For one half Tuesday night, the Cavaliers looked like true title contenders. They came out strong jumping to a 12-4 lead early and rode their early success to a 50-43 halftime edge over the reigning NBA Champs on Ring Night in Boston. Then, a familiar thing happened….the 3rd quarter.
The Cavaliers reverted right back to old form in the 2nd half last night, using questionable lineups, shoddy defense, sloppy rebounding, stale offense, and giving away turnovers as they allowed the Celtics to gain a lead they would never again relinquish. In the end, it all added up to a 90-85 loss for the Cavaliers on a night which initially looked like it was time for the Cavaliers to make a statement.
This was a tale of two halves, indeed. In the first half, the offense was especially sharp. New point guard Mo Williams showed right away the impact he could have on this team. Mike Brown is always a fan of the “hockey assist” in basketball, and Mo Williams was consistently swinging the ball around to the other side of the court which allowed the Cavs to setup some good looks, back door cuts, and alley oop attempts. Mo hit a big 3-pointer early to help the Cavaliers open up an early lead and he would end up with 5 points in the quarter and seemed well on his way to a 20 point night.
LeBron James was not forcing anything on offense, and in fact, there were several possessions in which he never even had to touch the ball at all. This was key as it forced the Celtics to have to adjust their defense to what the Cavaliers were doing. It was strange to see it, but the Cavaliers were using people other than LeBron to beat the Celtics. This looked like a welcome sight in the first half. The Cavaliers defense was a little subpar at times in the first half, and they definitely gave the Celtics a few too many 2nd chance points and “And One” opportunities because they were slow to rotate the help on defense, but they still held the Celtics to 43 points and this game looked like one the Cavaliers would be able to control.
In the 2nd half, though, everything fell apart and this team looked the same old, ugly team that we can never seem to get rid of. The ball movement on offense dried up, the team gave the ball away time and time again, and on defense there were numerous times where guys were sleeping on the court and completely missed their assignments. After a nice start, Mo Williams looked tentative and even nervous at times in the 2nd half. His hesitation really cost the Cavs as they were never able to find that #2 scorer to help LeBron. Mo ended the game with 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting (3-of-5 from three and 1-of-1 from the line) with only 2 assists while racking up 5 fouls and turning the ball over 4 times.
LeBron had a decent game, but not a great one. He finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, but he also had 4 fouls and 3 turnovers as well. More importantly, perhaps, he continued to miss critical free throws when the Cavaliers needed them most. With a minute and a half left in the game, Kevin Garnett hit a FT to give the Celtics an 86-80 edge over Cleveland and the game felt like it was slipping away. However, Mo Williams came down and hit a big 3 to make it 86-83, and on the subsequent possession, he grabbed a big rebound off a Leon Powe miss. The ball came to LeBron and he had a nice drive and had a good look on a layup, but couldn’t get it to go down with 40 seconds left in the game. After a Paul Pierce miss, LeBron grabbed the rebound with 15 seconds left in the game. On the next play, LeBron drew a foul on Pierce to go to the line, down 3, with 10 seconds remaining. The Cavs needed both FTs to have a chance in the game, but LeBron missed the first. After making the 2nd, the Cavs tried to press but nobody decided to guard Leon Powe who was all the way on the other side of the court. Pierce threw the ball all the way down to Powe for a wide open dunk, and from there the game was essentially over.
You never want to overreact to the first game of a long season, but there were certainly some good things to take away from this one as well as some bad things.
Mo Williams certainly still needs to find his niche on this team. He can’t be scoring only 12 points and having only 2 assists. His defense on Rondo was pretty bad as well, but when the Cavs switched and put Delonte on him, West didn’t fare much better. Rondo just had a great night and was slicing through the Cavaliers’ defense all night. Mo will also have to cut down on the turnovers as well. Many of them seemed almost unforced as well. It looked like he was nervous, and he played like it at times. There were moments where he was very good as well, and it’s definitely a work in progress.
The worst stretch of this game came with the lineup of Daniel Gibson, Delonte West, Sasha Pavlovic, Anderson Varejao, and Lorenzen Wright. This lineup better not be a regular part of the Cavaliers’ repertoire, or there are going to be even more really ugly stretches like this. At the end of the 3rd quarter, the score was only 67-63 in favor of Boston. The Cavs started the 4th quarter with this lineup that had no clue what they were doing offensively and was consistently being punished in the paint defensively, and by the time Mo Williams, LeBron James, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas came back in to try to rescue them with 8 minutes left, the score had been pushed to 76-68 and the momentum of the game was completely in Boston’s favor. Even though the Cavs made some bad plays down the stretch, it really felt like it was this beginning of the 4th quarter where this game was lost. I’m not sure if JJ Hickson was still being punished for being late to the shootaround before the last preseason game or if Mike Brown didn’t want him to get his first taste of NBA action on the road against the defending champs, or what, but he got a big fat “DNP Coach’s Decision” as his replacement, Lorenzen Wright, struggled on offense and was abused on defense as well.
Daniel Gibson played a particularly bad game as well. He came in early and showed a nice running floater that he is hoping to become a big part of his arsenal, but perhaps in all his practicing of scoring with the ball and creating his own shots he forgot to practice his jump shot this offseason. In 23 minutes of action he scored only 6 points on 2-8 shooting from the field, including 0-2 from three, missing a couple critical open 3-point looks.
There were definitely some positives to walk away from this game with, though. Anderson Varejao played a particularly good game, as he logged the most minutes off the bench and scored 9 points while grabbing 9 rebounds. He was keeping possessions alive with 4 offensive rebounds and he also had 3 steals while only being called for 2 fouls. He was the Anderson Varejao we used to remember from days of old, the one who didn’t try to do too much on offense and found his points in the rhythm of the offense rather than forcing it, grabbing key rebound after key rebound, and pesetering the opponents all day long and getting under their skin.
It’s also a positive that the Cavaliers only lost by 5 to the reigning champs on their home opener, season opener, the night in which their banners were raise to the rafters. This was a motivated Celtics team that wanted to come out and make a statement. The Cavaliers held their ground, and if the Celtics really are the best team in the East, this game showed that the Cavaliers are right there with them. Statistically, this game was extremely even. The Celtics shot 44.6% from the field while the Cavs were 42.6%. The Cavs were 20% from distance, the Celtics 21.4%. The Cavs outrebounded the Celtics 41-36, but the Celtics had the advantage with 10 offensive rebounds to Cleveland’s disappointing 8. The Cavs had 16 assists to 21 turnovers while the Celtics had 16 assists to 16 turnovers. The Cavs had 18 points off Celtics turnovers while the Celtics had 14 points off Cavaliers turnovers.
Unlike last season when the Cavaliers came out particularly lifeless and looked really bad in big games, the Cavs looked really good for large stretches of this game. They showed intensity and they showed that they are going to be a tough team to beat. There’s no denying that if the Cavaliers truly want to become an elite team, they are going to have to start figuring out ways to win games like these on the road, but for being just the first game out of 82, I walk away from this game sad that they lost, but encouraged that there is potential here for this to be a very, very great team this season.