Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton will be covering the NBA playoffs every day for Basketball Prospectus, with Doolittle tracking the East and Pelton the West.
Cavaliers 116, Wizards 86
LeBron James has gotten into the collective head of the Wizards. Actually, he's been there for some time.
Much has been said about the comments of DeShawn Stevenson ("He's overrated!") and Gilbert Arenas as a motivating factor for Cleveland. It's hard to put any stock into that idea in a practical sense. Aren't the Cavaliers motivated anyway? After all, it's the playoffs. The consistency of Cleveland's effort was questionable entering the postseason, but one wouldn't expect that problem to continue, not at this time of the year.
Instead, what all of that hullabaloo said to me was that Washington was spending too much time creating a mindset and a strategy for an impossible task: stopping James. In the first two games, it seems like the Wizards are more concerned with adhering to some sort of silly "no layups" mantra than with actually performing more important tasks. You know, like scoring and keeping the other team from scoring.
Well, it's all fun and games until someone puts that second Roman numeral after the words "flagrant foul." Now Brendan Haywood has gone and done it. His body block of an airborne James got him ejected from the game midway through the third quarter with the Cavs up by 15. That led not only to Washington losing its center and best interior defender, it resulted in a five-point possession, putting Cleveland up by 20. The Cavaliers cruised from there and have seized a 2-0 advantage in the series. The Wizards, facing a pair of must-win games back in D.C., have to hope that Haywood does not get suspended for Game Three.
TNT analyst Reggie Miller, something of a cheap-shot artist himself during his long playing career, kept saying Haywood's play was "just a hard foul." Perhaps, but this was exactly the kind of circumstance for which the flagrant foul rules were created. James was flying through the air, completely vulnerable, and Haywood just threw a shoulder into him, sending James sprawling across the baseline. There was not even a token effort towards making a play on the ball. Haywood should be suspended for the play if, for anything, to keep this very intense series from getting completely out of control.
In other matters, the Cavs dominated the game across the board. Cleveland was 10-for-19 from behind the arc, assisted on 27 of its 42 field goals and outrebounded the Wizards 49-34. James had 30 points, nine boards and 12 assists but was just 10-for-17 from the line. He's now missed 13 free throws in the two games, a concern for Mike Brown because James is prone to free throw slumps. Wally Szczerbiak was much more effective, scoring 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in 30 minutes. Ben Wallace played well, holding Antawn Jamison to a 4-of-13 performance.
With Jamison held in check, there was simply no way for the Wizards to get points. The collective ill health of Washington is perhaps its biggest hindrance at this point. Gilbert Arenas shot 2-for-10 and simply wasn't useful in the contest. A sprained right wrist is his latest malady. That left Arenas unable to shoot his normal outside shot, and since his gimpy left knee prevents him from exploding to the basket as he was once capable, there really wasn't any recourse for Arenas to have the ball. Caron Butler had his second straight subpar game and it's apparent that his physical problems are still hounding him as well.
As the series shifts back to Washington, the Wizards have to get back to worrying about their own game. For all of the Wizards' efforts at intimidation, the Cavaliers posted an offensive efficiency of 132 in 88 possessions. James is averaging 31 points and shooting 55 percent.
Eddie Jordan, this is not working. At this point, though, re-thinking the team's mindset is the least of Jordan's problems. If Arenas and Butler cannot get fit enough to contribute 20+ points or so, then he's got to find scorers. When that pair was out during the regular season, Nick Young and Roger Mason were among those who stepped up to keep the Wizards afloat.
If Haywood is suspended, Jordan may want to go small, inserting Young into the lineup and playing Antawn Jamison at center. Why not? If they don't swing the momentum of this series in a hurry, the Wizards will find themselves muttering Jamesian epithets for the third straight summer. Can a team be put in straightjackets?
Jazz 90, Rockets 84
More than any other series in these playoffs, or almost any series you can come up with, this is a battle between two teams that just play hard all the time. Never was that more apparent than in the final minute of Game Two, though with wildly disparate results.
For the Jazz, the hustle of Andrei Kirilenko turned into a Kyle Korver flip shot just before the shot-clock buzzer that gave Utah a five-point lead with 20 seconds to go, essentially sealing the game. The Rockets got their own second chance when they forced a loose ball corralled on the perimeter by Shane Battier. The ball eventually worked its way to Bobby Jackson, who hit what everyone thought was a tying three-pointer until they noticed referee Tony Brothers waving the shot off because of an offensive foul on Luis Scola, who knocked Andrei Kirilenko out of the way while clearing space for Tracy McGrady before McGrady passed crosscourt to Jackson. Add the two plays together and you have the difference in this game--and, presumably, this series.
If anyone knows it is possible to rally from a 2-0 deficit on the road, it is the Rockets. After all, just three years ago, Houston swept Games 1 and 2 in Dallas only to see the Mavericks win the next three games and, in seven, the series. If anyone knows it is possible to thrive after being written off, it is the Rockets, who were never expected to imagine as much as they have without Yao Ming in the lineup. Yet the task in front of Houston--win not just once, but twice at the previously impenetrable EnergySolutions Arena while holding serve at home--seems so daunting as to be unimaginable.
To state the obvious, to stay alive in this series, the Rockets simply must find a way to score more points. Houston managed just under a point per possession Monday against a Utah team that is decent but hardly spectacular defensively. When McGrady became fatigued in the fourth quarter, to whom could the Rockets turn? Luis Scola, perhaps, and point guards Bobby Jackson and Aaron Brooks were much better on Monday stepping in for Rafer Alston, but down the stretch in half-court situations McGrady is the only player Houston can trust creating his own offense. I love Chuck Hayes' contributions on the defensive end, but the Rockets can't really afford to have such a complete non-scorer on the floor down the stretch. Getting Alston back in the lineup also might help. Still, there's only so much Rick Adelman can do besides hope McGrady doesn't fade so badly under the weight of carrying so much of the Houston offense during the next couple of games.
Given the Rockets' issues, there might not have been any worse opponent at this point than the Jazz. While other teams might self-destruct and give away a game with mistakes, you will rarely see that from Utah. That's why, at this point, it's hard to imagine this series going much longer than five games or maybe six at the latest.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.