As soon as the ball left LeBron’s hand and went through the rim I knew it. This game was over. But not in a good way. Let’s backtrack and see how we got here first.
The story of the game for the Hornets was MVP candidate Chris Paul. (Yes, I will hear arguments for Paul to win the award this year, anyone else not named LeBron need not apply.) All Paul did was score 15 points and record 20 assists. That is not a typo. Paul drove to the lane at will in the first half and found David West or Tyson Chandler for easy baskets time and time again. The Cavaliers completely collapsed on Paul, leaving the backdoor wide open for New Orleans’ athletic big men. Delonte West simply could not keep Paul in front of him, or would not back off of him far enough to do so. Delonte played right on top of the quicker Paul and found himself unable to get around screens or picks. Damon Jones did a slightly better job of that in the second half, but gave Paul the room he needed to pick the Cavs apart.
David West had a decent game with 20 points and 6 boards, but was kept in check particularly when Joe Smith was in the ballgame. Smith finished the game +9, but got himself in foul trouble and wasn’t able to stay on the floor. The Hornets big men could not stop Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who had a season high 29 points to go with 15 rebounds. Z was tapping in shots (yes, Austin I know…best tip drill man in the league) and hitting from his spot on the left wing. Big Z was 13 for 19 from the field, and carried the Cavaliers at times offensively.
LeBron did not have his best game. He was only 6 for 14 from the field, and was nearly transparent in the first half. Several times LeBron found himself within feet of the basket, but was unable to finish, or get a foul called. There was obvious frustration at one point as LeBron became demonstrative and was probably close to getting a technical. In the second half James shot himself out of his funk, and managed to get to the free throw stripe 10 times.
The Cavaliers won the rebounding battle 48-33, but were outscored in transition, and couldn’t match Stojakovich and the rest of the Hornets from behind the 3 point line. In the end however, the Cavs had a chance to win this one. Down by a point with just over a minute left LeBron made blocks on consecutive shots by David West, but the second partially blocked shot floated over the rim and was rattled home by Tyson Chandler. The Cavaliers responded when Zydrunas put back LeBron’s miss, making it 98-97 New Orleans. James again guarded Chris Paul who commanded a double team and passed to a WIDE OPEN Jannero Pargo who missed the three after having been near perfect all night. Cavaliers’ ball with 12 seconds on the clock.
As they huddled I turned to the wife who surprisingly was still watching this one and said, “Well LeBron dribbles for 9 seconds, flies down the lane and puts up a shot.” Turns out I was off by about 6 seconds. LeBron got the ball at the top of the key, and sensing a double team coming, took off down the lane and made the driving lay-up. The bench jumped up and down giving high fives and good job’s, but this one wasn’t over.
After a timeout, in which Byron Scott drew up a familiar play, Paul took the ball, guarded by LeBron and drove the lane. After the defense collapsed on him again he simply tossed the ball to a wide open David West who hit essentially a free throw. Game. Over. 100-99 Hornets.
This New Orleans team was impressive. They have a combination of athleticism and shooting that will get them far in the playoffs. My only question about them would be toughness, as the playoffs have a knack for getting a little physical. The Cavaliers didn’t have a way to stop Chris Paul, but then again not many teams have this year. I thought Delonte West would do a better job defensively on him, and I’m convinced he could if he would have been a little less aggressive and played off him a bit more. Be that as it may the Cavaliers were ahead with 7 seconds left in this one on a night when LeBron was not at his best.