The poeticism of LeBron James goes well beyond his preternatural balance of grace and force. His play’s a physical representation of Schopenhauer’s “Will and the Idea,” a conception of reality as but a perception upon which an indomitable will strives to stamp its imprint.
The race’s very survival is based on this instinctual mix of dissatisfaction and ambition, as though the world were ours to bend. Indeed maybe it is, though few alive possess the ability to rend time and space into awe-inspiring origami like James’ performance last night.
Or put more simply, it’s his world, and we’re just squirrels trying to get a nut.
Princeton grad/Cavaliers Coach David Blatt had ran out of superlatives to feed hungry, thesaurus-challenged writers after Game One in Atlanta. They spilled even more on Game Two. Hopefully my peers have James’ resilience because they’re going to have to dig deep to find the words to describe what we just witnessed.
If a picture tells a story, my money’s on the shot of a prostate James in yoga’s child pose. He’d literally, as he said later, “left it all on the floor” so there was nothing left to lift him back off it. His teammates came out there to the three-point line on defense where he lay after surviving a dogged Hawks comeback in overtime, the weight of the team, ay, all of Ohio, finally released from his broad shoulders for the night.
They went and picked him up the way they did in the first quarter when James was a lodestone of Titanic proportions. At the end of one quarter, LeBron was 0-9 with 1 assist and zero points. He led the team in forced, early in the shot clock 3s (two), and Blatt ultimately sat him for almost four minutes in the first quarter.
It’s not the type of thing that Blatt would ever get credit for, it’s not even clear whether it was rotation-related or the coach calming his star down. But you also kind of knew in your heart that if LeBron wasn’t shooting well, he’d just flip open that other control panel and push those knobs to 11.
The result was one of the most extraordinary statlines which, Dave McMenamin keenly noted the resemblence to Kyrie Irving’s 55-point game in January, where Irving missed his first 7 shots. Leave it to the King to take an even larger handicap.
Over the final 41 minutes of the game, James played nearly 39 minutes, scoring 37 points on 14-28 shooting, 8 for 10 from the line (his FT shooting’s gone from 71% reg. season to 78% in playoffs), 13 rebounds (4 offensive), 12 assists, 3 steals and six turnovers.
According to SportsVU’s cameras, James was within 3.5’ of a rebound 20 times last night and grabbed 18 of them. After the game he noted there were “one or two I could have got” as though that were the point of the question, or perhaps just expressing the level of perfection he seeks to bring to the floor.
“We needed it tonight,” he said. “We gave ourselves 19 offensive rebounds, extra possessions when we weren't shooting the ball well. For me, we played a lot of small ball tonight. But even when we're big, I just try to help our bigs out, try to help rebound. It's good offense for us when I'm able to rebound, able to push the break. Just being in that mindset that I tried to get every rebound possible that was in my lane.”
The Cavs have become a rebounding force to be reckoned with and we suspect that will be part of the issue for Golden State going forward. (Brief interlude music while we discuss the Warriors for a moment before returning to the present day like a cool flash-forward segment.)
As a West Coast team, the Warriors are used to playing with pace a product both of the rather lackadaisical, “10 seconds is a lot of defense” philosophy of the conference and the quick athletic players they use.
Do you remember what happened when the Lakers played the Pistons? That ground to a halt quicker than an ill-timed reach for the zipper. The Cavs ability to destroy teams on the offensive boards will limit the Warriors attempts to leak out and force them to play more half-court offense. Unlike Teague, you don’t want to make Curry beat you.
You probably chase him hard off the three and keep someone glued to Thompson like they did against Korver. Then you essentially resign yourself in some way to playing two-on-three against Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut because only one of those guys scares you in the least offensively.
Watch for Shumpert to dog Curry day-and-night while LeBron handles Thompson and Barnes has to beat whoever is playing guard at that time, presumably Irving. Tristan and T-Mo match up okay with their bigs if they don’t have to switch ALL the time. That will be the challenge.
We’re pretty sure the Cavs have won every game in which they’ve won the rebounding battle during the playoffs. Even when the other team crashes the boards. Atlanta had 84 times guys were within 3.5’ of a rebound to the Cavaliers 80.
The Cavs outrebounded them by 14, 56-42. This despite the fact that Timofey Mozgov, the team’s resident (playing) seven-footer logged less minutes than anyone on the team, excluding Shawn Marion who played while LeBron rested in the first quarter and was not seen again, as Blatt went but 7-deep.
It wasn’t just James. J.R. Smith played one of his most complete – if definitely not demonstrative – games of the playoffs. He tied Matthew Dellavedova for game’s second-highest scorer with 17. Smith drained three triples, blocked two shots (as did Thompson and Mozgov), and grabbed 10 rebounds – three more than Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson, who the Hawks made a point of keeping off the boards.
“J.R. Smith played a great game. He defended his position, and he made a couple of huge, huge shots,” said Blatt after the game. “Ten rebounds for a two guard, that's pretty impressive, and it just seemed like every one of them was important, really important, and he was engaged, and he stuck his nose in there to help us out in the gray areas of the game and did, once again, just a great job.”
The other night in Atlanta Blatt praised Smith accepting the bench role graciously and not playing as much in Game 2 thanks to the performances of Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, who’ve both had their moment on the podium since Smith’s absurd 28-point Game 1 outburst. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that it was a different fellow joining James each night, and rightfully so, each flashed something special on consecutive nights like chambers in a clip.
“It makes me think of John Wayne's True Grit, to be honest with you,” Blatt said. (The kids know the bold-talking “one-eyed fatman” as Jeff Bridges.) “The guys are gritty. They're not going to give in to anything. That’s to our credit, to our players' credit. The Cavaliers have got a lot of heartful guys, and that's a good thing.”
That’s the story now. They’re winning as a team. Everyone (Marion and James excluded) scored between 9 and 17 points. “All in” and “next man up” aren’t just words, they describe what happens when a bunch of individuals really believe in each other, the plan and their potential. It’s 110% buy-in at this point (so much so even some of the media are falling in line with belatedly positive comments about Blatt’s coaching), and how is it not when your leader gives every last electrolyte in his body.
James was battling cramps in the game, but wouldn’t come out and Blatt wasn’t arguing with him, in one of the Coach’s most amusing moments, a sort of sigh after the tense game. With four minutes left in overtime LeBron thought he needed a blow, but then changed his mind.
“It was tough for him to convince me to keep him on the floor. It really was,” said Blatt pausing for the rimshot effect. “I sort of said, ‘Okay.’”
It should be remembered that Blatt was known for his ability to change up his team’s approach. Last year’s championship at Maccabi Tel Aviv was with a vastly undermanned team that even outperformed his expectations.
Maybe Blatt was right for letting Lue call timeouts and LeBron go home to Miami and call his own plays and even for keeping Mozgov or Love off the floor in the fourth, teaching the team to play without them. Even the fringe players many thought saw too much time (mea culpa!) like James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova, have vindicated Blatt’s faith.
You know what the best thing is? That everyone doubted him makes the validation that much sweeter. Suddenly Blatt’s detractors have to speak to him (mentally) hat in hand. He’s got the god damn Bad News Bears behind him and he’s nearly as amusing as Walter Matthau. (Could you imaging Matthau – Billy Bob Thornton for the youngsters – delivering that fighter pilot line?)
But that really is just the way of the game, according to James Jones, who graciously received out apology in the locker room yesterday. We told him that in the regular season we doubted his defensive capability and yet in the playoffs we’ve been blown away by the tenacity and, yes, effectiveness of him fronting and guarding guys that are much much bigger than him in the small lineups Blatt uses (more on that in a moment).
“I always respect people who doubt me – that’s the easiest stance to take,” Jones said. “You have to earn everything in this league. You assume there are great players on both sides of the floor someone will have the advantage. Until you prove otherwise you have to assume that what you see – or what you think you see – is what’s going to happen.”
Of course some are farther from coming around, if ever to this way of thinking. We’re talking, of course, about the NBA broadcast teams covering the Cavaliers. Anyone who thought we might be relieved of #TheHaters when ex-coaches/Bulls-lovers Jeff Van Grumbly and Mark “Please Hire Me” Jackson were shifted to the Western Conference has been in for a rude awakening.
Rare is it to hear NBA broadcasts where the announcers are so deep in the jock of the losing team for so much of the series. Arguably the most amusing thing about the Bulls series was listening to Mark Jackson discover Cavaliers praise sometime in the 3rd quarter of a 20+ point blowout of the close-out game.
Another reminder came last night as TNT’s announcing team of Reggie Miller and Chris “timeout” Webber couldn’t get the taste of Hawk chub off their breath. Anyone who glanced at the video could see Horford executing an Olynyk-esque takedown move before going Randy Savage with the atomic elbow. Delly’s left arm looks like a wishbone beneath Horford’s meaty arms as he pulled the guy down. Then allegedly retaliated for going at his knees.
Suddenly Delly’s dirty? Where was the memo about Pero Antic pushing LeBron James with two hands in mid-air last game? You heard as much about that as we did about Dunleavy undercutting Tristan Thompson, a move he’s drawn ire for repeatedly. Yet it’s a Cavalier with a reputation?
And lest we forget, there was a certain young center who helped to end a small point guard’s career back in 2007. If the name T.J. Ford means anything to you it’s probably because of this foul Al Horford rather senselessly laid on Ford, leaving him unmoving on the floor. He was gently taken off on a stretcher.
This is the guy we’re supposed to take lessons on Brotherhood from? When was his last donation to the T.J. Ford Foundation?
It’s probably understandable from the perspective that they lost and they’re frustrated. They thought they were something. Then LeBron and the Dangerfields slapped them like a silly rabbit and told them these tricks ain’t for amateurs. Their pride’s wounded, and they’ve been reduced to their last leg, yet they boldly suggest it’s just a flesh wound.
“You can dive for loose balls, but diving at somebody's foot, that's a different story. Y’all can do the math,” said Carroll explaining the Queensbury rules of conduct on loose balls for the uninitiated. Carroll somehow expects guys to wait for the ball to roll past another player’s feet before going after it?
Like how the British their opponents to line up before the redcoats during the American Revolution? But to quote Body Count’s eminent philosopher Ice (muthafuggin) T, “shit ain’t like that.”
Blatt had the best answer when asked about Delly’s “pattern of behavior” by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, during the third quarter break, saying, “There is a pattern of behavior. He plays very hard. He plays very tough, but very cleanly.”
Nice how no mention ever comes up of how physically other teams have played with the Cavaliers from Crowder and Olynyk to Dunleavy and Gibson to Antic and Horford. Maybe there is a pattern of behavior deeper than just playoff basketball, but these broadcasters seem ill-equipped to discover it if it’s as far away as their nose.
Breaking It Down
The overall defense all night was much harder-nosed than in Atlanta where in Game 2 both teams made over 70% of their shots at the rim. But unlike Friday, it was the Cavs with more shots at the rim. In Game 2 the Hawks made 26 of 37 in the restricted area around the rim, while the Cavs made 16 of 21. Last night the number of shots reversed with the Cavs getting 38 such shots and holding the Hawks to 22. Both sides made half of those.
After missing open jumpers the first two games (24-71, 33%), the Hawks finally got a few to go, and they got quite a few. Almost three-fifths of their shots were uncontested (21-51, 41%) almost a flip of the Cavs fortunes. The Cavs hit 47% of their open jumpers but had less (43 to 51), and struggled in making their contested shots (20-54, 37%) after shooting and untenable 45% (41-91) the first two games.
After falling behind early the team held the Hawks to one basket for six and a half minutes and put together enough of their own offense to go on a 14-5 run and tie the game at 24. As we mentioned after Game 2, Horford has been their best player (13-20 FG) all series and his matchup is a significant issue.
However the Hawks didn’t really exploit it until last night, when Horford shot 7-10 as they ran a lot of offense through him. After the Cavs tied the score the Hawks went on a 7-0 run that featured the Hawks response to what the Cavs were doing to them.
Rather than force Teague to finish and take everyone else out of the ball movement, the Hawks had this clever dribble hand-off to Carroll for a short floater. With Timofey Mozgov sitting the Hawks went to the basket effectively in this stretch.
The Cavs have been sagging off the Hawks pick-and-roll (PnR) all series long daring Teague to take 3s. With the big man sagging into the lane it’s both hard to penetrate and to get the kinds of switches they were looking for.
It took two games but the Hawks finally countered by playing Mike Scott and more importantly, Shelvin Mack, who you may recall notched his career high in scoring (24) against the Cavaliers in December. Mack, unlike Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder is a pretty strong 3 threat and he made the Cavaliers pay for passing under the pick.
The Hawks took a 38-30 lead on a Horford alley-oop off a baseline PnR play (Teague’s fifth assist, giving you an idea of their ball-movement up until then, he’d have 2 more the rest of the way).
The Cavaliers took a time out and Blatt came back with Mozgov. The team proceeded to go on a 12-2 run, beginning with this clever out-of-bounds play out of the timeout, with less than a second left. CARE TO GUESS WHO INBOUNDS? James feeds Smith who back cuts to break open for a layup as Horford fails to notice, so busy is he preventing a Mozgov oop.
A few plays later James made this great read for a steal and dunk.
Then James capped the run with a beautiful PnR feed to Mozgov for the layin and the Cavaliers first lead of the game.
Losing Horford hurt the Hawks badly, but they battled on and finally began to turn the tide midway through the fourth with the help of the referees. After falling behind by 93-84 with just under 9 left on a Shumpert 3, the Hawks made a 13-4 run to tie it at 97 with four minutes left. Eleven of those 13 points were at the free throw line.
This led to the most bizarre moments of the night as for almost three minutes Blatt played James and Jones as his power forward and center. It more or less worked. When Thompsons came back the score was tied at 100 following one of those big baskets Blatt was talking about from J.R. Smith a game-tying 3.
Of course you know most of the rest. Perhaps you don’t know that James was 9-61 in the playoffs shooting the 3 before making that last one to give the Cavs the 112-111 lead. But all that matters is that last one went in.
It was essentially they win and close this team out to buy as much rest and practice for the even greater challenge posed by the Golden State Warriors. Nobody on the Cavs wants to go back to Atlanta so they will do everything they can to close them out on Tuesday.
We might even see a little bit of Kyrie Irving who has been out with knee tendinitis. (His sore foot is said to have healed but the knee is sore now from compensating.) Word is that he will play with a knee brace, and he was seen practicing with one in a vigorous workout before the game. Yet he didn’t play.
After seeing James gut out his own struggles with cramps and injuries, it’s hard to imagine Irving isn’t chomping at the bit. However the Cavaliers need him fully healthy to have their best chance for the title. Playing him before next Thursday’s NBA Finals Game 1 seems foolhardy at best, and thankfully the doctors have taken the decision out of his hand.
We suspect the team told the doctors to sandbag him and take the decision out of his hands, but have nothing to go on but gut instinct. We’ve gotten this far without him, let’s get to the last level before the Cavaliers bring out their other Boss-killer.
We’ll be at the game on Tuesday, commenting on the action and posting video. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_One, and read our game analysis the following day on the Scene Blog.