The Cavaliers took on the Celtics again Tuesday night in front of 8,221 fans in the Petersen Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the 2nd preseason match-up between the two Eastern Conference rivals, and once again the Celtics came out on top, this time by the final score of 90-86. Thanks to the wonders of NBA TV, I was finally able to catch my first glimpse of the new look Cavaliers.
The loss really doesn’t matter, as neither team would have the lineups they had in at the end of the game if the result mattered. But what does matter is the 30-21 deficit the Cavs found themselves in after one quarter of mostly starters playing. Due to injuries to Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, along with the mysterious absence of Delonte West, the Cavaliers starting lineup consisted of Mo Williams, Wally Szczerbiak, LeBron James, Anderson Varejao, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There’s not a lot of great things to say about the performance by the starting unit, though.
LeBron had 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in 18 lethargic minutes of play. For the most part, LeBron looked pretty disinterested, making careless and lazy passes, along with a few ill-advised passes that lead to easy fast break points the other way for the Celtics. Surely LeBron will step it up come regular season, but the offense did not look good at all in this one. For the most part, the offense resembled last season’s offense, only instead of LeBron dribbling at the top of the key with nobody moving off the ball, it was Mo Williams dribbling while everyone else just stood around. The offense rarely moved the ball cross-court and tended to drill themselves into tight spaces by constricting the offense to one small corner of the floor. The pick and roll game never really got going, and the Cavs struggled to find good looks. With the exception of an early nice backdoor cut by Wally Szczerbiak, which Mo Williams fed for an easy layup for Wally, the offensive system didn’t provide a lot of good possessions.
Perhaps more alarming, though, was the fact that the defense, while better than in the previous 2 preseason games, was still not quite where it was last season. The Cavaliers played decent enough defending on the ball, but the team defense was pretty bad at times, especially in the 1st quarter. The Celtics were constantly moving the ball and cutting without it to confuse the Cavs defenders to create easy baskets. The biggest positive for the Cavaliers was that they were able to control the boards for most of this game.
It wasn’t all negative, and you never want to read too much into one game being played in the preseason on a college floor in front of a small crowd. Many of the issues are easily correctable. What I found more interesting was watching some of the individual performances, especially from those whom I had not yet seen in a Cavaliers uniform.
Mo Williams will push the ball up the court as often as he can. He was able to give the Celtics’ transition defense some occasional problems with his ability to knife into the lane off a break. At times Rajon Rondo had troubles staying in front of Williams. Mo still looked a little uncomfortable running the half court offense, but that’s something that will only come with time. For all the talk of Williams’ issues on defense, he actually looked pretty decent on that end of the court in this game. He has the quickness and athleticism to be a good defender if he wants to be, but he was a little slow in his help defense on the perimeter which gave Ray Allen some open looks from 3.
Daniel Gibson looked much improved the player he was last year. Gibson led the Cavaliers in scoring with 14 points. Boobie showed a real determination to prove that he can be more than a spot up shooter. He was attacking whenever possible and was creating some nice shots for himself by getting inside, as evidenced by the 7 FT attempts he had in this game. If Gibson can keep it up in the regular season, he’s going to see a lot of minutes this year.
JJ Hickson and Darnell Jackson got plenty of playing time thanks to the absence of Ben Wallace. Hickson played pretty well overall, and I enjoyed finally being able to see him play against legit NBA talent with my own eyes. I really think Hickson is going to eventually be a very, very good player for the Cavaliers. His energy, intensity, and hustle is off the charts. He works his tail off on both ends of the court, he makes sure he boxes someone out on almost every shot, and he has a lethally quick pivot move in the paint. He never gives up on loose balls and is a tenacious rebounder. He tends to over-pursue on defense and it causes him to be burnt from time to time, and his awareness in the team defense scheme is still lacking, but with time this kid could be a good one. In 27.5 minutes he had 8 points on 4-7 shooting with 7 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal. He was 0-4 from the FT line, which was unfortunate, but the potential is there.
Darnell Jackson also had 8 points, his on 4 of 5 shooting from the field, but only managed 3 rebounds in 22 minutes. He also racked up 4 fouls. Jackson has the more NBA ready body between he and Hickson, and his defensive awareness is much better right now than Hickson’s. Hickson will likely be a better player than Jackson eventually, but for right now Jackson’s bulk and defense may give him equal minutes to Hickson, especially if Ben Wallace’s injury is serious.
Some of the unheralded players got to play a lot of minutes in this preseason game, and a couple of them stood out. Tarence Kinsey is a pretty good slasher and he was able to get to inside the lane fairly frequently. He only ended up with 5 points in this game, but he showed glimpses of a guy who could provide some offensive spark coming off the bench in games in which the Cavaliers need that. The player who impressed me the most, though, was Cleveland-native Jawad Williams. Jawad scored 13 points in 28.5 minutes on 6 of 10 shooting, including 1 of 2 from three, and added 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Williams was often the most active player moving without the ball on offense, doing a lot of work to get himself in good position to score. I really hope Williams makes the team, because I think he can do some good things in the very limited minutes he will see. Of all the non-roster players, he was easily the most impressive and was the only one who looked like a real NBA player.
All in all, it’s hard to judge a team on such a limited sample size. One game isn’t enough to formulate definitive opinions, but from what I saw, the Cavaliers could easily have the most depth top to bottom of any Cavaliers team since LeBron came on board. The defense isn’t where it needs to be yet, but it wasn’t awful either. The most problematic area, predictably, was the offense. The longer Delonte West is away the more it’s going to hurt this team come regular season time as we have yet to see how his unique intangibles can impact the offense, but for now, this is still an offense trying to find it’s way and adapt to the new point guard in town.