Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cleveland 102, Los Angeles 87

This year’s slate of Christmas day games included probably the most hyped up game of the entire season: the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Los Angeles Lakers, Lebron James meets Kobe Bryant. Puppet-a-puppet. While I try to avoid drawing conclusions from single, meaningless regular season games, I was looking forward to this one, since direct games between title contenders tend to come with playoff-like intensity, with both sides trying to pull out a “statement” win. Also, the Cavaliers and Lakers only play each other twice each season, and I wanted to see how the two teams matched up, after last years seemingly dominant Cavaliers team fell to the Magic due to unfavorable matchups. Sadly, the game wasn’t nearly as close as the early predictions suggested, but here are some things I noticed that could be big in the future:

The Cavaliers dominated this game, hounding the Lakers into 36.5% shooting, and getting into their heads. Once a few calls went against the Lakers’ way (my take on that: Shaq probably got away with blocking foul or two, but all in all, the Lakers got calls in the first half, the Cavs in the second, and the officiating as a whole seemed fairly even), the Lakers lost their heads, leading to technicals on Kobe, Fisher, Odom (twice), the bench (not subbing in for Odom after he was ejected), and the fans (throwing foam fingers on the court. I continue to be amazed by the Staples Center crowd. Kudos to them for actually showing emotiong that doesn't revolve around tacos, but throwing foam fingers? Was it "6 year olds get in for free night"?).

For the Cavaliers, this game should push them back into the public’s short list of contenders. I’m not really sure why they weren’t there earlier, but no harm done. After struggling early on this season with adjusting to the big Shaquasition and Delonte West’s personal issues, the Cavs are rolling, with an impressive 3-1 road trip. What impressed me most was the versatility displayed during this trip: after beating the Phoenix Suns with a monsterous 4th quarter behind a small ball line up that Bill Simmons called “poop-in-your-pants-scary" (Lebron at the 4, Anderson Varejao at center), the Cavs beat the Lakers going big, with Shaquille O’neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas playing together extensive minutes despite some pretty bad previous results. The Cavs proved that they can deal with LA’s size, pretty much shutting down Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Shaq and Z are still pretty terrible at defending the pick and roll, but specifically against LA, which doesn’t run the pick and roll as much, the pairing works. Also, Anthony Parker did a great job on Kobe - forcing tough shots, contesting jumpers, recording 2 blocks and altering several more by my eyes. Parker was brought in to make 3s and take the pressure of Lebron at defending perimeter guys: so far he has done only the former, but defending Kobe well is a great place to start.

As for offense, I know I’m not the first one to say this, but as Mo Williams goes, so does Cleveland. Mo torched Derek Fisher for 28 points on 8 for 13 shooting, combining long range bombs with penetration, and even some posting up. Anthony Parker had a bad shooting night – 1 for 5, missed all 4 of his attempts beyond the arc – but Jamario Moon and Delonte West filled in, each making a 3 and Moon hitting 2 more long range jumpers and finishing with 13 points on 7 shots. The Cavs shot 54% from the floor, with Lebron again proving why he is so great – struggling with his shot (27 points on a decent 9 for 19 shooting night, yet an atrocious 3 for 12 on jumpers from 16 feet and out), he played second fiddle to Williams, finding him for open jumpers doing his damage inside (including two absolutely gorgeous post moves). Seven turnovers for Lebron, but two of them were charges, and one came when the game was over, so while that isn’t a good number by any standards, I wouldn’t.

Truly, a great all-around game for the Cavs, who look downright scary after three impressive wins (the Suns, Kings and Lakers are a combined 37-9 at home this season, with three of those losses coming against the Cavs in the past week). The only downside I could see in this game was how lost J.J. Hickson seemed on defense, posting a team low +/- of -9. He played well in his first few games in the starting line-up, but the momentum caused by the move seems to have passed, and while I do think the Cavs could earn a valuable playoff contributor by giving him minutes, it would be hard to justify keeping him on the floor if he keeps playing like this.

Cut to the Lakers: hard to tell how much credit should be given to the Cavs’ defense and how much to the Lakers’ poor offense, since even against the best of the best, the defending champs should shoot more than 36% from the field. I would credit both: the Cavs did a great job stifling the Laker big men (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are shooting 57% and 53% shooting, respectively, yet shot a combined 6 for 16), and yet not many nights will you see Kobe Bryant shoot only 11 for 32 from the floor. Bryant, in particular, had a very bad offensive game: despite his impressive box score (35 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), he forced bad shots, missed many of the midrange jumpers that he usually lives on, and looked to me like he was pretty tired in the second half (more on that later). Kobe supporters would say that he had to take the extra shot attempts, with Bynum and Gasol shooting so poorly, but against a team with weak post defenders (of Cleveland’s four big men, only Shaq can truly defend a strong post presence one-on-one), those two have got to get the ball more. The Lakers can’t win a game with Kobe taking twice as many shots as his starting frontcourt, under any circumstances.

The Lakers as a whole played a pretty bad game offensively – only Ron Artest gave them a good game, with 13 points – but to be honest, except for Kobe’s mid range game, I didn’t really see them miss any shots that they usually make, except maybe Artest’s breakaway layups (then again, he misses those a lot). However, don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as a game that the Lakers just decided to let go – Kobe clearly wanted this game very badly, so much that he was pushing and hounding Lebron on defense late in the 4th quarter, even though the game was pretty much over. Perhaps this was the reason that he played way too much in this game, getting his first rest only midway through the 4th and playing a game high 45 minutes. I get that this is a big game, and that Kobe is a fierce competitor, but he is 31, and those knees aren’t getting any younger. In a December game, he shouldn’t top 40.

Then again, there is a good reason for Kobe’s high minutes: the Laker bench is terrible. This is a major concern going forward. The disparity between L.A.’s starting five (probably best in the league, though Boston and Orlando are in the discussion) and the bench is enourmous: after Lamar Odom, who is averaging a career low 8.5 points per game, the Lakers truly have no help from their second unit. Sasha Vujacic is a shell of the shell he was last year, Luke Walton is injured and wasn’t all that much to begin with, and Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga really aren’t all that. All that remains is the point guard combo of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, but Brown is good mainly for highlight plays and energy spurts, and Farmar clearly doesn’t mesh well with Phil Jackson and should be moved for his own good. L.A.’s main six contributors are good enough to do it alone on most nights, especially in the playoffs when rotations shorten, but seeing how deep other contenders are, the Lakers need to find somebody who can be a spark off the bench.

All in all, this game teaches us more about Cleveland than about the Lakers – mainly, that Shaq works against the big teams, that they can still defend with the best of them, and that Mo can show up for big games after last postseason’s collapse. However, with L.A. now dropping to only 6-5 against teams with a winning record, it should be asked if they aren’t as dominant as we thought. Being the defending champions, they get the benefit of the doubt, but this year’s title is still far from certain for the Lakers – and the road to it, despite everything, still goes through Cleveland.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dancing With The Stars

After Friday night's match between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, a fair share of media attention was diverted from the final result (Cleveland won) to an off-the-court incident: Chicago's Joakim Noah apparently felt disrespected by Lebron James' dancing to the sweet music of victory, and called him a bitch. A minor incident such as an athlete dancing - not murder, not theft, not even sticking a tongue out at a child spectator - stirred up a media controversy, adding to a list of events that transpired over the past year, and have each helped in portraying Lebron as an arrogant ass. I will now make an honest attempt to ignore my utter disbelief that anyone would find this newsworthy, if only to say this.

So - Freaking - What?

I mean, seriously? Dancing? We're getting pissed off at dancing? You know who dances? Dancers. Are dancers arrogant? Are dancers disrespectful? When was the last time you read a headline about dancers? And among those single-digit-numbered events, how many times did the aforementioned headline make you think "Wow, I really care about what happened over there, tell me more!"

But fine. Let's assume for a second that dancing isn't nice. Let's say that celebrating victories in basketball is a matter to be confined to high-fives only, excluding the occasional chest bump. Not only that, but let's all agree that dancing in front/in proximity to a defeated opponent is arrogant, and that said dancer is obviously a self absorbed prick.

Are you seriously surprised about it?

Lebron James makes millions of dollars a year, just to play basketball. In addition, he probably makes even more money by graciously allowing various companies to print his name over their products. Every time he comes to work at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, he may or may not notice himself covering nearby building(s). He was featured on a magazine as a high schooler. He was dubbed "The Chosen One" and "The King" as a teenager. Hell, the whole New York tri-state area has been obsessing on the sheer possibility of him maybe - or maybe not - moving there in the summer of 2010. That talk has been around since 2007. And now you're complaining that he's self absorbed? How could he not be self absorbed?! He's just trying to focus on what the rest of the world is!

This is not Lebron's problem. This goes way deeper. Every single sports fan - every, f-ing, single, one - wishes they had the physical abilities to have a sports career. Anyone who denies so is a liar. I've been playing basketball since I was 4. I believed I could be an NBA player until I was 12. I am 5'8, and whiter than snow. You can guess how that played out.

But since so many people wish to do what they love for a living - and so little actually do - us less talented ones hitch on for the ride. We find ourselves in those who made it. "Wow, look at Chris Paul! He's almost as short as me! I like that dude!" And since we look up at these people, we wish with all our might that they be look-upable (you're damn right I just made up a word for my angry tirade).

But sometimes - more often than not - they just aren't. Maybe because they were born as assholes - you know who you are - and maybe because they grew up in an environment that just didn't enable them to grow as such. Doesn't matter. Not the point. The point is that some athletes are good people, and some are not. But very few, if at all, are worthy of the adulation we shower them with. Most of us feel under pressure when asked to speak at a family dinner. These people perform in front of millions on a nightly basis - get paid ungraspable amounts to do so - see their names on peoples coats, shirts, shorts, socks, shoes, underwear, hats, wristbands, headbands, and whateverbands - open the paper/news every morning just to see themselves there - and retire at an age when most of us are just getting started, not before being immortalized by memories, history books, jerseys with their names and numbers hanging in arenas, and sometimes even life sized statues. Put yourself in that position. You wouldn't think ever-so-slightly higher of yourself?

Charles Barkley once half-complained, half-explained that he is no role model. Whether he wanted to or not, he was speaking on behalf of the entire athletic community. He is, and they are, not role models. If they were, maybe they would have been teachers, or world leaders, or dead. Doesn't matter. They are not good at setting examples, they are good at being athletes. And as such, we should stop idolizing them, only to declare them dead whenever they do wrong (ahem, Tiger Woods), but accept them for what they are - very, very good athletes, and human beings nonetheless. And if we can't do that, at least lets not waste our time covering pointless things instead of actually watching the beautiful world of sports.

And just so it'd be clear: If I was the best basketball player on the planet, I would be dancing too. And I'd be damned if hurting Joakim Noah's feelings stopped me.