Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Eastern Conference Update, Why the Magic May Beat the Cavs

First of all, I'm going to stand by my earlier prediction that the Cavs will beat the Celtics. I know that the last game wasn't pretty, but I believe that a lot of things had to come together for the Celtics to win, and even though it happened, I don't believe it can happen 4 times in 7 games. I just don't see that type of consistency out of the current Celtics group.

But for one night, the Celtics showed you where the Cavs are vulnerable. In a post yesterday, I discussed the biggest difference between this year's Cav's team and last years, that difference being the bench. I still believe that the Cleveland bench is deeper than most teams and allows them to play more styles than most teams. I think it is something else that bothers these Cavs, that makes the Magic and the Lakers still the teams to beat in this year's payoffs.


In the playoffs, only every so often do you get a dominant team like the '00 Lakers. Often we talk about players or teams finding a way to win in the playoffs. Until you hold the Larry O'Brien trophy, each game, each series, is about grinding it out, surviving to fight another day. A perfect example would be most of the Spurs Championship teams. You look at the way they play, their toughness, their intensity in big moments. Even in their memorable playoff failures, they are a tough out. Remember Fisher's .04? Remember Dirk drawing the foul? The Spurs would never let him get a clean look at the basket. You knew the foul was coming (on the other hand, it was sheer idiocy to have Manu foul Dirk: Dirk has shown you he can be tough, and Manu is the exact opposite of a defensive enforcer. If I had to pick a list of the most activity-without-real-physicality defenders, I think Manu and 'Sheed would vie for the top spot).

The point is, the Spurs have Survivability. I think ultimately, Survivability is dependent on two things: your best player (for the Spurs, Duncan), and your coach. First, on the best player. If your best player does not have survivability, you will not win championships regardless of how good your team is. A modern example is Joe Johnson. He gets his points and is a great player, but as far as finding a way to win, well, these Hawks have turned to Jamaal Crawford for that. And that's why the Hawks will never win the championship with Joe as their best player (note: I did not say Joe couldn't play on a championship team, he just cannot be the alpha-dog). Duncan has survivability. Nash has survivability. I believe the Celtics have survivability, even if only they believe it. Kobe has survivability, and LeBron has survivability.

Second, survivability comes from coaching. Sure Duncan has always had playoff heroics for the Spurs. He, unlike some power forwards in the modern era, has a knack for utilizing all aspects of his talent in big games. But then you look at the guys the Spurs have put around him: Kerr, Horry, Bowen, Parker, Ginobili. These are survivors. Personally, I think that having these role-players play the way they do is an exact reflection on coaching philosophy. Pop has found guys that survive, or made them into guys that survive. Remember Stephen Jackson? Pop made him into a survivor. Then he cashed in, got in a brawl, and now Larry is making him into a pseudo-survivor. Basically, the Spurs, sans Duncan, don't panic. They find different people to step up. They do their jobs. They get clutch boards and make clutch threes.

An example of non-survivability in these playoffs would be the OKC Thunder. They had the pieces. They had the momentum. They had a couple on-the-brink All-Star's. They did not have survivability. When they needed Westbrook to make clutch shots or Durant to get open at the end of games, it happened, but only some of the time (I remember Westbrook's open 7-foot miss as well as his gutsy offensive rebound and-one. You have to take one with the other). But they are young, and well coached. Let's see if Brooks can coach them survivability.

A team that used its survivability this year is the Orlando Magic. I know, they swept Charlotte, and Charlotte had no business being in the playoffs anyways. Well Milwaukee had no business being in the playoffs and we know what happened there. This is why the Magic exhibited survivability: Their best player played like crap. Their second-best player has (for the most part) played like crap. And they swept the Bobcats. Their still-not-fully-100% point guard eviscerated his opponent, they had guys come up huge of the bench (French guys, even). And they swept the NBA's best defensive team, a cohesive, well-coached team. They have survivability. I cannot believe that Howard will continue to foul out of games, or that Vince will continue to mail performances in (ok, I can believe that second part). When those guys are on, it's over. Thing is, even when they're not, you might not be able to beat them.

Which brings me back to the Cavs. They've gotten to the point where LeBron is completely un-defensible. You cannot just sit back and watch him shoot jumpers because he will A) drive by you anyways or B) knock the shots down. You cannot bank on him having a bad game. Even in the loss last night, he was individually huge. But then you start looking at the rest of the team. Mo Williams is their second-best player, and after a game where he was on fire and brought the Cavs back from a deficit, he was obliterated by Rondo. Shaq is not their third-best player, but he is a significant piece; the Cavs need him to be a defensive presence, but right now, he is a pick-and-roll liability. Rondo can dribble to any spot on the floor right now. Last night's result is a by-product of a coaching philosophy that is the antithesis of survivability (though in Mike Brown's defense, he did blast his team for lack of urgency; let's see if it changes anything).

Ultimately, I still have the Cavs over the Celtics in 6. The home-court the Celtics used to enjoy has lost a lot of magic this year, and the basketball gods will punish them for being so nonchalant about it in the regular season (this is so true, basketball is so karmic). But the Cavs have not shown that they can survive bad games, and that does not bode well for them. Let's see if they can start taking charge of their own destiny and start surviving.

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