Sometimes this is how it happens.
For the fourth time in five games since the All-Star break (and the acquisition of Antawn Jamison), the Cleveland Cavaliers struggled to find a rhythm as they took on the Celtics in Boston on Thursday night.
The offense looked disjointed. The defense, a trademark of the team during its ascension to elite status in recent years, was little more than a myth.
The Celtics, despite the absence of Paul Pierce, led by 10 points after one quarter and 13 halfway through the second. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen looked like they’d discovered the fountain of youth. Rajon Rondo looked like Michael Jordan.
The Cavaliers looked like they weren’t sure how the words “basket” and “ball” went together.
Then it happened. Glen Davis blocked a shot by Cleveland’s Shaquille O’Neal. Delonte West retrieved the ball and passed to Anderson Varejao for a slam dunk.
Next time down the floor, O’Neal called timeout. His right thumb had been injured by the Davis block, and he headed for the locker room—as it turned out, not to return.
That’s when the game turned, however, and in the Cavaliers’ favor.
No longer blessed with the luxury of having Zydrunas Ilgauskas backing up O’Neal, Cleveland coach Mike Brown moved Varejao to the pivot. J.J. Hickson, recently replaced by Jamison in the starting lineup, entered the game for the first time.
The Cavs were off to the races. It took a few minutes for things to develop, but before long the newer, smaller, and faster lineup would run circles around the increasingly bewildered Celtics.
Brown went from scratching his head for the first 18 minutes of the game to sitting back and taking it all in the rest of the way.
From that point on, Cleveland outscored Boston 79-46 to claim a resounding 108-88 win. As frustrating as the first half had been, the second half was its polar opposite—a 60-32 laugher for the Cavaliers.
Mo Williams finally shook off the rust from his recent shoulder injury and drained five three-pointers on his way to a 19-point evening. Varejao totaled 14 points and 10 rebounds. Hickson added eight points, and West chipped in seven points and five assists.
LeBron James had an evening typical for him: 36 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists. For once, however, his energy was matched by that of his teammates.
They swarmed on defense. They pounded the boards. They were relentless on offense.
The Celtics were stunned.
“When they were scoring that much, it was deflating,” said Doc Rivers. “Took our wind away.”
Quite unintentionally, Brown discovered something that will pay dividends down the road. He learned that his team has the ability to literally transform itself in the middle of a game.
Several times this season, Brown has gone with an oversized lineup, using James at the point and surrounding him with the likes of O’Neal, Varejao, Hickson, Jamario Moon, or Jawad Williams. Now he can add Jamison and even Leon Powe to that mix and effectively overwhelm smaller, weaker opponents.
However, O’Neal’s injury Thursday night gave Brown the opportunity to experiment with a smaller rotation, and it paid off handsomely.
It starts with using Varejao at center. His constant hustle inspires his teammates and deflates opponents, and is perfectly suited to a running style of play. Even though he’s undersized for the pivot, he never shies away from physical contact, as evidenced by a brief skirmish he had with the Celtics’ Kendrick Perkins in the fourth quarter.
Perkins and James got tangled up under the Celtics’ basket and exchanged elbows and words after a referee’s whistle had blown. Varejao stepped in to defend his teammate, offering an elbow and some comments of his own.
He was slapped with a technical foul, but the statement was made. Afterwards, it was Perkins who disappeared into the night as Varejao continued to spark his team’s late-game surge.
After Varejao, Brown’s smaller options include Williams, West, Moon, Anthony Parker, and Daniel Gibson, to go along with the mix-and-match assortment of forwards he can use alongside James.
It’s an embarrassment of riches, and a good problem to have.
If Ilgauskas returns next month, as many expect he will, Cleveland’s depth at every position will be the envy of the league—and, perhaps, unlike anything the NBA has ever seen.
It doesn’t guarantee a championship, but it sure doesn’t hurt their chances.
For now, however, Brown can be grateful that his troops made lemonade out of the lemon that was Shaq’s absence.
If his players continue to come up as big as they did Thursday night, his problems will indeed seem small as the season rolls on.