do wrong?
He failed to box Anderson Varejao out on a free throw attempt (!) leading to an easy layup after LeBron missed a pair. Garnett went up soft trying to contest a Sasha Pavlovic layup attempt allowing Pavlovic to snake around him and complete the basket. He jumped in the air to block a Mo Williams layup attempt—well after Williams’ dished the ball safely into Varejao’s hands for a layup.
He missed a pair of layups, was unable to take the lead-footed Zydrunas Ilgauskas off the dribble or in the post, and he had a jumper blocked by Ben Wallace. He also failed to adequately deny Zydrunas Ilgauskas the entry pass while three-quartering him resulting in a Kendrick Perkins foul.
Fortunately, it wasn’t all bad. Garnett was exceptional when double-teaming Ilgauskas after a wider body would front him, did a great job showing and recovering, and hit a crucial baseline jumper with under two minutes to go to give the Celtics a little space.
With his performance, the Big Ticket better have come at half price.
Indeed, the Big Three was really the Big One, as Paul Pierce—10-19 FG, 2-4 3FG, 5-8 FT, 3 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 2 TO, 27 PTS—outplayed LeBron the same way he outplayed Kobe Bryant during last year’s Finals.
While the Celtics were sleepwalking through the first quarter, he put the team on his back and scored 11 first quarter points to keep the Celtics close. He was able to blow by LeBron’s lazy footwork and Cleveland’s slow arriving help to consistently get to the rim. And whether spotting up or shooting off the bounce, Pierce’s jumper was true all night.
Pierce’s cleverness was on full display all night. Besides using tricky footwork—including a crossover that shook LeBron in his shoes—to unleash his arsenal all game long, Pierce boxed out Varejao off a Cavs miss late in the third and grabbed a rebound over him. As Pierce brought the ball up the floor and Varejao tried to pressure him, Pierce simply accelerated in Varejao’s direction. Varejao couldn’t help but knock into Pierce and foul him, earning Pierce a trip to the line. A wily move by a wily player.
Throw in exemplary on-ball defense of LeBron, great decision making---and some nifty passwork, including the draw and dish resulting to Garnett’s late jumper, and an uncanny halfcourt pass to Leon Powe to seal the game---and Pierce was truly the game’s MVP.
Rajon Rondo’s length, quickness, and toughness embarrassed Mo Williams all night. In fact, with his raw playmaking ability, his creativity, and his toughness at the rim, Rondo should be able to join Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, expanding the trio into the Big Four.
Kendrick Perkins set awesome screens freeing up the majority of Boston’s open halfcourt looks. His rotations were on point, and he was a bear on the offensive glass corralling four teammates’ misses. His overzealousness did result in six fouls and a disqualification.
Leon Powe—5-7 FG, 13 PTS—finished with authority, abused the weaker Wally Szczerbiak in the post, and brought unmatched energy and enthusiasm.
Glen Davis boxed out and took up space—1-3 FG, 4 REB.
Eddie House proved that he doesn’t have the handle to be a backup point guard.
Tony Allen—4-9 FG, 0-2 3FG, 11 PTS—was out of control, made some tremendous athletic plays, made some boneheaded mistakes, and needs to be a lot more composed on the floor if he wants to adequately replace James Posey.
The Celtics won because their defense was quick, long, active, and physical, their hustle was limitless, their playmakers made more plays, and because their superstar was a superstar all over the court.
Cleveland’s new and improved offense looked good for about ten minutes or so. After that, the offense settled into LeBron screen/roll left, LeBron screen/roll right, and a whole lot of confusion when he didn’t have the ball.
In four possessions, two early in the first quarter, and two in the third, The Cavs started LeBron in the corner, had three shooters high, and ran a baseline pick designed to free LeBron up for a cut to the middle.
One of those plays, Paul Pierce went high over the screen and prevented the entry pass. Of the other three times, twice Pierce went under the screen and got sealed under the basket leading to a foul and a kick out for a jumper, and the other, Pierce got locked on a screen but Anderson Varejao’s pass was too high. Why didn’t the Cavs run that more often?
Instead, Mike Brown tried posting James up, but quick hard doubles forced James to back up and shoot fadeaway jumpers, or restart the offense. Brown also tried to have James curl around screens, but the Celtics did an exceptional job of having their bigs show, while a weak side defender picked up the roll man neutralizing the play.
The rest of LeBron’s role in the offense was to catch the ball on the wing, receive a screen, have the Celtics show aggressively, and then have LeBron try to use the same screener to do the same thing in the opposite direction.
Mike Brown’s offense is still nowhere close to where he needs it to be to win a championship.
Also, after bagging his first attempt, a pull-up jumper a minute into the game, LeBron missed nine of his ten jumpers from ten feet and beyond. Even worse, he bricked four of his eight free throw attempts, including four of six in the fourth. LeBron’s shooting is still a problem that will cost the Cavs wins down the road.
Before coming to life too late in the fourth, Mo Williams—4-10 FG, 3-5 3FG, 2 AST, 4 TO, 12 PTS—was abominable. His defense on Rondo was horrendous; Rondo was able to blow by Williams with a snap of his finger.
Williams also had his dribble stolen by Rondo at halfcourt, launched a brainless one-on-three transition jumper, and was so repeatedly spooked by Garnett or Perkins showing when coming off high screens, that he once picked up his dribble, pivoted, and passed the ball to absolutely nobody.
Both of Williams’ assists came on fast breaks, he wasn’t able to turn the corner, and except for a few stray threes, he was a complete liability on the court.
Deonte West—2-4 FG, 2 REB, 2 AST, 1 TO, 6 PTS—made better decisions, and was effective when pressuring Rondo and House bringing the ball up, but he, too, lacked the athleticism to create his own looks when the Celtics ratcheted up the defense.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn’t involved in the offense enough—3-5 FG, 9-10 FT, 1 AST, 4 TO, 15 PTS—and compensated by trying to do too much with ball. Not only did Ilgauskas consistently draw double teams, but he made a wonderful lob pass to a back-cutting LeBron for a spectacular first quarter layup.
Ben Wallace embarrassed himself at both ends—1-1 FG, 4 REB, 2 TO, 2 PTS.
Mike Brown needs to tell Varejao not to shoot needless fadeaway jumpers. Nonetheless, he was active, earnest, foul prone, and made as many good plays as bad ones—3-6 FG, 3-5 FT, 9 REB, 1 AST, 3 STL, 2 TO, 9 PTS.
Wally Szczerbiak is ready for the glue factory—1-4 FG, 2 TO, 4 PTS.
Sasha Pavlovic had a feisty game—3-6 FG, 3 REB, 3 TO, 9 PTS. He didn’t back down from Paul Pierce and looked to attack the rim, but his lack of athleticism prevented him from challenging Pierce on the defensive end, and allowed Boston’s defense to converge on him and draw charges.
Daniel Gibson—2-8 FG was unable to run an offense, and wasn’t athletic enough to create for the Cavs when they needed offense.
Lorenzen Wright couldn’t defend without fouling and was generally useless—1-3 FG, 2 REB, 2 PTS.
Cleveland’s defense was strong and sturdy, but was also too slow to provide help when their perimeter was breached. And the roster still lacks playmakers besides LeBron to create offense when the shot clock is running down. Those were the prime reasons for Cleveland’s defeat.
Since the team doesn’t have NBA ready prospects on the bench besides the young, immature J.J. Hickson, whatever remedies there are to Cleveland’s problems will have to come from outside the organization.
Unless Mo Williams realizes he’s not in Milwaukee anymore; Williams, West, and Gibson attach Hermes’ wings to the backs of their shoes; and Wallace and Szczerbiak have anything left in their tanks.
If the problems can‘t be fixed, a house cleaning may be in order starting with Danny Ferry and Mike Brown.
As for the Celtics, even with two of their Big Three ineffective, they proved they still have the talent, the physical defense, and the resourcefulness to create wins without being at their best. That championship trait will help them immensely as they try to dodge the next 81 arrows aimed at the bulls eyes on their backs.