I’ve been watching NBA games for forty years and more but I cannot recall another playoff series like the ongoing one between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because of the home-court advantage, visiting teams have an uphill struggle to win an away game and even when they do win , such victories are narrow wins. Rarely is a team blown away on it’s home floor . Not so in this series where, except for the first and the fourth games, the home team suffered crushing losses. In the second game , visiting Boston trampled Cleveland 104-86 and I thought it was all up for the Cavaliers. In the very next game, Cleveland trounced Boston by 29 points, 124-95. Boston then won the fourth behind Rajon Rondo’s triple double to knot the series 2-2.and then it went one better last night in Cleveland , completely dominating the Cavs ,120-88, for a 3-2 series lead.
I watched last night’s game in it’s entirety and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’ve never seen LeBron James look so inept. Most times, he drives the lane , running over opponents, skying for vicious dunks , or popping from the outside as he gets clear looks at the basket. Last night, he never drove the lane , not once. He seemed content to pop from the outside, shooting a horrrendous 4 of 14. Part of this can be attributed to Boston’s sterling defense as two or three defenders seemed to be constantly dogging him, but it cannot explain all of it. Considering the importance of the game, I would have expected James to be playing with intensity and passion. Yet he appeared curiously disinterested, almost passive. Nor were his teammates any better. It seemed as if , throughout the game, the Celtics, those aging Celtics, apeared to want the game more, constantly beating the Cavs to the loose balls, fighting for rebounds and moving well without the ball. Meanwhile , the Cavs just stood around watching as LeBron hoisted up one brick after another. The Cleveland offfense was stagnant and did not seem to have any set plan. I don’t like the Celtics ( no self-respecting Laker fan could). I hate the foulmouthed Garnett, the brutish Kendrick Perkins and the crybaby Paul Pierce but I have to admit that they played a heck of a game last night. They picked each other up with different players contributing at different times. In the beginning it was Kevin Garnett , then Ray Allen with his three point shooting as Rondo was held without a point in the first half. Then Rondo tossed in 12 or so points in the third quarter and Glen Davis came alive in the fourth. Paul Pierce played a steady game throughout , chipping in with a clutch shot as needed. And they all helped each other out on defense. They played as a team while the Cavs appeared to be a bunch of strangers.
When the Cavs picked up Antawn Jamison , for precisely nothing, from the Washington Wizards most NBA observers ( including myself) felt that the trade would guarantee Cleveland its first pro championship since 1964. It was felt that Jamison , a solid offensive player and a good rebounder, would complement LeBron and Shaq and share the offensive burden. These projections seemed to be validated by the regular season in which the Cavs compiled the best record and easily secured the #1 seed. The playoffs , however, are a different animal and in last night’s game Jamison appeared a mere passenger as did all the Cavs. There was no cohesiveness to their game , no Plan B once LeBron was stymied. True , Shaq did score 20 points but he never was a factor in the game and did not clog up the middle as he used to in his prime. The Cavs are used to seeing LeBron takeover the game with his great individual skills and if he is checked they don’t know what to do. Neither does the coach. If the Cavs do not advance past this round, and even if they do but fail to win it all, Mike Brown is going to be out the door. It is not entirely his fault, not even mostly his fault , but he will be the scapegoat as the owner tries all he can to keep LeBron in Cleveland.
After what has happened in this series , I can’t completely write off the Cavs but I will be very, very surprised if they win in Boston and force a decider. Last night’s loss has got to have damaged their confidence beyond repair.
The other three series ended in sweeps , only some of which were a surprise. LA’s sweep of a depleted Utah Jazz playing without C Mehmet Okur and forward Andrei Kirilenko was not unexpected and neither was Phoenix’s triumph over an aging Spurs team in which Tim Duncan appears to be reaching the end of a fabled career.What was a surprise was the ease with which Orlando dispatched the Atlanta Hawks and that without Dwight Howard at his best.Atlanta is a talented team but the Magic just made them disappear. With all the talent on the Hawks roster, the fault has to lie at least partly with Mike Woodson, a coach never particularly noted for his X’s and O’s. This is not to take credit away from the Magic who appear to have a very deep roster, a real Superman at center, and an underrated coach who gets the best out of his players. This Magic team is much more talented than last year’s team that made it to the NBA finals and they are going to be tough to beat no matter who makes it to the next round , whether the Celtics or the Cavaliers. I would even think they should be tthe favorites in a putative matchup with the Lakers assuming the Lakers get past the Suns.
All the basketball pundits are picking the Lakers to sink the Suns because of the Lakers size and the Suns lack thereof. Kobe Bryant too is rumored to be on a mission, out for revenge because the Suns defeated the Lakers in the playoffs twice before. I will go along with the expert picks but I think it will be a tough series.The Suns are vastly improved defensively, they too have a deep bench and they have an excellent young coach in Alvin Gentry. Steve Nash is going to give the Laker point guards fits with his quickness and his penetration. Yes, it will be a good series , a tough series and I hope Andrew Bynum is back to full strength . The Lakers are going to need him before this is all over.
One final thought: Isn’t it amazing how all the remaining contenders have come together as real teams in the playoffs. Two months ago, the Celtics appeared to be a bunch of senior citizens , at odds with each other. Now they are playing like they did back in 2008. On the Lakers, Bryant and Gasol appeared to be on the outs, Kobe was beset with injuries , Coach Jackson was rumored to be unhappy with the ownership and the bench was horrendous. Well, the coach is still on the outs with the Busses, but Gasol is playing remarkably well , Kobe has got his legs back and Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are playing better, Luke is working his way back into the rotation and Sasha we hear will be ready for the next round. It should make for some interesting battles the rest of the way.