Cleveland 112, Chicago 102; Clevelands the series, 2-0
Give it up for Chicago, they played possibly their best game of the year on Monday, if only to fall short by double figures again on the road.
The Bulls were probably going to lose even without LeBron James(notes) hitting the sort of maddening shots he nailed in the late fourth quarter, that's just the case when Chicago comes by efficient offense so rarely, so the Bulls can't get too upset about it. But I can. Not as a Chicago backer, but just as someone who understands that rainbow bombs can be a little addicting, and that LeBron better stay way, way away from these low efficiency killers.
They're just bad shots. Even someone as talented as LeBron -- and we've been watching them all year -- is going to hit them at a 40 percent rate, tops, and that mark probably moves down to one in three once you figure in how contested these looks were. James knocked ‘em in on Monday, nicely done, but you worry about the habit. You worry about Orlando and Los Angeles and even Boston, if he continues to think this a sound maneuver, at any time in the game.
And this is the thing I've gotten junk for, for years. LeBron plays about as great a game of basketball as I've ever seen anyone play, but here I am chiding him for shot selection on shots that went in. But I'll bring it up again because I don't care, because I know better; and because even his most ardent fans (the ones who have been watching him, in every game, for years) know better if they just put the fan thing aside for a second. They know the rate at which these shots go in, just off memory alone, and it's not that great.
They were the same sort of shots that won Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semis, back in 2006. That win was enough to put a terrible Cleveland team up 3-2 over Detroit, with the next game taking place in Cleveland. An upset seemed assured, but I warned James over at SI.com that "he has to stop. He has to lose these fadeaway jumpers before it turns into a habit and he forgets what got him in the league in the first place. And if he doesn't find the right balance soon, the Pistons will be in the Eastern Conference finals before LeBron knows what hit him."
And, of course, I got tons of grief. Why piss all over a game like this? Don't you think that LeBron knows the game, and his touch, a little better than you? Why can't you just appreciate what he just put together? Go suck up to Kobe some more, you freak.
And, of course, he spent the next two games loitering on the perimeter, and the Pistons took Games 6 and 7. The next year? He took it to the rim and single-handedly destroyed the Pistons. By 2010, his jumper is light years better, but this is a habit he has to watch. Geez, even against the Bulls, he has to watch it.
He was something to watch, though. His throwdown over James Johnson(notes) may have been my favorite stuff of LeBron's career. James' defensive work was fantastic, he was a constant threat to find teammates, and it's hard to argue with 40 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
It was his teammates that let him down. They couldn't force turnovers, the team's transition defense (save for LeBron) was hideous, and the Cavs didn't close out on penetration very well. Not guard penetration, Derrick Rose(notes) was shooting 19-footers all night, but center penetration. Chicago's go to move saw Joakim Noah(notes) dribbling in from the high post and to the rim time and time again.
Rose got his 23 points, but it was on 24 shots, and his go-to move late was the typical rocker dribble and pull up move that works to get him two makes in five tries, consistently. Consistently. You notice the ones that go in and forget about the rest. Meanwhile ... Rose looks so good, why is the Chicago offense so bad? Lots of reasons, but this is still the biggest one. He doesn't hit threes, he avoids contact on his way to the rim, but he's still shooting over 20 times a game. The points per game pile up, but 23 points on 24 possessions is awful.
Kirk Hinrich(notes) was miserable, so much so that one fan wondered with great sincerity as to whether or not Acie Law IV(notes) would have been a better option next to Rose. It's gotten that bad, though I can't fault Hinrich's defense. Luol Deng(notes) was also pretty aggressive, much appreciated.
Noah was the star, however. He was everywhere, seemingly indefatigable, finishing with 25 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, a block, a steal, and zero turnovers. Incredible night.
In the end, though, it wasn't enough. Jamario Moon(notes) nailed four three-pointers, and James was just too spectacular. This guy is something else, and even as he rips the heart out of my favorite team on the night they play about as well as I've seen them play in a year, I can do nothing but bow in his general direction. LeBron James is brilliant.
***Utah 114, Denver 111; series tied, 1-1
It's a playoff game, it's a close game, and every possession counts. Every one, without exception, and the Nuggets take exceptions. They think they can get it back, the next time around, and they're mistaken in that regard. Because it's the playoffs, it's a close game, and every possession counts.
Not to take away from another great game from the Jazz (yes, save for bad D on Carmelo Anthony(notes) in Game 1, they played a great game on Saturday night), but Denver's mistakes are the big story here. Even without the mental errors, Utah still may have won; but you rarely see a team as good as the Nuggets fritter possessions away like they did on Monday, at home no less.
Bad shots, bad fouls, poor rotations, bad choices. No focus. The sorts of things that plagued the Nuggets two years ago, back when George Karl (admittedly) wasn't really putting much into his coaching. This was the stuff that was supposed to go away when Chauncey Billups(notes) came around, the supposed coach on the floor. But we saw Chauncey's Detroit teams work the same un-magic in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. He's been on the floor for some pretty big meltdowns, and this was another one. His three-point miss late in the contest was atrocious.
Utah probably wasn't going down, though, even with Denver's head on straight.
33 points and 14 assists for Deron Williams(notes). Seven turnovers, too, but I don't care. He hit 16 free throws, on the road no less, and seemed to have an answer for every mini Denver run. I don't care what Charles Barkley says, Carlos Boozer's(notes) 20 points and 15 rebounds were huge. He may not have taken over the game like Deron did, but nobody's dominating a game when a teammate has 33 and 14 assists. There just aren't enough shots to go around, and I'm not going to dismiss 20 and bleedin' 15.
C.J. Miles(notes) is not a great or even good defender, hasn't been over his career at least, but he was up in Anthony's grill. Same with Wesley Matthews(notes). Anthony still got the best of them (32 points), because he's Carmelo Anthony, but it wasn't easy. Melo shot 36 percent, turned it over five times, and fouled out needlessly. Kenyon Martin(notes) played great defense and even tossed in three blocks to back that assertion up, but he also managed just three rebounds in over 31 minutes; though Denver tied with Utah on the glass in the loss.
And, yes, Kyrylo Fesenko(notes) had the most bandied-about four-point, two-rebound, two-turnover, five-foul game in NBA history. I get it, though. He looks like he can play, and as far as cameos go, this was one of his worst. He usually looks better. The guy has talent.
Denver can get hot, and the Jazz can let things get away from them defensively, so the home court might shift a few times as this series goes on. And, really, I don't expect the mental mistakes to go away for Denver, even if they pull ahead and take the next three. That's just part of the package with these guys, now.