So begins the second season. The regular season is mercifully over and done with for the defending Eastern Conference Champs, and the Cavaliers withstood the inexplicable holdouts of Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao, myriad injuries to just about everyone, and a massive 11 player trade to notch 45 wins and earn the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. A disappointing season? You bet, but I don't think the Cavs are as big an underdog to win the East as everyone seems to believe. Consider: 1) Without LeBron James, the Cavs were a miserable 0-7. They are not without James now. 2) The following players missed multiple games due to injury: James, Varejao, Pavlovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Daniel Gibson, Ben Wallace. With the notable exception of Pavlovic, the team is relatively intact. 3) This season the team seemed to be listless and unfocused for major chunks of some games, often playing down to the level of inferior opponents. Their record against the execrable Bucks, Bulls and Nets? An equally execrable 3-9. I doubt that passion will be missing come 12:30 tomorrow at Quicken Loans Arena. Bring on the Wizards.
There are several legitimate concerns heading into this best of seven series with Washington, the third consecutive year the teams will match up in the first round. Last year the Cavs had a cakewalk with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler sidelined. This year the Wizards are healthy. What challenges do the Cavs face in a series they really should win? How about 1) staying healthy? LeBron's back has been marginal for much of the latter part of the season. Often he would start a game strong, only to have it tighten up with spasms that would limit his mobility. That simply cannot happen. For the Cavs to win, LeBron must be healthy and productive. I am less concerned about Zydrunas Ilgauskas' back, which responded well to a week-long shutdown during the season. Fortunately for Z, back-to-back games are a rarity in the playoffs so he should have ample time to recuperate between starts. Then there is the Ben Wallace issue. Wallace has been day-to-day pretty much since the Cavaliers acquired him. I strongly favored shutting him down as well, which the Cavs did not do. The physical nature of NBA playoffs will be a real test for these three. Expect the Wizards to exploit these weaknesses.
Then you have the problem of 2) shooting. Daniel Gibson's shot has been broke ever since returning from his second ankle sprain of the season. Wally Szczerbiak has hardly made a jumper since his arrival from Seattle in midseason, particularly when he's on the floor with LeBron. Clearly, his struggle is a mental one. He's shown signs of life lately, but can he handle playoff pressure and the high expectations of the Cavs? Sasha Pavlovic's season has been a total waste. Through his absurd holdout, a midseason foot sprain and a late-season ankle sprain, he has struggled to regain the form that made him so valuable in last year's playoffs. He will miss the first round completely. With such inconsistency from the perimeter, it will be interesting to see if Damon Jones returns to the rotation. Jones was putting together a fine season on both ends of the court when he was strangely benched by coach Mike Brown. Someone, somehow, will have to make a jump shot. I would never say that playoff series depends on outside shooting, but it would be nice if someone could spread the floor.
And of course you have the puzzling question of 3) defense. The Cavs rode their elite defense and rebounding all the way to the finals last year. This year, defense has been almost an afterthought, with occasional moments of brilliance. The loss of Pavlovic hurts, as his role will be filled by inferior perimeter defenders Wally Szczerbiak and Devin Brown, though it remains to be seen which player will replace Sasha in the starting rotation.
That said, the Wizards are hardly a defensive powerhouse. The Cavs' big men should exploit Washington's weak interior play all series long. Conversely, the talented trio of Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas, and, the Wizards' finest player, Caron Butler, represents a big problem for a Cavs team that has struggled with its defensive identity all season long.
Let's take a look at individual matchups:
PG: Delonte West vs. Antonio Daniels. I've never been a big fan of West's game, and I was less than excited when the Cavs brought him in from Seattle. That said, he's picked a fine time to start playing the best basketball of his life. He seems more comfortable every day and is meshing well with LeBron. He's proving himself a capable rebounder from the guard spot, a fair distributer of the ball, a feisty--if limited--defender, and he has been one of the few consistent backcourt shooters in recent weeks. Still, West has limited playoff experience and is still rounding into an NBA player. In Daniels the Wiz have a capable ballhandler who will get the offense in motion and won't make many mistakes. An ideal backup, Daniels is merely mediocre as a starter, in all phases of the game. Advantage: West.
SG: Wally Szczerbiak??? vs. DeShawn Stevenson. Mark my words, the Cavs are really going to miss Pavlovic here, if for no other reason than Sasha has no problem playing mean and sticking an elbow into weaker opposing guards. He did it last year in subduing Vince Carter, and he would do it to Stevenson, too. Alas, Sasha is out. I really hope that Wally starts, not because he will set the world on fire, but because he can. Now would be a great time for Wally to find that stroke that made him an all-star once upon a time. I also favor this matchup because I love Devin Brown off the bench. Should Wally fail, Devin will be ready. Stevenson is, of course, the dipshit who called LeBron overrated earlier this year, which does not merit a response. I fully expect Stevenson to annoy the Cavs with three pointers throughout the series. Advantage: even.
SF: LeBron James vs. Caron Butler. The Cavs 0-7 record without LeBron tells me he the league's MVP, though he has no chance of winning it. We all know about his offensive tools, but his defense, especially in big games, is way better than people realize. Caron Butler is a superb basketball player, and, as I said before, the best player on his team. If LeBron is healthy, and if his teammates can hit a shot or two, he will turn Butler into mince pie and devour him. If LeBron is forced to make every shot himself, he will be triple teamed and the series just might end in Washington's favor. Advantage: James. James. James.
PF: Ben Wallace vs. Antawn Jamison. Defense vs. offense, sort of. For a player who once thrived in the rough-and-tumble environs of NBA playoffs, I don't know if Wallace has enough left in the legs to impact this series like he once could have. I can see him altering and blocking some shots, snagging some boards, but I don't know if he can keep up with the likes of Jamison, who is still very much in his prime as an excellent scorer and rebounder. My prediction? Anderson Varejao will be spending a lot of time draped over Jamison, who was gallant in defeat in last year's playoff, averaging 32 ppg. Prove me wrong, Ben. Please. Advantage: Jamison.
C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. Brendan Haywood. I'm not sure why Haywood plays so well against the Cavs, but he does. Still, Ilgauskas has been energized all year, and I expect big Z to thrive against the Wizards' weak paint play. Haywood has always impressed me as a sort of lumbering hod with menial skills, a constant aggravation who is most likely to roll up the ankle of one our guards. With so much attention being paid to LeBron, the Cavs must get Z the ball, so he can take on Haywood one-on-one. Advantage: Z.
Bench: How many times can I say it? The Cavs are going to need shooting, and the most likely source, theoretically, is Daniel Gibson. But Gibson has been dismal since his high ankle sprain. Otherwise we have Devin Brown, who has been a pleasant surprise this season with his hustle and all-around competence off the bench, where he belongs! Anderson Varejao has also struggled with his injuries, but he can be a dominant rebounder and defender and has added some small offensive skills to his game. Joe Smith is an ace at the backup forward spot. He should provide much needed scoring and rebounding. I still say that Damon Jones will be needed at some point this series, and Jones has a flair for making big shots where they're least expected. The Cavs are in big trouble if Lance Allred, Dwayne Jones or Billy Thomas see meaningful minutes.
The Wizards counter with, um, Gilbert Arenas, who we hope will not catch fire at any point or make any dumbass, game-winning 48-foot three pointers. We all know what Arenas can do, and he is fully capable of changing this series, but I'm not going to bet on him. He can blog about wanting to play the Cavs all he wants. Everything about Darius Songalia says "scrub," but he plays very well against the Cavs, who seem to have no interest in defending this lifetime 7 point scorer. The Cavs had better put a body on young, raw, athletic Andray Blatche, or he will be a real nuisance in the paint Backup PG Roger Mason is going to shoot a lot of threes, and he's been on fire of late. He will make his shots if the Cavs don't pay attention to him, so...hand in the face, please. Don't let the guy go off. Rookies Nick Young, Oleksiy Pecherov and Dominic McGuire do not scare me. Should they? Advantage: Cavs by far, because Arenas is as much a bench player as Manu Ginobili is.
Coach: Mike Brown, as ever, was criticized for his lame offense in the regular season. Not entirely unjustified. Also bizarre were his rotations, though to be fair, he was searching for chemistry through all the turmoil. But Brown is a playoff coach, and in the playoffs he has been pretty darn successful. In a mere two years of coaching, his postseason record is a sparkling 19-14 and includes a trip to the finals. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and saying that he'll get his crew to play with passion and solidify on defense. Eddie Jordan. He got his troops to fight and scratch in last year's hopeless matchup with the Cavs, and that's saying something. Still, Jordan's postseason record is a weak 6-14. Advantage: Cavs
Official Prediction: Cavs in six. All told, the Cavs still have the best player in the game. In the playoffs, strong interior play wins series, and the Wizards are sorely undermanned in that department. Even if the Cavs struggle shooting the ball, the frontcourt play should at least keep them in the game, and close enough that LeBron can take over late.
LET'S. GO. CAVS!!!!!!!!!
Around the NBA
Celtics vs. Hawks: Forget it, ATL. Celts sweep you into oblivion.
Pistons vs. 76ers: This should be a fun series to watch. An up-and-coming team vs. a canny bunch of veterans. It won't be easy, but Detroit wins in six. Warning to the Pistons--try putting aside your stupid sense of entitlement for one series. Not one team is handing you the East, so don't look forward to the Celtics.
Raptors vs. Magic: This is not an intriguing series. Magic in five. Maybe four.
Nuggets vs. Lakers: Carmelo & Co. will have to wait yet another year to win a playoff series. Lakers in six, just because Iverson won't let Denver be embarrassed. God I hate run-and-gun teams.
Mavs. vs. Hornets: Chris Paul has been amazing all season long, a worthy MVP candidate. Let's see what he can really do. Mavs in seven.
Suns vs. Spurs: Forget the Suns. The cream of the NBA win in six.
Rockets vs. Jazz: Too bad Yao ain't around. This will still be a good series, and I love the defensive mindset of the Rockets. Still, Jazz in seven.