That was better, but still not quite what we had in mind.
It's funny to say that about a week in which the Cavs went 2-1 (particularly when certain other unnamed professional sports teams in this town will be hard pressed to win two games THE ENTIRE SEASON), but it's true.
The Cavs put together their strongest game of the season last Tuesday, beating Washington by a count of 102-90. Technically, it was their strongest three quarters of the season: they fell behind by as many as 18 points early in the game, before waking up and giving the Wizards yet another beatdown.
They also played a pretty strong game in downing the Knicks, 100-91, last Friday. LeBron James, as he is wont to do when playing in Madison Square Garden, had a big game (33 points, including 17 in the first quarter).
Those two efforts sandwiched a dog of a game against Chicago last Thursday. The Bulls prevailed 86-85, in a game that was ugly enough to have Eric Mangini walking the sidelines.
As of this morning, the Cavs are 4-3 and in third place in the Central Division (relax; the division-leading Bulls are only a half-game ahead in the standings).THE GOOD:
It's A Hell Of A Town: I would guess that very few fans reading this column want LeBron to join the Knicks when he becomes a free agent next summer. And I would guess that the Knicks have maybe a 0.0001% chance of landing LeBron (more on that in a bit).
But Madison Square Garden gives James a boost of energy like no other arena. He put up 33 points, nine assists, and eight boards against New York, without playing for most of the fourth quarter.
From a fan's perspective, my favorite James moments are those when he decides to take over the game, and there ain't nuttin' that the other guys can do to stop him. That describes the first quarter in particular, as LeBron scored 17 points, despite some pretty good defense from the Kni - wait a second, I can't complete that sentence. Let's say he scored 17 points despite "more than token opposition" from the Knicks. Anyway, when LeBron is on, it doesn't get much more fun as a fan.
Starting To Look Like 2008 Again: Last time, I mentioned the Cavs' rebounding woes, and how their normally strong rebounding advantages were nowhere to be found. That tide seems to have turned. They were outrebounded by Washington, true; but then they hit the boards hard against Chicago and New York, posting sizable advantages in the rebounding numbers in those two games.
It is like one of those logic problems. The Cavs are best when they play strong defense. Strong defense requires rebounding the ball. Therefore, the Cavs must rebound well if they're going to be at their best. We are now seeing signs that they are getting there.
Told You He Can Do More Than Flop: A big reason for those rebounding advantages was the work of Anderson Varejao. The Wild Thing grabbed at least ten rebounds in each of the three games, and also found the time to score ten points a game and generally be his pesky self on defense. (As we will discuss here in a bit, his reward for his play was ... getting moved out of the starting lineup.)
Good Shaq ... : Against the Wizards, Shaquille O'Neal showed exactly why the Cavs acquired him, as he scored 21 points and was a dominant force in the paint. (He even made seven of ten free throws.) Maybe most significantly, he drew foul after foul from Wizards centers Brendan Haywood and Andray Blatche (Haywood played barely half the game and eventually fouled out, and Blatche also spent most of his time in foul trouble).
That is exactly what Shaq will do for this team when he is on. We all know that he is not a superstar anymore. On his career timeline, he is much closer to the "working the main stage at the Golden Nugget while wearing a sequined polyester jumpsuit" phase than the "appearing on the Milton Berle Show" one. But even now, he should be able to provide the following:
1. An outlet for scoring from the paint;2. A really wide ass to block defenders so that other Cavs can score from the paint;3. If nothing else, six hard fouls against opposing big men.THE BAD:
Bad Shaq: Against the Not The Wizards, Shaq did not fare quite as well. The boxscore says that he notched a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) against Chicago; unofficially, it was the quietest double-double in league history. And he may as well have skipped the game against the Knicks and gone to a Broadway show, as he scored seven points (and took only five shots).
The Disturbing Statistic of the Week: Shaq attempted all of two free throws in those two games. That's Zydrunas Ilgauskas territory.
Wait A Minute, Here's The Disturbing Statistic Of The Week: Delonte West scored nine points. For the entire week. And we wonder why this edition of the Cavs is having problems. The man they call Redz was one of the real keys to last year's strong season; so far this year, he has barely helped.
What Have You Done For Me Lately?: I have been a huge Anthony Parker supporter, and thought that his signing could have been the real key to the offseason. A.P. needs to justify my love rather quickly (sorry, but I am not a big fan of the 2-for-12 shooting performances, like he had against the Wizards).
Putting the previous two items together, we can see that one of the Cavs' biggest problems has been the lack of production from the two-guard spot. As Cavs fans, we don't need to press the panic button yet - both West and Parker have proven that their normal level of play is well above what they have shown us in the first few games - but damned if I'm not having flashbacks to the days of Larry Hughes at the two.
No Bad Deed Goes Unrewarded: J.J. Hickson had two awful games earlier in the week. As in "he could start for the Knicks" awful. He looked lost, never was in position on defense, and has apparently never met a pass that he wanted to actually hold on to. For his efforts, he was moved to the starting lineup for Friday's game.
Now, I recognize that this promotion (if that's the correct word) had nothing to do with Hickson's play, and everything to do with moving Varejao to the second unit to give it a boost. But it sends a curious message to the rest of the team when a struggling player is rewarded.
While we're talking about J.J., I am afraid that he is crossing that line from Young Player Who Needs Work to Young Player Who Ain't Ever Gonna Get It. He may have the worst hands of any player in the league (Non-Drew Gooden Division), and that's not something that can be taught or trained. He also has assumed the Sasha Pavlovic role of Guy Whose Shots Always Get Blocked. Yes, he is still young and inexperienced, but he should be showing something more than what he has.
A Tiny, Tiny Schedule Complaint: I'm sure this issue is one that the Cavs players don't mind, but ... a four-day break two weeks into the season? After a stretch that saw three pairs of back-to-back games? I realize that making a schedule for an entire league is not an easy job, but maaaybe The Powers That Be could have spaced out the games a little more smartly? (Like I said, this is a tiny complaint, and I am just going through a minor case of Cavs withdrawal.)THE REALLY, REALLY, REALLY GOOD:
After watching the Knicks game, how can anybody think that LeBron will leave the Cavs for New York? LeBron already played for this team, back when they were the 2003 Cavs. He's already been on a hopelessly overmatched team; why would he want to relive those years?
Question: Who would win between the 2009 Knicks and the 2003 Cavs minus LeBron (think Milt Palacio, Darius Miles, and Ricky Davis all in the same starting lineup)? Or maybe the better question is: who wouldn't lose as much?ONE MORE THOUGHT ABOUT THAT CHICAGO GAME:
Yes, the Bulls could have been whistled for a foul in the closing seconds (with the Cavs trailing by one, James drove to the hoop, and appeared to draw some contact as he lost the ball out of bounds). I thought the non-call was the correct call, but superstars like LeBron have drawn whistles for a lot less.
The key point is: if you need the referees to make a call in order to win, you don't deserve to win the game in the first place. (Except maybe when Elizabeth Lambert is involved.)THE PLAY OF THE WEEK:
It has to be LeBron's fallaway three-pointer over Larry Hughes in the first quarter of the Knicks game. Hughes actually played excellent defense; it was just One Of Those Plays, one of those times when a superstar player shows exactly why he is a superstar.
After the play, Hughes flashed the clueless smile that we saw so often for two and a half seasons. This time, he had a reason for it.WHAT LIES AHEAD:
Revenge! Revenge! No, not Michael Palin steamrolling Kevin Kline; rather, this is the Cavs having an opportunity to get a pound of flesh from Orlando (as you may be aware, the Cavs have a bit of a score to settle with the Magic). They will square off in Orlando tomorrow night. The Wine and Gold will then travel to Miami to face the resurgent Heat, then return home to Teaser Rate Loans Arena to face Utah Saturday night. With that schedule, we may be very happy to see the Cavs go 2-1. What a difference a week makes, huh?