Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Outside the Aviary: "What Burns Never Returns."
In watching the Celtics last year and the Magic (thus far) this year-- have they proven that underrated talent rises when they are put to the impossible task of beating the best player in the world? Sure, D-How was nice in the OT, but this was Rafer and Rashard like it was Posey and Pierce. No one expects Cleveland to lose, but this team keep finding ways to beat them, like the Celts last year. Is this a weakness of LeBron? Is it a team weakness? Is Orlando the latest "hot team" to take down a giant at the perfect time? Is Cleveland, as a sports city, doomed?
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost three games doing exactly what they should be doing defensively: leaving Rafer Alston alone, hoping to stop the rest of the team. Alston is the sole player on the floor at any given time with a glaring weakness: he'll take any shot despite being a less-than-average shooter. The Cavs lost while relying on LeBron down the stretch. He played an amazing number of minutes and peppered mistakes with incredible shots. The Cavs lost while fouling Dwight Howard in crunch-time. You have to do that and they did. Dwight hit free throws. No one would have expected that.
The Cavs lost because their big men were insufficient, their threes weren't going down, and they made mistakes. Since the breakup of Shaq and Kobe and the deterioration of the Spurs, the NBA now has the most fallible sets of championship contenders in the league's history. Think about the list: an old Celtics team, a Magic team that lives and dies by the three, the Lakers who have a myriad of problems with role players, point guards and big men who aren't getting the chance to assert themselves against smaller lineups. The Cavaliers went into the season as the favorites for the one or two seed. Beyond that their fallibility had to be lurking somewhere, right? Just not against teams who were as disjointed as Atlanta and Detroit.
I don't think that many people were counting on the Eastern Conference Finals being a cakewalk until Kevin Garnett went down. However, Garnett going down benefited Orlando way more than Cleveland. When Dwight Howard saw Garnett go down, his eyes were transfixed on insane double-doubles. There is no pother big an capable of stopping him in the East. Conversely, the Cavs big men had no reason to celebrate the absence of Garnett. Ilgauskas is a jumpshooter, Wallace is a defender/hacker and Varejao is a scrapper. None of them are accomplished scorers which leaves the interior defense hungry to bang LeBron around and keep him from going hard to the basket. They won some and they lost some and Orlando will live with that. Possibly long enough to get to the finals.
All this while Rafer Alston plays above his own body and Mo Williams is playing with the lowest confidence level he can possibly have. He is passing up open shots, letting Delonte and Lebron run the point more than ever and missing his open looks more often that I have ever seen. Delonte is his own problem and the Pavlovic-Sczerbiak connection has done absolutely nothing thus far. The problem of production continues to rear its ugly head. If the guards stretch the defense, the Cavs have a chance. If they do not, the Cavs are doomed.
So, that leaves LeBron. LeBron has done it all imperfectly, then perfectly and again, last night, imperfectly. Like a bedbug looking for a blood meal, he searches for ways to bump into the lane and create with no space and little help. The picks aren't helping, the passes aren't getting to made shots and the plays aren't effective. Yet, they have been a shot away all three losses. Not to be lost in the din of Orlando's triumph is James' imperfect brilliance.
How did we not see this team's fallibility before? The problem doesn't lie in the players, it lies in their design. This is a team of strange pieces, and for the second year in a row, this team looks poised to falter with the greatest player in nearly any sport. Mo Williams was brought on to take the pressure off of the team-- not even off of LeBron but the team itself. He was the piece with enough smarts to control the Cavs destiny outside of LeBron. The shooting percentage, the moves and the fluidity to give them a viable second option has been neutralized.
And so too have the Cleveland Cavaliers. As LeBron forces instead of flows, the team does the same. LeBron is not the problem. Cleveland is not the problem. The defense is not the problem. Mike Brown isn't even the problem. The problem is a team that looks to a leader and expects him to deliver. He can and will, but not every time. No, at some point he has to be helped, like we all do. And this still doesn't seem to be the team to do it. Problem is, so few of saw this coming and we should have.