Saturday, June 12, 2010

Observations from the 2009 NBA season opener

Tuesday night was one of my annual Happiest Events of the Year, which include Thanksgiving, the opening round of college basketball’s postseason tournament, and any time I go to my friend Des’s cabin. This time, the occasion was the beginning of another National Basketball Association season.

The first game of the season was between two teams that revamped their rosters in the offseason and who will be jostling for position in the Eastern Conference all year; the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since I would have been watching anyway, I decided to log some of my thoughts on the game, and then share them with you. Exciting!

One of the more interesting questions this year in Cleveland will be how head coach Mike Brown splits minutes between his two centers, Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Ilgauskas, for the most part, looked pretty lost for most of his 24 minutes of play. Usually he operates well within the Cavalier offense, posting when he can and waiting for open jumpers off penetration the rest of the time. Tuesday his touches were limited, and his shots seemed forced.

LeBron James, predictably, was a force on both ends of the court. Finishing with 38 points, 4 rebounds and 8 assists, he also tallied three blocks in the first quarter and had four overall. The last one came on a Ray Allen breakaway where Allen looked back, saw James lurking behind him, altered his jump to use the basket for protection, and James still swatted the ball out of bounds. If anyone will ever get me to the point where I take a play like this for granted, it’s LeBron James.

Offensively, James came out with a refined jump shot. When his feet were set, his shooting elbow was tucked in tighter to his body and the shot was much more consistent, even on misses.

Through most of the second quarter and into the third, Cleveland’s offense did next to nothing. Granted, they used four new players in their rotation that were not apart of the team last year, and this is only one game, after all. But the offensive stagnation that has plagued Cleveland has been present for years now: Players standing around, without any indication they are running, or even have, plays. With LeBron in, they can get away with this sometimes, which may be the reason the problem never seems to get solved.

The Celtics on the other hand, took advantage of Cleveland’s near-two quarter sleepwalk. Boston hit nine threes, five of those coming from their bench players. More specifically, Rasheed Wallace went 3-for-6 in three point attempts, because apparently, Cavalier big men were not aware that Wallace prefers shooting threes as opposed to, well, anything.

When it comes down to the last seven or so minutes of an NBA game, the plays usually become simplified and the outcome relies on exploiting matchups and execution. At the time, Cleveland had a frontcourt of O’Neal and Ilgauskas while Boston countered with Kevin Garnett and center Kendrick Perkins. LeBron was starting to assert himself offensively (although in Cleveland’s lets-hope-LeBron-can-bail-us-out-again offense, he didn’t have much choice), and after Perkins missed a couple of open jumpers, Celtics’ head coach Doc Rivers brought Wallace back in for an offensive upgrade.

Here is where the game was decided: Because of this move, Cleveland had to account for Wallace and his perimeter shooting, which created more space on the floor for the Celtics.

From there, the Celtics ran pick-and-rolls with either Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo and Garnett, forcing Shaq out to the perimeter, where he stood no chance at stopping drives into the Cavalier defense. My guess: This will be replaying itself throughout the season in Cleveland. Shaq kills a team’s pick-and-roll defense (Ask Phoenix). Pierce did what he seemingly always does in close games, knocking down jumper after jumper from the elbow of the free-throw line, and the Celtics won, 95-89.

So, the Celtics appear to be improved with their new additions, while the Cavaliers have the same problems with a much larger man in the middle. In the end, do these things even matter yet, one game into the season? Maybe, maybe not, I’m just glad to be talking about them again.

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