Excitement? Sure, anytime you beat Cleveland, you're excited. LeBron James bugs me more and more every time these two teams play. From all the whining to the officials, the self-promotion, the way he freezes out his teammates (ok, that's a good thing for us, but it's frustrating as a basketball fan), he's just not fun to watch. The guy might be the nicest dude away from the cameras and the media, but he's so aggravating in those settings that I find him hard to appreciate. I'm not dense enough to make a personality judgment simply from soundbytes and on-court play, but anytime the Wizards beat his team, it makes me very excited.
But what's the real operative word of the day? Relief. Relief because this was looking like a loss early on. Relief because, as Kelly Dwyer wrote, the Cavs lost this game as much as the Wizards won it. Relief because our bench, which played unbelievably bad early on, did a complete 180 in the fourth quarter last night. Relief because Antawn Jamison looks as good as ever. Relief because we survived poor shooting performances from Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler.
Relief because the Wizards themselves made it clear they knew this was just one win. The concern I always have with beating Cleveland is that it makes the Wizards' heads too big. Guys go crazy because they beat their rivals, forgetting that it's just one game of 82. But that wasn't the case last night. Flip Saunders made it a point to say that there aren't any "statement" games until June. DeShawn Stevenson, in Saunders' words, played "meat and potatoes basketball," not getting caught up in the hype of it all. Gilbert Arenas pointed out that the Wizards always beat the Cavs at home, so one win isn't anything to get too excited about.
Clearly, the Wizards knew that one win over Cleveland doesn't solve all their problems. That's big. As I mentioned in the game thread, this was a game the Wizards were supposed to win. They won it, but still have some things to work on to make it all the way back. The ingredients are in, but the cake still needs attention to be baked properly. A loss would have been catastrophic, but a win at least provides hope. It's hope that this team needed now, not some magic fix.
Four Factors (Bold=very good | Italics=very bad)
Snap Reaction: This game was won in two areas: the free throw line, and on the glass. Cleveland maybe has a legitimate gripe about the free throws, because the foul disparity was so wide, but they have nobody but themselves to blame for the lack of rebounding. The Wizards totally outhustled them.
Lineup Details, via Popcorn Machine
- Highest individual plus/minus: Mike Miller (+26 in 38:30)
- Lowest individual plus/minus: Randy Foye (-4 in 3:42)
- Best five-man unit: Earl Boykins/DeShawn Stevenson/Mike Miller/Caron Butler/Andray Blatche (+15 in the fourth quarter)
- Worst five-man unit: Earl Boykins/Randy Foye/Mike Miller/Antawn Jamison/Brendan Haywood (-4 in the second quarter)
Snap reaction: As we'll discuss later, the lineup that broke the game open didn't even have Arenas or Butler out there. Mike Miller is also the man, though I am worried he's playing so much when his shoulder might not totally be healed.
In my mind, there were two turning points. Let's start with the later one.
The LeBron James "I am LeBron James and you are mere mortals" point
Both Michael Lee and Cleveland Plain-Dealer Cavs reporter extraordinaire Brian Windhorst believe that LeBron James ruined Cleveland's offensive flow by trying to show up DeShawn Stevenson. James had 34 points and nine assists, but only 14 and two of those came after Stevenson checked in midway through the third quarter. He also picked up a technical foul trying to argue after Stevenson stuffed him on the break.
Pretty much everyone who was asked about the two players' duel dismissed this conclusion. (Well, except Stevenson himself, one day later).
- Flip Saunders: "He came in very professional and played meat and potato basketball. He didn't get into any antics. He just put his nose into it and played solid defense."
- Gilbert Arenas: "No, I don't think he lost his poise. If you're going to get a tech for asking a question, that's how it is."
- Antawn Jamison: "Those guys have been killing each other for you know how long, so I don't think [DeShawn] got on [LeBron] like that. I just think he did a great job bringing energy and making it tough on him"
- LeBron James (via Lee): "It is not even about that for me, I don't know about anyone else's mindframe. We don't try to do that, we just try to win games." (sounds a bit defensive).
I agree with everyone that DeShawn did something to get into LeBron's head. You don't injure yourself slamming the ball down too emphatically unless something pissed you off. That said, I think the key moment actually came before Stevenson got switched onto LeBron. Stevenson had checked in, but Caron Butler was still checking LeBron. With the score tied at 60, LeBron came down and hit a loooong three in Caron's face. The next possession, LeBron dribbled around aimlessly, shot from even further out, and hit again. The Wizards called timeout, and even though the Cavs had retaken the lead, I was happy, because this was when LeBron got cocky. When DeShawn switched on to him, it only added to that feeling.
The "Screw the bench, we're going down with our starters" moment
The moment this game really turned, though, was at the 7:25 mark of the second quarter. Cleveland had pushed the lead to 17, and Flip Saunders essentially declared his last stand. Normally, you slowly integrate your starters back in during the second quarter to give them the rest they need. Tonight, Saunders eschewed all that and went back to his starting unit of Arenas, Miller, Butler, Jamison and Haywood. The Wizards promptly ripped off an 18-4 run to get back into the game.
It was a risky move. Some of those guys -- Arenas, Butler, Miller in particular -- have played too many minutes already this season compensating for other players' injuries. But Miller hit a three on the first possession back and that seemed to energize everyone. They started hitting shots, playing tougher defense and moving the ball quickly. Cleveland couldn't keep up, and the bench guys eventually came back in and stepped up their play in the fourth quarter.
"There are going to be some games where the starters will carry the load for a majority of the time," Jamison said, referencing the second-quarter stretch. He added: "But that's why we have 12 guys suiting up," giving credit to the fourth-quarter run.
The defense really was the big difference. Part of that was LeBron, and part of that was a scheme switch. Saunders explained that the Wizards switched their pick-and-roll coverage, which confused Cleveland in particular when LeBron was out of the game. (I noticed more straight switches and fewer traps). But the major difference was the offense, which allowed the Wizards to get set in the halfcourt.
"We scored, so we were able to get our defense set," Saunders said. "We were shooting so poorly (31 percent) in the first half that we were running and trying to find guys all the time. When you're trying to find LeBron, as big and strong as he is, you can't find him that quick."
Is it slightly concerning that we only stepped up on defense when we scored? Yeah, a bit. I'd like to see better transition defense down the road. But as Jamison said, the Wizards will eventually be able to score fine with all their pieces back.
We have never been a team that’s struggled offensively. I don’t care what system you’re using, whether it’s coach Jordan or Flip Saunders. We wil always put that ball in that basket. It’s just little things – moving the ball, getting it from side to side, getting confidence. That’s something we didn’t have a problem with early on during training camp or preseason. We had a little hiccup, but I think we used it as an excuse. We didn’t have a problem with it in Dallas. We didn’t have a problem with it in New Jersey. We catch ourselves in too many scenarios where we try to do something outside our norm, and it really put us behind the eight-ball."
They scored fine tonight for most of the time, but that second-quarter stretch was the one that saved the game.
Thoughts on Antawn
- Flip Saunders: "He's been chomping at the bit. He's as professional as you can get."
- Brendan Haywood: "Nobody in here was surprised. He's been killing it on the practice court."
- Haywood, again: "He's what you call a stretch four. Those types of guys give everyone spacing, because you have to make a decision. Are you going to let him shoot? Are you going to let Gilbert Arenas drive? Are you going to let a guy like myself or Caron get dunks? You gotta make your decision, and tonight, they decided to let him shoot. That was the wrong decision."
- Caron Butler: "If I go up and down a couple trips without being Caron Butler out there, he's going to say something. 'Caron, come on. It's your time baby. Come on. Do something.' Just hearing him in my ear, it helped me a lot."
Other random stuff
- Andray Blatche had an excellent fourth quarter, bodying up Zydrunas Ilgauskas and making beautiful cuts on offense. Antawn Jamison noticed. I asked him about what the bench guys did in this specific game, and when he got around to talking about Blatche, the pitch in his voice noticeably changed. "Andray's been playing phenomenally well. He's been defensively solid, knocking down tough shots, being another weapon out there."
- Gilbert Arenas was icing his knee in the fourth quarter, but don't worry guys. "I was icing the knee because we were up 20," Arenas said, smiling. "Me and Antawn were both icing."
- Flip Saunders said it was Arenas who suggested to him that Earl Boykins should stay in the game in the fourth quarter. "I wanted to put him back in, but he said, 'Hey, Earl's going well right now.' I think that's a positive. When you get your star player seeing a guy playing well and says he should play it out, that's positive."
Saunders also said he's not surprised Arenas struggled with his shot tonight, and said that he has a theory on injury recoveries. "I've talked to a couple people, and usually, as long as you're out, it takes you that long to come back and find where you're at. So, if you're out 12 months, 12 months after he comes back, you're going to see who he is at that point."
- Mike Miller was the one guy who made the obvious point about the Wizards' slow start. "Our energy level in the second half was better, [but] we got to do that from the jump. It's going to make it tough when we're playing against good teams like Cleveland."
- I had a long conversation (along with Ric Bucher -- everyone else had basically cleared out) with Caron Butler about his role in the offense, his adjustment to the new system and some new challenges he's facing. I'll post that tomorrow before the game.