Cleveland Cavaliers (50-13) vs
Phoenix Suns (34-30)
US Airways Center, Phoenix, AZ
Thursday, March 12, 2009
10:30 PM EST
Since the All-Star break, the Cavaliers are 10-2. They’ve played 7 games on the road over that span and have gone 5-2 in those games. A nice way to come out of the break, for sure, but some of these road games could very easily have been losses. With Boston’s loss to the Heat last night, the Cavaliers are now 3 games up on Boston in the loss column. This is huge when you consider the Cavaliers upcoming schedule. After tonight and tomorrow’s games on the road, the Cavaliers then play 8 of their next 9 games at home (albeit 7 of those 8 home games are against pretty good teams) to close out March. If the Cavaliers can find a way to win tonight in Phoenix, and then take care of business tomorrow in Sacramento, then the Cavaliers actually will find themselves in a very favorable situation. You can’t ask for much more than playing 8 out of 9 games at home to put a stranglehold on the conference’s (and possibly even the Association’s) best record. So needless to say, tonight’s game is the table setter for the Cavaliers, and that makes this game a very big opportunity for the team.
Historically, the Cavaliers have not fared well against the Suns at all. Overall, the Suns have the 4th best record in the NBA against Cleveland. Going back to 2000, the Cavaliers are 4-15 against the Suns. The last time the Cavaliers won in Phoenix was March 10, 1999, meaning an entire decade has now passed since the last time the Cavaliers notched a road win against the Suns. The Cavaliers starting lineup that night was Brevin Knight, Wesley Person, Cedric Henderson, Shawn Kemp, and Vitaly Potapenko. The times, faces, and names have changed a lot in the last decade, but the result is always the same.
So before anyone expects this game to be an easy win for the Cavaliers (97.1% of those participating in ESPN’s Streak For Cash are picking Cleveland in this one), they should sit back and realize that the Suns have absolutely owned Cleveland in Phoenix over the years. In order for the Cavaliers to win this game, they will have to start doing a lot of things right.
Recently, the Cavaliers have not been playing all the well on the road, requiring some amazing comebacks to sneak out wins when they perhaps should have lost. Those games certainly teach valuable lessons for when the playoffs get here, but against high octane teams like Phoenix who can put huge chunks of points on the board in a flash, you don’t want to fall needlessly behind.
While defense is always key against a team like Phoenix, it’s the Cavaliers road offense that has concerned me the most lately. In the Cavaliers 4 home games since the All-Star break, they have had 20+ assists in each of those games (all easy wins of 10 points or more with an average margin 16.25 points). On the road, the Cavaliers play a completely different style of “offense”. In only one road game since the break have the Cavaliers managed to record more than 20 assists.
If you are wondering why it seems like the 3rd quarter jinx is back, look no further than the assists. With so many road games since the All-Star break, and with the Cavaliers using their stand-around-and-do-nothing offense on the road, it’s only natural that some of these bad habits are catching up to them. The Cavaliers need to get out of that mindset and get back to using good movement away from the ball and not being afraid to use the extra pass to reverse the ball from side to side. If Mike Brown and LeBron James truly cared about improving this offense, they would stop having LeBron play de-facto PG. It’s not helping this team at all right now. When LeBron is moving without the ball and receiving the ball in position to score rather than generating the offense himself, the Cavaliers run like a well-oiled machine. When he pounds the ball at the top of the key, the Cavaliers slow down, force themselves into careless turnovers, and shoot a lot of unassisted outside jump shots.
On defense, the Cavaliers must brace themselves for one of the best and most dynamic backcourts in the NBA. Steve Nash and Jason Richardson are straight lethal and can beat teams in so many different ways. The Cavaliers guards are going to have their hands full in this one. The good thing for the Cavaliers is that with Amare injured, the Suns don’t have a ton of depth and their size takes a serious hit. This will allow the Cavaliers to play their small lineup a lot if they need to, or else they can just try to control the boards with a much larger lineup. You can never discount Shaq in the middle, but the Suns inside presence isn’t what it is when Amare is playing.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas is one of the few centers in the NBA big enough to bother Shaquille O’Neal. In their last 8 head to head matchups, Big Z has been respectable in holding Shaq to an average of 15.13 points/game. If Z can limit Shaq at all, and if the Cavaliers can contain Steve Nash as best as possible and thus force Phoenix into becoming a perimeter team, they will serve themselves well. But if the Suns are able to run their offense, rack up the assists on fast breaks and easy inside baskets, then much like the game in Boston last week, this game could become a frustrating affair to watch.