I like what Mike Brown did Saturday night in Milwaukee.
James rolled his right ankle during the Cavs win over Detroit Friday night in Cleveland. He stayed in the game and finished with 40 points and 13 rebounds as the Cavaliers came from behind to put away the upstart Pistons.
No matter. With James still limping noticeably before Saturday's game, Brown saw an opportunity to test his already depleted lineup against a solid Bucks team that had won eight of its previous nine games.
That the Cavaliers came up short is more of a minor setback than a serious indictment, particularly considering they already lacked a true center, with Shaquille O’Neal recuperating from thumb surgery and Zydrunas Ilauskas still counting the days until March 22.
Antawn Jamison had 30 points and Delonte West had 27. Their play was an encouraging sign, the silver lining in an otherwise cloudy night.
Mo Williams had a horrendous shooting night (3-for-17), and J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao chose the wrong night to disappear, totaling just five points and 11 rebounds between them.
That can’t happen, and Williams took the blame afterward. "I felt like guys stepped up to the plate with LeBron being out, and I didn't," he said. "If I was that third piece we could have won this game."
Still, the Cavs adjusted on the fly, with Brown’s decision to sit James coming at game time. For Jamison, who added 11 rebounds to go along with his game-high point total, the game may have represented the coming-out party he’s been looking for since arriving last month.
“I’m thinking too much. I’m not being aggressive,” he said earlier in the week. “When I get in my comfort zone, it’s going to be pretty good.”
Saturday, it was pretty good, indeed.
Meanwhile, the contrast between West’s performance and that of Williams recalled last year’s Eastern Conference finals against Orlando. In fact, it recalled the entire playoffs, when West was Cleveland’s second-best player behind James, and Williams was simply M.I.A.
There is a toughness about West that serves him well in clutch situations. Statistically, he is outperforming Anthony Parker, who is starting in West’s old spot.
However, West’s personal and legal issues over the summer factored into Brown’s decision to bring him in off the bench this year. With West’s trial on gun possession and other charges scheduled for late April, Brown has chosen to keep Parker in the starting lineup and not disrupt the chemistry his team has developed.
Williams, on the other hand, missed a golden opportunity to quiet the doubters who have been harshly critical of him since last year’s postseason. He’s been inconsistent offensively since returning from a shoulder injury and his defense is a rumor. His assist totals have been solid, if not spectacular.
Williams is what he is, and expecting more is not the answer. He’s essentially a shooter who is forced to play point guard. Put him in Parker’s position alongside a classic floor general at the point, and people might be singing his praises instead of lamenting his faults.
Still, Saturday’s loss showed that Williams must step up his game if the Cavaliers expect to make a run at the title. He said as much afterward, so it’s not like he doesn’t know it. Until he silences his critics, however, the doubts will remain.
An odd no-show against the Bucks was Leon Powe, who recently joined the lineup after spending a year rehabilitating a knee injury. Powe had come off a three-game stretch during which he averaged 14 minutes a game and added some muscle underneath, but Brown chose not to play him Saturday. This, after using Powe for only four minutes on Friday against the Pistons.
As for Saturday's game, let's not forget that the Bucks have been making some serious noise in recent weeks. They’ve now won nine of their last 10 games and 15 of 19 to climb squarely into the playoff picture, past Charlotte, Chicago, and Miami into the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference—and nipping at the heels of the fifth-place Toronto Raptors.
Brandon Jennings had 25 points to lead Milwaukee on Saturday, and Andrew Bogut had 15 to go along with nine rebounds in the post. Their fine forward tandem of Carlos Delfino and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute combined for 26 points and 24 rebounds.
The Bucks aren’t a championship caliber team yet, but they’re very good, and could play a spoiler role for any team careless enough to look past them in the playoffs.
Brown remained optimistic after the game. ''I give my guys credit for being shorthanded and going out there and fighting and at least giving us the opportunity down the stretch,'' he said.
Saturday night’s game was a measuring stick of how a team like the Cavaliers can play without a superstar and starting center. It’s a mistake to think it reflects how they would do solely without James, however. With Bogut patrolling the paint for Milwaukee, this is the kind of game where O’Neal, and Ilgauskas, would have made a huge difference.
“If you don’t include this game, we play one game in a week,” Brown said afterward. “For me, this is a great opportunity to rest (James) and a great opportunity for some other guys to have an opportunity to step up.”
That opportunity presents itself again on Monday against San Antonio. Brown has already hinted that he will sit James, and he should.
With the news that the Spurs' Tony Parker will be out six weeks with a broken hand, Monday’s game will present another chance for “the rest of the team,” as James’ mates are often described, to show that they’re more than just window-dressing on the 2009-10 season.
They're fortunate to have a coach who knows that now is the perfect time for them to step up and prove it—to him, and to each other.