Monday, May 11

Laying the smack down

As you may recall, I picked the CaVs to win their opening-round series against Detroit in five games. The CaVs went out and won four straight by double-digits. Believing Atlanta to be a more worthy opponent, I stuck with my CaVs in 5 prediction for the second round. The CaVs have thus far totally destroyed the Hawks in each of the first three games of the series, taking a commanding 3-0 series lead and looking to make yet another of my predictions off by a game. Fine by me. Nick already recapped Game 1; let's look at some numbers from Games 2 and 3 and a few notes on the other series.

Game 2
Never even tested in this one, a 105-85 laugher. Atlanta made a few shots early to keep it close, but the CaVs opened a nine-point lead after one quarter that swelled to a 25-point edge after LeBron dropped a ridiculous fadeaway 35-footer at the buzzer. Everything is going right for these guys. The Cavs were up as many as 36 in the 2nd half, at which point I watched The Office while the bench squandered some of the Cavs' bloated Diff. Whatevah.

Though the result was the same as Game 1, the CaVs brought their defense all game this time instead of just the 2nd half, holding the Hawks to a paltry 35% from the field (which included a robust 47% on three-pointers).

Hubie Brown said "high percentage" at least 406 times during this broadcast. Hubie's awesome, but it was comical how much he used this phrase. He was not generally referring to the Atlanta Hawks when doing so. The CaVs, on the other hand, shot a very strong 53.5%, though at just 32% on threes, they made their money in the paint.

The CaVs dominated elswhere too, outrebounding the Hawks 43-34 and racking up 11 blocked shots. No wonder the Hawks shot such a low percentage, particularly on two-point shots.

The Hawk box score shows good performances from the bench bunch but lots of big fat negative numbers for the high-minute guys. Josh Smith contributed 22 minutes that featured exactly one rebound and some 2-13 masonry from the floor. That's horrible for a player of his athletic gifts. Zaza Pachulia, normally one of the Hawks' better interior players, was a -25 after Al Horford's injury forced him into a starting role. Flip Murray managed the same +/- as Zaza but only needed 27 minutes! Joe Johnson, one of the league's overrated players in my opinion, tossed up a 10/3/1 line on 5-15 shooting and a game-low 31 points. Mo Evans was probably Atlanta's best starter, scoring 16 and sort-of defending LeBron.

The CaVs starters, of course, looked strong. LeBron was businesslike with a modest 27/3/5 in just 31 minutes, the backcourt brothers combined for 29 points and 7 assists, and Wally Szczerbiak chipped in 17 off the bench. Mo Williams led the +/- brigade at +30; the Cavalier starting 5 were a combined +112 (thus outscoring their counterparts by 22 as a unit). The bench big men, Joe Smith and Ben Wallace, each found themselves on the plus side of the ledger as well. No sweat.

Game 3
You knew playing in Atlanta was going to be a bit more difficult, and the CaVs indeed found themselves in a tight game after blowing a 12-point second-half lead before pulling away for a comfortable 97-82 win.

It's this simple: LeBron was ridiculous, posting a 47/12/8 line plus a block and a steal and just 1 turnover for a +26 rating, leading the Cavs in every one of those categories (save TO's). James' shot was dead-on this evening, as he went 15-25 from the floor, including 5-10 on three-pointers. He was amazing - I found myself just laughing at some of his more video-game plays as he completely owned the fourth quarter.

The Cav starters had another strong outing, posting a collective +97 (+19 as a unit). The bench was not as productive, especially Ben Wallace (-13) and Wally Szczerbiak (-10), but we had LeBron, so who cares. Z (14), Delonte (12), and Williams (10) joined LeBron as double-digit scorers on a night where only 6 Cavs cracked the scoresheet.

Atlanta's side of the balance sheet is, as usual, far less exciting. They were absolutely pounded on the glass by the Cavaliers, who held a stunning 46-23 edge on the boards. The Hawk big men were either semi-injured (Horford) or ejected (Pachulia), and the Cavaliers are a good rebounding team anyway. Cleveland shot 51% to the Hawks' 45% (a marked improvement over the games in Cleveland); both teams were erratic from long-distance (non-LeBron Cavaliers were 1-12). Importantly, the Cavaliers earned 14 more points from the foul line than their opponent.

Atlanta starters went a combined -90; all their reserves notched positive ratings for a modest +15. Not good math if you're a Hawk fan - nor is 3-0 for that matter.

The Hawks
These guys have some talent, but they have two major flaws: 1) They are not as good as Cleveland and 2) They are stupid.

The first is harder to correct; Atlanta simply can't get good looks or get anywhere near the basket against the Cavaliers' vaunted defense, and their own defense isn't strong enough to stop all the offensive weapons the Cavaliers have. From a pure talent standpoint, Cleveland has a significant advantage.

The second may just take time. Basketball guys like to talk about "Basketball IQ," or how smartly a player makes decisions on the court. The Cavaliers have a very high team IQ - LeBron's decision-making is incredible, and the rest of the team plays very smartly as a unit moving the ball on offense, getting proper rebounding position, and never being out of place on defense. Atlanta...not so much. Josh Smith has a basketball IQ of about 10 - in pure basketball terms, he might be the dumbest guy in the league, and it doesn't help that he lets everything get to him and affect his play. Joe Johnson can score, but he's nowhere near being a complete player. Zaza Pachulia's freak-out in Game 3 epitomized the Hawks' inexperience. That was a completely obvious block (that's why they have that little semicircle, dude), and he inexplicably flipped out, got tossed, and cost Atlanta's already-depleted frontcourt one of their best rebounders and defenders. Not smart, and, along with the talent gap, representative of why the Hawks' season is very likely to end tomorrow.

Also, every time they say "Zaza", I think of the part in Godfather III where Andy Garcia shoots Joey Zasa from atop the horse, smiles, and says "Zasa!"

Around the league
Maybe I have a Bulls-Celtics hangover, but this series is terribly uninteresting. I'm on record as saying Magic in 6, and they're on the right track for that, but this matchup seems lifeless for some reason as the Magic lead 2-1. Maybe tonight's game will be more fun.

Rafer Alston slapping Eddie House on the back of the head was completely absurd and totally merited a suspension. You know, if you're going to slap a guy in the head, you shouldn't even be in the league at all. I never liked Rafer Alston, and that certainly has not changed. I can't even fathom what makes a man think that's OK.

I expected Denver to look strong in this postseason, but not this good - wow. Up 3-0, they look to be well-rested and motivated going into the West Finals. As for the end of Game 3, I'm surprised at the NBA's actions. They put out a statement saying that the officials should have called a foul prior to Carmelo Anthony's game-winner, as Dallas had a foul to give and were actively (though ineptly) trying to do just that. The NBA is reluctant to throw their officials under the bus, and I didn't expect them to do so here. Frankly, I don't think the Dallas guy really fouled him. Really, you couldn't smack his arm or anything? I saw that shot three times before I learned that there was some controversy around it. Dallas's players and coaches are frustrated with the league, but their player failing to execute any reasonable foul is why they're down 3-0 instead of 2-1.

Magic Johnson, in ABC's pre-game show, called Game 4 a "must-win" for the Lakers, which is utterly and totally insane. LA leads the series 2-1, has home-court advantage, and Yao is out for the season. How in the hell can you possibly call that must-win? It's not even close. Someone please fire this guy.

As I write this, the Lakers are getting firebombed by Houston, 61-38, in an impressive performance from the Rockets. I guess this means the Lakers will be officially eliminated today. Seriously, though, this second round is lame compared to the first one.

And finally, a word on the violence in the Laker-Rocket series (and across the league). What the hell is wrong with these men? I expect some emotion, but I hear the word "flagrant" about every 5 seconds these days. The league has handled the fouls as well as they could have, but it's certainly not good for the game how busy Stu Jackson has been in the principal's office. Kobe deserved a flagrant-1 for his elbow to Artest and Ron-Ron deserved to be chucked for running around like a lunatic. It was hard and unfortunate, but it was during a rebound battle and not intentional. Likewise, good work by the NBA on Artest's fast-break foul, which the league correctly dropped down from f-2 to f-1.

Derek Fisher's elbow to Luis Scola was beyond dirty. No place for that in the NBA. He got a one-game suspension, but if they held him out of the rest of the playoffs, I wouldn't complain. What a jerk. I'm kinda glad the Cavs have been able to float above all that insanity with their noncompetitive games - it'll be interesting to see if they get dragged into the muck in later rounds.

For now: Go Cavs!

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