Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 06 March 2015 - · 10 views
So, if Kid ‘n Play had a love child…
Hello there, Cleveland Cavaliers. Welcome to Believeland!
It’s quite abstruse ((cough)) to glance at current Vegas lines and pundit prognostications suggesting the Cavaliers, from a town that hasn’t enjoyed a pro sports title since the first LBJ administration, is the odds-on favorite to win the NBA championship.
Particularly galling are the notions they’ll accomplish that feat against any of the entire field in the West. Never mind the host Atlanta Hawks, who lead the Cavs by 10.5 games in the East, ahead of tonight’s contest at The Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, SportSouth, Fox Sports Ohio). Those calling Cleveland “Believeland,” rather than “The Land of Make Believe,” strain the bounds of credulity.
But that’s what having a so-called Big Three grants you when you’re up against a Fun-Sized Five, especially when one of your Big Ones is home-metro savior LeBron James. All that was needed was a big turnaround in fortunes to get Euclid Avenue’s armchair parade-planners from around the world back in business.
From January 15 on, only Cleveland (20-4) has enjoyed a better run of success than Atlanta (17-4). For those viewing through wine-and-gold-tinted glasses, tonight’s outcome will either affirm the Cavaliers as the odds-on team to beat in the East, or serve as just another regular season game to dismiss along the yellow brick road to the conference finals.
Yet Atlanta (48-12), bearers once again of the league’s longest winning streak (five games), continues to be at its best when others, especially opponents, have prematurely counted them out. The Hawks don’t need millions of people around the globe to believe in what they can achieve. They need buy-in from just five guys on the floor at any given time, propelled by the league’s likely Coach of the Year.
The last six Eastern Conference Players of the Month share the floor tonight, and one of those gentlemen is LeBron. His February 2015 award was his 28th such monthly honor, the most since the NBA began bestowing such hardware, but the first for James (24.4 PPG, 7.3 APG, 6.6 RPG in February) in a calendar year.
James (27.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG in 11.5 NBA seasons) has been a Human Highlight Film for the current NBA generation, and he’ll be on-hand as the retired NBA player who had the term invented for him gets honored with a statue before a capacity crowd of appreciative fans.
For unfortunate reasons, Dominique Wilkins (26.5 PPG and 6.9 RPG during 11.5 seasons in Atlanta) wasn’t around the last time the Hawks clinched a division title. Thus, it’s fitting that his likeness has been bronzed (not just cemented), and his legacy immortalized, during the season Atlanta zeroes in on its first-ever Southeast Division crown.
The Cavaliers (39-24) have reconfigured themselves since getting outpaced by the Hawks during their last visit to Philips, a 109-101 victory on December 30 that was on the front end of a 1-9 losing stretch. James coached that game from the sideline with a sore knee, but the Hawks were missing All-Star center Al Horford as well, a last-minute scratch due to illness.
Because somebody had to score for Cleveland, Kyrie Irving (37.2 minutes/game, 2nd in NBA; 21.7 PPG, 10th in NBA) poured in 35 points on 34 total shots against the Hawks, nearing the unwanted triple-double by adding nine assists and eight turnovers. Tristan Thompson’s 18-and-13 offset a tainted Love (1-for-8 FGs), who sat out the fourth quarter with back tightness.
Still, all The King’s horses could do nothing with Jeff Teague, who put up 23 points and 11 assists for the Hawks and had little problem getting into the lane (5-for-6 FGs in the paint) and to the line (6-for-10 FTs). And all The King’s men had no answer for Kyle Korver (5-for-8 3FGs) or Paul Millsap, who poured on ten of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to fend off Irving’s late charge and put the victory on ice. The Cavs were still suffering from Fear of a Mack Planet after what Shelvin did to them just two weeks prior. But he wasn’t needed on this night, as Teague, Korver, and Dennis Schröder shot a combined 20-for-31 from the field.
Cavs General Manager David Griffin is in his first full season running the show, and all indications suggest he would like to have a second one. So to stem Cleveland’s slide, he pulled off interconnected deals with OKC/New York and Denver to pry loose swingmen Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, along with center Timofey Mozgov. With those additions, the Cavs turned frowns upside down by winning 14 of their next 15 games.
Cleveland’s defense has noticeably improved since Shumpert joined Mozgov on the Cavs’ roster. Before Shump’s Cavs debut, opponents registered an NBA-high 26.2 assists per 100 possessions. With Shump on board after missing time with a dislocated shoulder, that opponent assist value dropped to 23.2, still above the league average, but down to 11th-most in the NBA. They’re not inducing more turnovers, but clamping down with better man defense (46.2 opponent eFG% with Shumpert, 2nd-lowest in NBA).
It’s not all Shumpert, although Cleveland’s defensive efficiency went from 106.4 opponent points per 100 possessions (5th worst in NBA) to 99.1 (7th best in NBA) after Iman joined the group. It’s taken awhile for Blatt’s defensive schemes and James’ accompanying tutelage to begin sinking in with the rest of the Cleveland roster, particularly Matthew Dellavedova and Irving in the backcourt and Kevin Love up front. Smith is still a gambler, but leads the Cavs with 1.8 steals per game while starting alongside Irving.
Mozgov (career-highs 10.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 58.9 FG% in Cleveland) has adequately replaced the season-sidelined Anderson Varejao. While Mozgov starts, the Cavs now turn to Thompson (8.2 RPG, career-high 54.2 FG%), who Blatt considers a Sixth-Man Award candidate, as a spark off the bench to help the Cavs close games out.
James Jones (last 4 games: 22.0 minutes/game, 9.8 PPG, 50.0 3FG%) has transitioned from a pure long-range gunner to a stretch-four that can give Love and LeBron a breather. Recently-acquired Kendrick Perkins is an upgrade over Brendan Haywood and steels the Cavalier frontcourt a bit while Shawn Marion recovers from a strained hip.
All those front-line moves allow James, now the league’s all-time leader in assists among forwards, to place less emphasis on defensive rebounding and more on picking opposing defenses apart, one full-bore drive to the hoop at a time. James is on a mission to re-stake his claim as the league’s Most Valuable Player, a tall order given the otherworldly performances being turned in by Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Having an MVP Whisperer in Perkins in his ear motivates him all the more. Although his True Shooting (57.9 TS%) is at a seven-year low, his per-36 scoring (26.1) and assists (7.3) are marginally higher than any of the seasons during his title runs in Miami.
Opponents are doing all they can do (or, all they can get away with) to stop The Return of The King to the MVP throne. Cleveland’s past two games have turned James into an expert witness as to what qualifies, and what doesn’t, as a “basketball play”. In the past week, he was the victim of flagrant fouls by Harden and Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, the latter corralling James for a two-point takedown before he could spring loose in the paint for an easy score on Wednesday night.
Aside from a career-high 4.2 turnovers per game, one major chink in James’ MVP armor has been free throw shooting, as highlighted by his 37-point (off a season-high 35 FGAs and 12 3FGAs) but 3-for-11 FT performance in Sunday’s two-point loss in Houston. We’re not in Hack-a-Bron territory yet, but LeBron’s 71.5 FT% is the lowest since he was a 23-year-old back in 2008. As his free throw accuracy diminishes, the will to stop his paths to the basket by any means necessary rises.
Atlanta does all it can to avoid excessive fouling (16.6 personals per game, lowest in NBA), so it’s unlikely the Hawks’ defenders will get too chippy trying to keep LeBron in front of them. But he and his teammates are already playing with frayed nerves and are primed to take umbrage with any perceived hard foul. If Perkins plays at all, it won’t be because of his mid-range jumper.
Both the Raptors and Hawks stormed back from double-digit second-half deficits before rabid home crowds in their most recent games. While Harden-less Houston could only resort to the likes of Josh Smith to try plugging the dam in Atlanta on Tuesday, the Cavs turned to LeBron in Toronto on Wednesday, and he delivered. By either scoring (15 points) or assisting in the fourth quarter, James was responsible for 21 of Cleveland’s last 26 points as the Cavs pulled away.
Just one Maurice Podoloff Trophy separates LeBron (33.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 7.0 APG, 2.3 SPG, 1.3 BPG last four games) from Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, just two away from Kareem Adbul-Jabbar. He wants to ensure the MVP voters, and the smattering of NBA legends in the stands tonight, that his campaign this season, lugging a playoff-inexperienced roster toward the top of the East, should not be overlooked.
James, though, understands that any chance of running through the tape in the MVP race hinges on how close his Cavs can get to the runaway Hawks. This will be Cleveland’s final chance to narrow the gap in the regular season standings and, while it probably won’t matter, avoid handing the Hawks a tiebreaker. The Cavaliers want one of the top-two seeds. Truth be told, while there’s plenty of time for the Cavs to secure it, Atlanta wants Cleveland in that 2-or-3-slot as well.
Despite a rough shooting night against the Rockets on Tuesday, Millsap has shaken off a downturn in production from mid-February to help carry the Hawks during the past five games (19.2 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 48.1 FG%, 42.1 3FG%), particularly coming through for Atlanta in the fourth quarter. Following a tough shooting stretch recently, Horford has had similar success with clutch buckets in his last two games (17.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 69.6 FG%).
The Hawks' backcourt starters will want to avoid yet another sluggish first half at home, so their All-Star frontcourt teammates won’t have to play Herculean hoops at the close of this game. Teague and Schröder should be able to get wherever they want on the way into the paint, and drawing help from James and Shumpert can open things up for Carroll (39.7 3FG%, 18th in NBA; 46.2 3FG% in last three games) and Korver. This weekend’s back-to-back games could be just the opportunities Korver (49.2 FG%, NBA-high 49.6 3FG%) needs to float back above the 50-percent menisci.
Cleveland will want to do whatever they can to get one of Millsap or DeMarre Carroll in foul trouble. That could open the door for Mike Scott (14.3 3FG% last six games), who hasn’t blocked a shot since Thanksgiving and exceeded three defensive boards just once in the past month, to try and hold things down.
Instead, Mike Budenholzer may pair Al Horford with Pero Antić to keep up the defensive intensity when Millsap or DMC need to sit. Bud may also deploy Mike Muscala, who swatted four shots in Miami last Saturday and had a season-high 13 points and four blocks during garbage minutes in Cleveland back in November.
Danny Ferry has had an awfully hard time satisfying people. As the Cavs’ GM, jumping through one hoop after another, making player moves on behalf of LeBron and his meddling associates, was insufficient to keep Northeast Ohio’s favorite son from setting sail for greener pastures. Ferry wisely jumped before he could be pushed into Lake Erie.
As the Hawks’ GM, Danny’s table-setting for the team’s unparalleled future success was not enough for at least one current owner to cut him some slack. The squabbling among ownership factions over a statue finally being unveiled tonight set the stage for the power-playing tempest Ferry unwittingly walked into, while some intel he read aloud before these owners, likely from a former Cavs manager, set wheels in motion for his double-secret probation.
While the statue has been erected, and as Atlanta sits happily atop the NBA standings, Ferry’s job status remains in flux. However, Atlanta’s next victory would ensure the Hawks an opportunity to get more out of Ferry’s iconic 2012 Joe Johnson trade than a 2017 second-rounder and gobs of cap space. The mirth emanating from the Ferry compound would be much greater if that victory comes at the expense of his former bosses, namely LeBron James and Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert.
Let’s Go Hawks!