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Friday, March 20, 2009
Now Attacking the Hoop in Crunch Time: The Cavaliers


LeBron James
This is a good situation for the Cavaliers.
(David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

A couple of days ago I wrote about how it displeased me to see the Cavaliers' dedicate their crunch time offense to long jumpers.

The truth is, of course, that they had good shooters taking fairly open shots. Most nights they'd probably make one or two more of those and win easily. But it didn't look right to me, mainly because that team happens to have the NBA's ultimate weapon: LeBron James on the move to the hoop.

The very next game, James and the Cavaliers got another close game, and another crunch time.

Unfortunately for my Blazers, this time the whole Cleveland team was reading straight from the gospel of getting into the paint. And boy oh boy did it work.

In crunch time against Orlando, the Cavaliers essentially shot 3 after 3 after 3, and only one when a very long and fairly well defended one went in. Coupled with a once-in-a-generation referee's whistle, it felt like trickery ... an escape.

Last night, there was no trickery. Here is how the Cavaliers went about scoring, starting with a tie game at the 4:43 mark of regulation:

By the overtime, the Blazers -- on the second night of a back to back, and missing two starters to injury -- were gassed. The Cavaliers dominated, especially when they went to the hoop.

In a terrible bit of anecdote posing as science, I'll tell you that by my tally, the three crunch times, as it were (the last few minutes of the Orlando game, the last few minutes of regulation against Portland, and the overtime) the got to run 26 offensive plays.

In this sample-so-tiny-I-shouldn't-even-calculate-these-numbers, that's 86 points per 100 possessions, compared to 142.

Now of course a big factor there is how the defense plays you -- and I'll grant that the Magic gave up wide-open long balls to good shooters. But you still can't marvel at the efficacy of the Cavalier machine when they are dogged about getting to the hole.

Of course, there's another interpretation of these events: Maybe Portland's interior defense  was just not good down the stretch. Every single one of those makes inside 15 feet was against Portland.

Indulge me in a little Friday morning quarterbacking here. I have one little pang of "what if" as a Blazer fan. Did you see Greg Oden in this game? He looked fresh, energetic, and just the right kind of chippy. He and Lebron James were, for a time, tussling with each other, competing to be the big man on that court. Not bad for a rookie, to get in that contest with an MVP.

And Oden hoovered in rebounds at such an insane rate that, despite fouling every few seconds, and not doing much on offense, the Blazers were +5 during his 12 minutes on the floor. (That +5 was better than all the other Blazers and most of the Cavaliers.)

With 1:35 left in overtime, Sasha Pavlovic fouled out. The Cavaliers were up just four, but the whole Blazer squad was clearly gassed -- especially Rudy Fernandez, who is still working back to form after his big fall.

It was time for something outside the box. Oden was fresh and high energy. (More on his night.) He had been benched the vast majority of the night.

I wanted to see Portland go not just big, but twin towers huge. Oden, Joel Przybilla, Travis Outlaw, Brandon Roy, and Steve Blake. Without Ben Wallace suited up for Cleveland, the Blazers would have owned the paint area, where the Cavaliers had their way at both ends in overtime.

Instead James scored twice in the paint, the Cavaliers got three key rebounds (to Portland's two -- both flukey longballs) before the game ended, and that was it.

And one last little point: Stat geeks will tell you that the least efficient shot in basketball is the super long two-pointer. In the final minutes of regulation, Travis Outlaw made two of the longest two-pointers imaginable. Great shots, that kept the Blazers in a close game. But those shots are hardly  tougher a few inches further away from the hoop -- where together they would have been worth two extra points in a game that ended regulation tied.

Those little things -- mastering the placement of those feet -- make the difference.

Two points in this game, in this kind of playoff hunt ... that could mean a home court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. So, watch those feet, Travis.