Friday, May 18, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

After looking lost and out-classed in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Cavs put forth their best effort of the series to close out the Nets. Talent-wise, Jersey and Cleveland are not far off, which made the Cavs' previous effort pathetic and embarrassing. Where was the desire to win? Where had the team's focus gone? Cleveland fans had every reason to dread a Game 6 in New Jersey with the momentum swinging heavily in the Nets' favor.

Many analysts were picking New Jersey before the series even started and were too busy talking about how Jason Kidd plays like a little baby Buddha to give Cleveland much credit (even after they took a 3-1 series lead). Cleveland finally shut up the talking heads by dropping the hammer in Game 6.

Cleveland came out very aggressive in the first half, racking up points on fast-breaks and fighting for every rebound. Coach Brown had the team establish a strong presence in the paint early on, with Lebron keeping his double team assignments off balance by occasionally feeding a perimeter shooter from the post. Ilgauskas, James, and Gooden saw a lot of scoring opportunities near the net, exposing one of Jersey's biggest weaknesses.

This inside presence carried over to some impressive efforts on rebounds. Cavaliers were flying all over the place under the net, with guys nearly running out of bounds to save several balls; even Big Z dove to the floor to recover a loose ball at one point. A persistent, physical defense kept New Jersey in check for most of the game with 37% shooting.

It wouldn't be a Cavs game with out a trademark, second half collapse though. Up by 22 at half time, Cleveland allowed the Nets to come within one point by the end of the 3rd quarter. Jersey switched from a man to a zone defense half way through, preventing Cleveland from driving to the basket with any frequency and forcing difficult jump shots. Another contributing factor was Lebron playing with four fouls during the 3rd quarter, curbing the Cavs formerly aggressive play.

The Cavs found an answer to the Nets' zone defense in Donyell Marshall and Daniel Gibson sniping from beyond the arc in the 4th quarter. Marshall, who may be the only man in Cleveland grittier than Trot Nixon, made 6 of 10 three-point shots coming off the bench, finishing with 18 points. Gibson contributed two crucial three's early in the quarter to give the offense a boost.

Will everyone who predicted Donyell Marshall would clench the series off the bench please raise their hand? That's what I thought.

While I could not be prouder that the Cavaliers have gone this deep into the playoffs, I am wary of the Detroit series. New Jersey isn't even in the same class as Detroit, but seemed to wear the Cavs thin at times. The only way Cleveland is going to win the Finals is to play with the same focus and intensity that allowed them to shut down a surging New Jersey team in the 4th quarter of Game 6. Detroit plays with this mindset at all times, which is one reason they are so dangerous. The talent is there for Cleveland, but their execution has been lacking at times. I think we see will Cleveland's best basketball of the season in what should be a highly contested Eastern Conference Finals.