I spent the first half of this game thinking that I was watching one of the best basketball teams that I have ever seen.
That's a pretty big thing to drop on a Wednesday BtB, early in a playoff run that lasts about seven weeks. It's a big to drop when talking about a team that didn't even have the best point differential in the NBA this year, didn't win the championship last year, and a team that was doing its damage against an outfit from Utah that has been proven to be ruddy awful on defense.
But, gosh, do the Lakers just drip with potential. That team's offense is so, so good, and they don't even look like they've gotten to a comfort zone yet. Actually, the Lakers are nowhere near it, and they're still dropping regular 120-point per 100 possession games.
33 assists on 45 field goals for the Lakers, who shot 60 percent in the game and may have topped 130 points in the game were it not for those 21 turnovers.
Deron Williams had seven turnovers of his own, but man, was he taking it to the Lakers in the loss. 35 points on 23 shots, nine assists, four rebounds, four steals, two blocks, an incredible line. And everyone got a taste. I wouldn't mind Derek Fisher taking more of a backseat to Shannon Brown, but come on. Shannon Brown ain't doing anything to Deron Williams.
No real surprises, here. The Jazz were a little chippier. The Lakers can't guard point guards, we knew this in November, and the Jazz can't or won't guard anyone. It's easy to pile on the guy, but [curse word] was Carlos Boozer just out and out lazy on some of his rotations.
I know he's not blocking any shots even if he does rotate properly, that he's still not completely healthy, and that the Jazz need his offensive touch on the other end. But he just didn't care, on some of these plays. And I rip him for this because, at other times, you could see him working hard to contest and defend. That makes it worse. He's capable, and he knows better.
It's only the second game of this series, but the Cavs had a little letdown because they've played the Pistons so damn much. LeBron James isn't OK with that, but I am. 11 games in 2005-06, 10 games in 2006-07, four games last year, six games so far this year. Yes, there has been plenty of roster turnover, but these guys are sick of each other, and you tend to relent at times when familiarity breeds contempt.
So, it got a little dicey there for the Cavs, the Pistons came back in the fourth quarter, and the game was closer than it should have been. I'd fret over it if I hadn't seen championship teams from Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Antonio do the same thing, on more than a few occasions, over the years. This wasn't the same as seeing the Pistons take it easy in the early rounds from 2006-2008. There's nothing lasting here to freak out over, so don't.
Workmanlike, efficient, offense from Cleveland. It wasn't pretty, but all those points (32 of them) from the free throw line count just as much as LeBron James' breakaway dunks, and a win is a win. Only part of that is true, and the last bit was a cliché, but you know what I'm on about.
29 points on only 14 shots, 13 rebounds, six assists, and two turnovers for James. 1-11 shooting for the Cleveland bench, but with LeBron and his backcourt (Delonte West and Mo Williams combined for 41), it hardly mattered.
Beyond that, not much. Doug Collins and Kevin Harlan, I thought, called a terrific game.
A little note on Mike Brown, if you wouldn't mind ...
Brown won the Coach of the Year award yesterday, and it was truly a deserved honor. He's done an absolutely brilliant job with this team since October. More importantly, to me, is what that award represents. Improvement. Huge, huge improvement in a coaching style that can't be credited to the acquisition of Mo Williams, and the continued ascension of LeBron James.
For years, I rode Brown. I rode him on his ultra-simple offense, his poor rotation choices, his cruelly-simple offense, and, sometimes, on his pitiful offensive sets.
"But defense wins championships!", they cried.
No, offense and defense wins championships. Or, defense and offense. Put in whatever order you want, they still mean exactly the same amount.
Brown coached defense well, but hardly mattered when he'd stick the game's best player 26 feet from the hoop with 14 seconds left on the shot clock, and send up a screen for him from a big man who didn't deserve defensive attention 26 inches from the hoop, much less 26 feet.
But Brown changed, he grew, and everybody knew. Yeah. And his on-court growth allows us to reflect back on something that we can't help but warm ourselves with when things go wrong -- that coaches improve.
I railed on Brown not because I got something out of it, not because I enjoyed acting all dyspeptic, or because had some superficial dislike of the man (and, honestly, readers? You can substitute any player or coach's name into that sentence). I railed on him because I wanted him to do better. Just as you would get on a second-year stud who still doesn't play any defense.
And, because he was handed the game's best player at a formative age, we needed him to get better. It was downright scary, for years, to note that a 22 or 23-year old LeBron James was stuck in an offense that reminded of Larry Brown's old Philadelphia 76ers. At their worst. With nary a Jumaine Jones to be found.
Not only was that awful, but because the Cavs were on national TV all the time, this is what casual fans got out of the NBA. 82-79. 132 dribbles and a three-pointer that doesn't go in.
So it speaks to Brown's newfound offensive touch that my father, a casual fan, was moved enough to call me up during halftime of the Cavs/Pistons game tonight to gush about Cleveland's offensive sets.
Knowing nothing about Brown's award, or John Kuester, or my own thoughts on Brown's growth. Without even remembering Delonte West's name ("Braids," he called him, "then set a screen away from the ball ..."). You didn't get that, on a random Friday night, in December of 2006. The game was too ugly. And Brown's coaching was a big reason why.
And Brown's coaching, this season? It's the biggest reason for Cleveland's turnaround. The roster is better, and LeBron is better, but roster improvement + LeBron at age 24 don't equal a 21-game improvement. The offense had to change, and though it took him bloody forever, Brown worked on it. And you're seeing the results. Defense, and offense, on its way to a potential championship.
A raucous crowd (which included organic -- not spurred on by an electronic scoreboard display -- cheers), great announcing (Mike Barrett and Mike Rice might be homers sometimes, but they know the game; and they'll side with the opponents on a ref's call that can go either way), great players, a competitive contest ... pity it didn't get bigger exposure.
The worst thing that could possibly happen to the Houston Rockets, short of injury or team-wide influenza, is when Ron Artest nails a couple of shots early on. Now, his first offering was blocked by Nic Batum, but his next three 20-footers drew rain and dropped in. They were horrible shots, contested looks that had about a 30 percent chance (at best) of going in, and somehow the odds went in his favor three times in a row.
And because Ron Artest is a basketball player, and he thinks that this is some sort of pattern that can't possibly be interrupted, he continued to shoot. A couple of other, better, shots dropped in, and he finished the first quarter with 15 points.
19 points on 20 shots, which doesn't seem too awful, but think about that. He got to the line once for two free throws, and turned it over once. So that's 22 possessions used up to score 19 points. For a player with his offensive talent, that's pretty awful. If your team averages one point per possession, it will be the worst offense in the NBA. And in the playoffs, where these tiny, little advantages turn teams into winners or losers, these things matter.
And no amount of spot-on defense can make up for that. Not with all those empty possessions. Not when he could have been using some of those looks to drive to the hoop, get fouled, put Portland in the penalty, and make it easier for his teammates to rack up free throws later in the quarter. This stuff just builds and builds, and if you think I'm being obsessive, you're right. We're behind the damned box score, ‘ere.
Or, you can go with how Henry put it: "Ron Artest's confidence in his own offensive arsenal was one of Portland's better weapons tonight."
Houston stuck around because, no thanks to Ron Ron, they got to the line quite a bit in that first half. Von Wafer had 21 points off the bench, no rebounds and no assists, but what does it matter when you're dropping 21 on 13 shots? Yao Ming only had six shots in 31 minutes, but I don't think missing him was nearly as egregious as Artest's play.
Overall, Houston came through with a fine offensive game. 115 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would lead the NBA in the regular season. For a usually-middling offensive squad, that is very good.
The issue was stopping Portland, but unless you don't care to even give a lick and a promise to defense, I'm not going to slam any team for not being able to stop the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland's offense is ridiculously good, from all angles, and there wasn't much Houston can do.
Yes, Brandon Roy flipped and scooped his way to 42 points, but LaMarcus Aldridge was the one who really brought it to me. 12 rebounds, which is a lot for him, with 27 points. In an 87 possession game? That's like a 35 and 16 effort from a Sun or Warrior. Seriously.
Actually, go back to Roy. Roll the tape back. OK, go ahead and roll it. OK, stop! 42 points for Roy, and zero turnovers? Do you know how big that is? To have a guy handle the ball that much, including quite a few pell-mell transition drives, and not turn the ball over ... a single time? That is so, so good. And on Ron Artest!
Same with LMA -- he didn't turn the ball over either. It's a nice luxury to have your best offensive player be your best defender, we've been told, but it's probably a better luxury to have your best offensive player never, ever, turn the ball over despite myriad chances. After all, "best" is a relative turn. Don Nelson was the first to coin the "luxury" quote, but his best offensive guy and defender is Stephen Jackson. Whoops.
The refs? They called a tight one, but not in a way that the fans appreciated. Early on, the referees set a tone regarding post defense away from the ball, and I always love that. Keep it clean, allow the big men to develop position. Then, as the game went on, all sorts of calls (some would say, and they'd be right, in Houston's favor the majority of the time) allowed the big fellas to stay on the floor. They were allowed to contest shots, and make a little contact, and the world didn't implode. What a refreshing stance, and save for one call on Greg Oden in the first quarter, a consistent one. More, please.
I realize that sounds a bit off, considering how Greg Oden fouled out, Joel Przybilla had five fouls, and Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo combined for five fouls in 33 minutes, but it could have been worse. It could have been much worse, and I'd like to thank Joey Crawford and his crew for letting them play.
Some ruminations ...
1. It's a tribute to how sweet a guy Ernie Johnson Jr. is that he's about the only person since about the first week of November, 2006, to be able to pull off a Borat impersonation or use of sound clips and not get a groan in response. You want a "count your blessings" reminder? We are incredibly lucky that this man is holding down the fort for 40 games in 40 nights, again.
2. A day later, there's no real way to put a silver lining on Dikembe Mutombo's career-ending injury. If you weren't moved close to tears watching him writhe around on the floor before being carted off the court in the first quarter, then, well, I'll stop.
Just an incredibly sad ending for a player, a man, who didn't have to be pounding away under the rim with a kid half his age. Someone who didn't need the money, but kept coming back. Someone who loved the game like we did.
We've had a lot of fun with Dikembe over the years, but the man is a giant, no matter his physical stature. I won't get into the off-court stuff, the sheer impact of which deserves a day-long tribute, but I will state that he absolutely turned both the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks around after joining those teams in the 1990s. He steadied the paint for four other teams, he always worked hard, he always made a difference, he always made it worth our time to tune in.
The tributes can come later. Right now, I'm just feeling sadness. What this game can do to you, y'know?