Thursday, May 28, 2009

The King Has One Royal Game As Cavs Stay Alive

Excuse the corniness, but I was looking for something witty to use as a title.  

There are very few players who, when called upon to be the deciding factor in their team's fate, can actually deliver consistently.  LeBron James is, without a doubt, one of those chosen few who can, in fact, take over a game all by himself.  In the fourth quarter alone, the man had 17 points and four assists.  I won't make any assumptions, but if The King has anything to do with it, this series is going back to Cleveland for a Game Seven.

Perhaps you remember that Game Five two years ago.  The game that LeBron finally lived up to his royal nickname and played himself into the history books as the best player of his generation.  The main criticism of James to that point was that he mailed it in.  He had two different gears.  Sometimes he would be the greatest player on the court, and other times, he would just sort of sleepwalk through games.  For some reason in that series, everything changed.  LeBron suddenly realized his potential and, in one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history, single-handedly demolished the Pistons, scoring 29 of Cleveland's last 30, and the final 25 points, en route to a two-overtime win.  I, just like everyone else, was in awe.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime performance, maybe once-in-a-century.  Jordan and Wilt took over games with finesse.  Kobe can do similarly.  But nobody- and I mean NOBODY- can take over a game physically like LeBron James can.  It's a sight to behold, and once again tonight, just like that evening two years ago, I have no words to truly describe the type of game I just witnessed.

Enough of the LeBron homerism however.  As much as his triple-double, and huge fourth quarter carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to a win they had to have, you can't forget the contributions from his teammates in this game, who were MIA up until this point.  Mo Williams put up 24 points tonight, the first time he scored over 20 in the series.  Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 16 points, the most he's had this entire playoffs.  Daniel Gibson came up huge with three three-pointers, the first time I've really heard his name called in weeks.  Yes, LeBron is the star here, but like I said two nights ago, he can't do it all on his own.  He has the ability to carry a team if necessary, but he can't be expected to do it game in and game out without some help.  Cavs coach Mike Brown talked about an unexpected guy stepping up late.  This game, that surprise was Gibson.  Next game, it could be anyone else, I'm sure.

Though the overall numbers aren't staggering, you've also got to love the defensive intensity and rebounding by the Cavs in the deciding fourth quarter.  The quarter started as somewhat of a disaster mirroring the previous two stanzas, poor shooting, defensive lapses, and an inability to capitalize on second-chance opportunities.  Around the six-minute mark however, things changed.  Cleveland began to capitalize on Orlando Magic turnovers, draw smart fouls, and take care of the ball.  LeBron, in particular, employed some real heads-up play on the boards, creating more scoring chances that ultimately led to them taking the lead for good.  The entire  team, but specifically James, also did a great job of spreading the ball around and catching the open man, for a total of 21 assists.  As I said two days ago, multiple players would have to become a factor for the Cavs to claim a victory in Game Five, and the results showed how much better they are when they're not a one-man show.

Going into Game Six, the pressure is still on Cleveland, specifically LeBron's supporting cast, to get it done.  For the most part, Orlando has played a fairly complete style of basketball, using some real tight defense to force the ball to the perimeter, and not allowing James to run roughshod in the paint.  They've had some real clutch shooters, and if not for some unfortunate cold streaks in Game Five, could have pulled it out.  The Cavaliers, on the other hand, still have adjustments that must be made.  Once again, they were up big (22 in this one) before letting it all slip away, and eventually playing from behind.  They need to find a way to translate that initial intensity into game-long success, and if that means spreading minutes out more, and keeping everyone a bit fresher for the home stretch, so be it.  I'll tell you this: If Game Six comes down to LeBron having to carry Cleveland on his back again like he did in the first four contests, the Cavs will ultimately fail.  Perhaps they've learned their lesson, and are refocused.  We won't know, though, until they get back to Orlando.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Nuggets Give Game Away in Fourth

One of the things that defines a championship-caliber team is its ability to close out a game in the fourth quarter.  From what we saw here tonight, the Denver Nuggets just don't seem to have it.

A tie game at 76-all after three quarters, the Nuggets suddenly let the wheels fly off, allowing the Los Angeles Lakers to put them away within the first six minutes of the fourth.  They'd been sloppy all game, but lucked out, and had managed to lead most of the game.  Things like this happen when the only guy on your team hitting a field goal for eight minutes is Linas Kleiza.  

If anyone caught the live blog, I was puzzled while watching the Nuggets at numerous points, especially in the final quarter.  The aforementioned Kleiza was the only guy taking legitimate shots from the 12-minute mark up until there were about four minutes remaining.  Carmelo Anthony was refusing to take shots, besides off balance leaners while in double coverage.  Chauncey Billups relegated himself to hail mary three point attempts.  Kenyon Martin decided he was a jump shooter.  I can't even recall a shot attempt by Dahntay Jones or Birdman.  JR Smith chucked up one three.  Nene, before fouling out, was about as effective as a corpse on the floor.  Why, with all of these stars, and significant role players on the court, do you not run plays for them?

Does the blame go towards coach George Karl?  Karl has been part of multiple teams that choked mightily, namely all of the Denver teams he's coached that could have achieved so much more, as well as the 1993-94 Seattle team that lost to an 8-seed in the first round, and the 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks who could have, and probably should have played in the Finals.  We don't know what was going on in the huddle throughout the fourth quarter tonight, but based on the sound clips I heard with about three minutes to go- "You guys are fine!"- something tells me the playcalling was less than superb.  Use the players you have on the court to make things happen.  Use their respective skills to get results from them individually, which leads to collective success.  Players were out of their elements, and their roles on the court, and that, in part, is why they lost.

Of course, Denver also was not the only team on the floor.  For all of the terrible turnovers by Denver (14 in all), a lot were a product of some great defense by the Lakers.  What drives me nuts about this fact though is that the Nuggets beat L.A. on the boards (43-42), in steals (11-5), and had one less turnover (14-15), yet still could not capitalize.  Regardless of how much I lambasted him throughout the game for his inability to shoot free throws (still true, by the way), Lamar Odom still had one hell of a game.  Odom scored 19 points, grabbed 14 boards, and had four of the team's 12 blocks.  His presence is critical to the Lakers' press on inbound passes late in games, and without him, maybe the Nuggets get back into this one in the closing minutes.  Both Odom and Kobe Bryant made their presences felt in this game, and without a Denver star showing up to neutral one or both, the Lakers will take this series.

Now the Nuggets are in quite a hole here going into Game Six.  They're playing shoddy defense, and allowing the Lakers to penetrate on every possession.  They're ignoring their stars, and instead allowing role players to decide their fate.  They're forgetting their respective roles on the court, and instead, are just chucking the ball at the net in the hopes it goes in.  If they want to win this series, they're going to have to reverse that.  The Nuggets are a faster, more athletic team than the Lakers.  Use that to your advantage.  Denver's at its best when they are pushing the ball down the court and scoring on breaks.  If you play the type of ball that L.A. wants you to, you will lose.  The Lakers will use the entire shot clock every possession and grind the game to a halt if you let them.  Carmelo sometimes seems to know his role as one of the superstars on this team, but he still needs to embrace that more with the game in the balance.  Billups, on the other hand, needs to be more aware of his role as a point guard, and only take smart shots (unlike the threes he was tossing up at will late in tonight's game).

For the Lakers, if they do what they did tonight, they could still lose Game Six.  Though they still won, they made a ton of errors that would have come back to haunt them had Denver been more focused.  Kobe and a interchangeable spare part of Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum/Odom can carry this team in a game like this, but at least three players need to step up if they expect to beat Denver on the road again.  On the bright side, however, this game also proved that the team can win without Kobe putting up 35 points, something the Cavs have yet to prove this round when it comes to LeBron.  The way the Lakers are playing late in games, it's hard for me to see them losing this series, but I do think we're headed back to Los Angeles for a Game Seven.  At least I hope so.

Nuggets-Lakers Live Blog, 4th Quarter

11:09: Absolutely pitiful shot by Martin.  Stick to what you're good at and hammer inside.

11:10: Sadly, this seems like a replay of Game Three.  A lot of Chauncey Billups tossing up terrible threes.  If JR Smith gets in on the act, it'll be an exact replica.

11:12: You've got to hate when you can see the wheels coming off in front of your eyes.  Nene's done, and if the Nuggets don't get it together, so are they.

11:14: I'm sure everyone's seen the new Heineken commercial encouraging using a taxi after drinking.  "OH BABY, YOU- YOU GOT WHAT I NEE-EED!"  Good stuff.

11:17: 'Melo just mugged Kobe.  The Birdman looked concerned.  I am too, about this game getting out of hand.


11:20: Stupid fouls, stupid shots, and stupid turnovers.  The Nuggets are handing this game to the Lakers right now.

11:22: Why is 'Melo trying to dunk from 15 feet out?  You can't make poor decisions like that this late, especially down 10.

11:25: Why does everyone hate the Kobe/LeBron Nike puppet commercials?  I think they're kind of entertaining.

11:26: Kleiza's had the last two FG's for Denver.  Sign #75 why you're losing in the fourth.

11:27: Nene Fail.

11:28: The Lakers are trying to let Denver back into this one, yet they refuse to capitalize.  In other news, George Karl just said "you're fine" to his team.  I couldn't disagree more.

11:29: Why is Kleiza suddently The Guy?  I mean, it's working to a point, but what about 'Melo, Billups, Martin, Smith, Jones, etc.?

11:31: What a flop by Nene.  The Nuggets are going to miss him as a physical presence on the court, even though he's done nothing on the offensive end.

11:33: Ariza's about to make me eat my words again.  Really poor rotation by the Nuggets there.  Not sure what's going on with their D for the past few minutes.

11:35: And on cue, Odom misses a free throw in the fourth quarter.... Make it two.

11:36: The Nuggets are playing too sloppy for words.  "This is well officiated playoff basketball!" exclaims Van Gundy.  Probably the only time you'll hear that all month.

11:37: Side note- can't stand the shameless cross-promotion the NBA does with movies.  They are not related in anyway, so stop trying to pretend they are.

11:40: Another Billups misfire.  Based on the shot, you'd think there were two seconds left on the shot clock.

11:41: I'm pretty sure the Nuggets do not want to win this game.  Also, don't let 'Melo's box score fool you.  His 28 points are on 8-22 shooting.

11:43: Game: Blouses.  The Nuggets just didn't have it tonight, and they've paid the price.  When you don't take care of the ball, and don't capitalize on open looks, you're going to lose, no matter who you face.

11:44: Successful inbound by the Nuggets!  At least that's something different than the other games.

11:46: The Nuggets are now 0-3 when I catch any portion of the game.  Hmmm... something tells me I won't be tuning in for the next (hopefully) two contests.

11:47: Analysis of the game coming up.  Stop back within the hour.

Nuggets-Lakers Live Blog, 3rd Quarter

10:35: "21st Century Breakdown," says my brother, sarcastically, as Jeff Van Gundy drags the images of the players across the screen.

10:37: Trevor Ariza, once again, you are the worst player on the court at any given moment tonight.

10:39: I'm not taking it back yet, even after that shot.

10:39: I feel like that's the first time I've heard Kenyon Martin's name all night.

10:41: As much as I hate Kobe, I cannot deny how good the man is.

10:41: 'Melo really should have put that shot up when he was underneath the hoop.  And yes, Martin's shot is hideous.

10:43: The second-worst player on the court fouls the worst.  We won't see Nene until the fourth quarter.

10:44: Grammar correction, Van Gundy- "most obese states".  Not "biggest obese states".

10:45: I feel like everyone on the Nuggets has a "great ability to contort their body".  I've heard it said about almost the entire team during the last few games.

10:47: Why is it that no one has mentioned Birdman's haircut yet?  What's the deal, Van Gundy, Jackson and Breen?!

10:49: Green tea and ice cream... bad scene.

10:52: Did Progressive plan to have "Flo" be their permanent spokesperson?  Hmmm...

10:54: "It's about to get tragic..."  Turnovers are killing Denver.

10:56: That was one of the worst shots I've ever seen Kobe Bryant take.  Ever.

11:00: Hugh Hefner...BALLER.

11:01: I feel like Hugh should get a lifetime achievement award.  I'm not sure what for, but we all know he deserves some kind of prize given what he's been able to pull off in his old age.

11:03: The television's been highjacked once again for a limited time.  I may miss the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Nuggets-Lakers Live Blog, 2nd Quarter-Halftime

10:02: Back, for the time being.  Both teams seem incredibly sluggish and disorganized on offense.  Missed layups, more shot selection- hope both teams can pick it up.

10:03: Billups picks up his third foul now- this isn't good for Denver's chances.  At all.

10:05: Kobe's got four points thus far.  Looks like my prediction from earlier was a bit short-sighted/just bad.

10:07: What the hell is wrong with Trevor Ariza tonight?  Seriously.  The guy is just throwing himself at people and making bonehead play after bonehead play.

10:10: Sweet stroke by Anthony!  Oh, and for those following, Kobe's scored seven since I mentioned him not being as much of a factor as I thought he'd be.

10:12: Real stupid fouls under the basket by Denver.  In an unrelated question- what do we attribute 'Melo's maturity and improvement to?  Shaving the cornrows, or Billups?

10:13: What year was The Osbournes last on television?  And why is it that I feel like Ozzy's been peddling every product under the sun lately?

10:14: As much as Odom sucks, he's pretty much the best inbound pass defender I've ever seen.  Tie game at the half seems about right.  Real evenly-matched game thus far.

10:17: What does Amway do?  Seriously.  I have no idea.

10:20: Los Angeles may be lucky, but not much more than Denver.  There have been a lot of lapses on both sides, in my opinion.  

10:21: Wilbon, if you told me Odom would have twice as many shot attempts as Gasol, I wouldn't be surprised, since he's Lamar Odom.

10:22: Did we just coin a new nickname for Rashard Lewis- "Mr. Clutch"? Please.  Spare us all.  God.

10:23: Why does The Postal Service provide the music for the US Postal Service's top competitor, the United Parcel Service?  I though part of the settlement between the two was the the band lets USPS use their music in ads.

10:30: Scooping ice cream should not require as much effort as I just had to put forth.

10:33: Green Day's new album just came out, and I'm already sick of it.  Remember when that band didn't suck?  Yeah, I know, it's kind of hard for me to recall 1993 too.

Nuggets-Lakers Live Blog, 1st Quarter

I'll be live blogging the entire game tonight (hopefully) between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.  As you probably know, I'm rooting for the Nuggets.  The game will be divided up by quarters, so none of the posts are too long.  Get ready.  Should be an exciting Game 5.

9:04 ET: I wonder how much the Lakers' intro cost them?  A bit over the top, if you ask me.

9:05: Did Jeff Van Gundy just call Lamar Odom's game "well-rounded"? Hahaha.  If you're depending on Lamar Odom to win a playoff game/series, I'd say you're screwed.

9:10: Van Gundy once again providing some good insight.  I agree that fouls should not carry over from series to series.  Amazing how a guy who was such a mediocre coach can be such a good analyst. 

9:12: The box score from Game 4 looks pretty imposing.

9:13: 'Melo looks like he's feeling better.  Can't help but feel that this is one of those game where Kobe has to carry the Lakers on his back.  Real sloppy play thus far, especially by Trevor Ariza.

9:15: Way too much effort is put into car commercials.  Also, hate the new McDonald's ads.

9:17: Lamar Odom should focus on his inability to hit more than one of two free throws in the fourth quarter.

9:19: Marc Jackson made way too much of that pick by Gasol.  I don't really think it says much, besides "I'm gonna throw a pick on you away from the ball."

9:21: Derek Fisher is one of about 5 current guys I would never give an option shot in the playoffs.  The others?  LeBron, Kobe, Robert Horry, and Dwayne Wade.

9:23: Love the classic "Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?" commercials.  Whoever's been running the NBA's ad dept. the past two years, props.

9:25: Nene does a very good job of disappearing for years at a time. -- Nice play by Carmelo right there.  Takes some real upper arm strength.

9:27: Just got word that we, as a household, will not be watching this entire game.  So much for being able to live blog the whole thing.

9:30: Correction, Marc Jackson.  Denver getting Billups was a bigger move than the Lakers getting Gasol last year.  The Lakers were already one of the best teams before Gasol.  The Nuggets went from a fringe playoff team to one of the NBA's elite with Billups.

9:31: Tough break on the Billups offensive foul.  Feet weren't set, and he didn't push off.  Now he's got two fouls, and we're not going to see him until a couple minutes into the second.

9:34: Denver getting a lot of second-chance opportunities.  Lamar Odom, just like I said, is a failure.  Also- did Birdman get a haircut?!  Looks like it.  

9:35: Not sure how long I'll be around for the rest of this game.  I'll blog while I'm here.  I'll definitely be here for the fourth though.

Cavs in Crisis Mode

Well, this wasn't really what I had expected going into this series.  The Cleveland Cavaliers spent the entire year taking pictures of themselves with fake cameras, and murdering opponents on a nightly basis, en route to a 66-16 record, 39-2 at home.  Now, somehow, someway, that same happy-go-lucky band of brothers is down three games to one to the inferior Orlando Magic.

Now, don't get the wrong idea here.  Most casual fans know by now that the Magic actually took the season series from Cleveland this year, with the Cavs struggling mightily in road matchups against the league's other elite squads.  Still, after LeBron James & Co. handled the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks so well, it did seem a bit like a foregone conclusion that they would be playing in the Finals.  Hell, even those goofy puppet commercials said so.  So why, with all of that in mind, are the Cavs now standing with their backs against the wall, needing a miracle of impressive proportions, to come back and win a series we had all handed them in five games?

To be honest, I'm not so sure.  But maybe I'll give it a shot.

Could Cleveland actually have been too loose going in?
Maybe.  The chuckling, fun-loving gang of the first two rounds had tons of time off between rounds two and three.  Enough time to sit around trying crazy half court shots for the cameras.  In the first game they were taken by surprise.  In the second, they needed a LeBron miracle to pull off the win.  In these past two games, they've looked fairly shell-shocked, to be honest, save King James, who is playing out of his mind right now.

Everyone besides LeBron's MIA
Seriously, where is everybody?  Every time I tune in, it looks like LeBron's scoring again.  I don't see anyone else with the ball, except to toss it over to #23.  However, whenever Orlando's on the offensive, I see different guys with the ball each time.  Hedo Turkoglu, Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis have all hit big shots throughout the series, and role players like Rafer Alston and Mickael Pietrus have also come up huge.  I can't really think of anything Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Zyndrus Ilgauskas have done, beside inbound the ball and take up space.  This needs to be corrected.  

Piggypacking on my last point, stop relying on LeBron so much!
This has been viciously apparent the entire series, but no more so than the final seconds of the loss tonight in Game Four.  Down by four, LeBron, who is not that good of a three-point shooter, but knows how to hit them in the clutch, sinks an amazing three in double coverage off the inbounds pass.  Soon after, the Cavs are inbounding it now for their final possession, down two with 3.2 seconds left on the clock.  Everyone's at mid-court, and LeBron's doubled again.  I watched in horror as LeBron insisted on chucking up an off-balance 35-footer with four hands in his face while his teammates are open in other parts of the court.  I was stunned.  Baffled.  Why would he do that?  Did Coach Mike Brown call his number only?  If you only need a two to tie, wouldn't it make sense to try and pass it inside to get the more high-percentage shot, and maybe even draw a contact foul (not likely that late, I admit though)?  Just poor game management at the end.  

So now what?

Everybody's got to buckle down and play some more D if they want to win this series.  It was their strong point all year, and now suddenly it's a weak link that's causing some serious issues and allowing for some really wide open opportunities.  Other people not named "James" need to step up if they expect to win this series, because the Magic are far too young and talented to get beaten by one guy (in hindsight, this was the worst matchup for the Cavs, since they really needed a team which they could trash using LeBron alone.  The Pistons were old enough, so were the Boston Celtics, but not Orlando.  This could be the difference maker for the whole series).  Now, Cleveland needs to ride their crowd to a Game Five win, and hope they can luck out in Orlando.  Orlando doesn't want to go back to The Q for a Game Seven, and I would bet on Cleveland winning if that were the case.  Lastly, it's imperative that the Cavs believe they can do this.  No more talking about getting things done, and instead, just do them.  One win could swing morale, and the series, the right way.  They always start strong, now they just need to finish the game off on the right foot.  I expect a different Cavs team on the floor in Game Five, however, I thought the same thing before this one, so who knows.

...And We're Back

It's been awhile, hasn't it?  Anyone who may have stopped by this space before, back in 2007, has probably moved on by now.  Even if you haven't (not sure how that would even be possible), there's some new things in store as I rebuild this aspect of my blogging.  For those who are unaware, I've been dedicating a very significant amount of time to my fledgling music blog, Animal Noises, which I run with my brother.  The site is still growing, however, does have a readership and is a very active space.  I hope to cultivate a similar attitude here, just with sports, of course, and a good dash of humor.  As you might have guessed, I'm (still) the fanatic the blog's title refers to, and as such, there's a couple of things people should know going in, as far as my personal biases are concerned.

1. For all of the love I show my teams, I show just as much, if not more, hate towards their rivals.

2. I will try to eliminate my personal biases where applicable.  This only means that I won't avoid a story about a certain team.  It does not mean I won't proceed to level them throughout.

3. My teams- Mets, Giants, Rangers, Syracuse University, Mavericks.  To a lesser degree, New York Dragons, New York Red Bulls, FC Barcelona, Chelsea, and UNC.

4. Pure hatred towards- Yankees, Phillies, Braves, STL Cardinals, SF Giants, Cowboys, Patriots, 49ers, Broncos, Eagles, Spurs, Lakers, Pacers, the former Supersonics, Celtics, Devils, Red Wings, Flyers, Hurricanes, Oilers, Georgetown, UConn, Univ. of Vermont, Oklahoma, Michigan St., Indiana, Ohio St., Florida St., Nebraska, Stanford, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona, and of course Duke.

Now that we've got that out of the way, this will probably be easier for everyone.  Enjoy.