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April 22, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
The Cavs Cruise...Mostly

by Kevin Pelton

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Cleveland 94, Detroit 82 (Cleveland leads 2-0)
Pace: 85.4
Offensive Ratings: Cleveland 114.0, Detroit 92.8

If Game One of this series was the LeBron James Show, Game Two was a chance for the Cavaliers' guards to make their presence felt. Delonte West and Mo Williams combined for 41 points on 15-of-25 shooting and dished 11 assists (as well as eight turnovers, alas). Add in James' 29 points, 13 rebounds and six assists and you've got the recipe for a 2-0 series lead. The Cavaliers made a very good living at the charity stripe, shooting 43 free throws in all and making 32. More than a third of Cleveland's points came from the free-throw line.

The freebies saved the Cavaliers when the Pistons made things interesting in the fourth quarter. With a blowout seemingly in store, Detroit cut what had been a 29-point lead early in the fourth down to seven with 3:50 to play with a 27-5 run. A lineup of reserves Will Bynum, Arron Afflalo, Walter Herrmann, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell scored on nine straight possessions at one point, with Bynum leading the onslaught. Bynum then went cold, and seven straight Cleveland free throws ended the upset bid.

As a unit, the Pistons starters shot 19-of-52 from the field and scored 49 points. They've been crushed in terms of plus-minus each of the first two games of the series. Maybe that's just how things are going to go for a No. 8 seed going against the league's best team on the road. Still, it offers little hope for a different outcome even with Detroit going home. The Cavaliers are locked in, and right now I'm wishing I would have picked a sweep instead of Cleveland in five.

L.A. Lakers 119, Utah 109 (L.A. Lakers lead 2-0)
Pace: 97.1
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 124.5, Utah 110.5

Here's the thing about the L.A. Lakers: there's never any worry with them. Situations that would make other coaches tense--like the aforementioned Detroit comeback, which had Coach of the Year Mike Brown sweating it out on the sidelines--just don't faze Phil Jackson. That tends to extend to everyone else, and so it was that I never really figured the Jazz would come back even when they rallied within five at 113-108 with 49 seconds left. Trevor Ariza hit a three (of course he did), the Lakers got a stop, and that was that. Everything seems obvious after it happens, and a five-point lead at home is relatively safe for any team, but this is unique to the Lakers. It's why they play games like this, almost always win them, and have fairly earned the nickname "Team Lightswitch" in the past. I wonder a little about whether the Lakers can put the hammer down when the competition stiffens--as it will next round--but not that much.

On this night, hot shooting carried the Lakers. They made a cool 60.0 percent from the field and 11 threes at a 55-percent clip. Seven players scored in double figures, and the frontcourt trio of Ariza, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom needed 29 shooting possessions to score 54 points. It's a charmed life these Lakers lead.

The biggest culprit in keeping the Jazz close was turnovers, 21 in all. That's two straight games with turnover problems for a team that was fifth in the league in avoiding them in the regular season. Utah is elite at forcing miscues, but it still sounds suspiciously like a focus issue. The Jazz turned it over, too (20 times) and did not enjoy the same success on the offensive glass as they did in Game One. Still, Utah showed an ability to score against the Lakers defense. When Deron Williams wasn't committing miscues (he had seven turnovers himself), he was breaking down the L.A. perimeter D for 35 points and nine assists. Give the Jazz Mehmet Okur to spread the floor, and Utah has shown enough to make things interesting at home--but not enough to really make the Lakers worry.

Portland 107, Houston 103 (Series tied 1-1)
Pace: 88.3
Offensive Ratings: Portland 124.1, Houston 114.0

PORTLAND - It's a shame that almost none of the country saw this game, televised only on NBA TV nationally, because it delivered exactly the kind of action-paced outcome we expected, and did not get, in the Rockets' lopsided Game One victory. Whether it took one game to get over postseason jitters or whether there was another reason, Portland came out much more active, intense and focused in the first quarter. From there, it was on, as neither team led by more than eight points the entire night.

For much of the fourth quarter, we seemed headed for overtime. The game was tied at 72, 77, 78, 87 and 89. The Blazers held a narrow 91-90 lead when they entered the defining stretch of their season with three-and-a-half minutes to play. Travis Outlaw hit one of the pull-up jumpers with a hand in his face that are his specialty and Brandon Roy knocked down a contested three-pointer to make it a two-possession game. Then Outlaw seemingly finished the game by coming up with a "pick-six" steal that created a dunk at the other end. Aaron Brooks had other ideas, hitting back-to-back three-pointers of increasing difficulty to get Houston back within two with 1.9 seconds to play, but Rudy Fernandez finally put the game to bed by making two free throws.

During all of this, the Blazers were coming up with stops at the defensive end. A former Sonics assistant coach, Gordie Chiesa, used to emphasize the importance of "three stops"--holding the opposing offense scoreless on three straight possessions at a key moment of the game. Portland did him one better, recording four straight stops while their offense was extending the lead. It was hardly a great defensive effort overall for the Blazers, or even an outstanding fourth quarter--they put the Rockets on the line 13 times in the period and surrendered 31 points in all--but they got the job done when it was necessary.

The big difference for Houston on offense was that Yao Ming, so dominant in Game One, was virtually invisible last night. Foul trouble did keep Yao out for much of the third quarter. Long before that, however, the Rockets had gone to a perimeter-dominated offense. That mostly worked in the case of sixth man Von Wafer, who came up with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting. It was not nearly so effective for Ron Artest. The best thing that happened for Portland might have been Artest getting off to a good start. As he has a tendency to do, Artest expanded his shot selection thereafter. The result was an 8-of-20 shooting night marked by seven misses in eight attempts from beyond the arc and 2-for-11 from the field over the final three quarters.

Yao ended the game with just six shot attempts in 31 minutes, despite the Blazers doing little different defensively against him. Joel Przybilla did a much better job of keeping Yao from establishing position and he and Greg Oden were both more aggressive in overplaying the entry pass. Also, frankly, Yao wasn't going to hit some of the shots he hit in Game One again. Still, the biggest difference was Yao simply did not get the touches.

At the other end, the Blazers pretty much ignored the conventional wisdom that they needed to create more ball movement. They had 11 assists on 38 field goals, which was actually slightly worse than their Game One assist rate (12 on 35 field goals). That worked first because Portland got to the free-throw line more frequently. Roy attempted 12 free throws after getting just one in Game One. He also changed up his mode of attack, going either hard to the basket or to the pull-up jumper he so loves. Playing against two defenders, in Shane Battier and Artest, who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in Defensive Player of the Year voting, all Roy did was score 42 points on 33 shooting possessions. He also played nearly 42 minutes of turnover-free basketball as the Blazers coughed it up just six times all game as a team.

Roy got big help from LaMarcus Aldridge, who responded brilliantly to a poor Game One. Aldridge made eight of his 10 shots in the first half. When he started to struggle from the perimeter in the second half, Aldridge made a conscious effort to get a step or two closer to the bucket, often using the upfake. He scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and had three blocks, responding to the physical style that is not entirely comfortable for him.

A key turning point came late in the first quarter when Dikembe Mutombo collapsed to the ground in agony after battling Greg Oden for a rebound. While Mutombo officially suffered a "sprained knee," the injury was obviously much more severe. He was carted off on a stretcher after several minutes in the ground, and told reporters in the Houston locker room that the injury would bring his lengthy NBA career to an end. It's an unfortunate way for one of the NBA's great guys to go out.

Don't discount the impact Mutombo's absence could have on this series. He brings size Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes simply can't match off the bench. When Yao was in foul trouble, the Rockets briefly had a frontcourt of the 6'6" Hayes and 6'9" Landry (and both of those listings are generous) matched up with 6'11" Aldridge and 7'1" Przybilla. Exacerbating the situation, Nate McMillan decided to pair Oden and Przybilla at times. Foul trouble makes it difficult to use them together too often, but it's a very different look for the Blazers.

The Rockets won't go home feeling too sorry for themselves. They split in the best possible fashion, with a blowout win and a close loss. Aaron Brooks proved difficult if not impossible for Portland to contain, and the team's biggest shortcoming in Game Two--Yao's lack of touches--was largely a self-inflicted wound. At the same time, Roy found a way to pierce the stout Rockets defense and is good enough to carry the Blazers to wins. All of a sudden, this again has the look of a classic series.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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