Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cavs-Pistons Game 5 Preview

It goes without saying that this game is an absolute must-win for the Cavs. I think we have a really good shot at taking Game 6 at home, largely because of the effect that the raucous Cleveland fan base seems to have on this team. But winning a Game 7 in Detroit is, I think, too daunting a task. So, it's now or never.

That said, this game is going to come down to five key factors:

1.) Whether LeBron James can count to four.

Let's do it out loud: 1, 2, 3, 4. You'll notice I bolded "3." The reason is that LeBron James seems to think that the third quarter doesn't matter. Take, for example, his quote today for the Plain Dealer: "I missed a lot of shots I usually make in the third quarter . . . I missed two layups. I missed a wide-open baseline shot. But in the fourth quarter the game is on the line and I live for the fourth quarter." (Full article here.)

There are two ways to read this quote. One is, "the shots didn't fall for me in the third, but I think they will in time. Plus, I raised my game in the fourth quarter." The second is "I missed some shots and didn't have my A game, but it's OK--I picked it up in the fourth quarter." Neither one of these is a great answer. For us to win this game, and for LeBron to really be considered a great player, LeBron has got to realize that there are four quarters in a game and that he has to push through all of them. MJ never took quarters off. Kobe doesn't. I don't think LeBron is dogging it in the third, but I do think that if he's struggling in that period he needs to be even more aggressive and assertive. He can't simply defer to his teammates and let them carry him to the fourth. And he can't take a "well, eventually the shots will fall" approach. Instead, he has to impose his will on the game like he does in the fourth--and he has to do this throughout the entire game. If he does, we will win.

2.) Whether the Cavs can contain the Pistons in the first quarter.

Most of what I've heard from Flip Saunders lately centers on the importance of the Pistons getting off to a good start instead of relying on the eventual Cavs third-quarter fade to get back into the game (see his quote halfway down this page.) At home, with a friendly crowd, the Pistons are going to come out really strong. We're going to need to prevent them from getting easy dunks (this means actually covering Jason Maxiell this time) and big threes. The Cavs have to contest every shot and try to tire the Pistons out on defense by keeping them honest through constant motion. If we can withstand and/or prevent a Pistons' onslaught in the first quarter, we'll have a substantially better chance of winning the game.

3.) Whether Damon Jones gets to play.

Simply put, he cannot play defense at all. Every time he tried to guard Billups in game 4, he got beat to the hole--badly. Chauncey has been playing uncharacteristically sloppy lately, and the last thing we want to do is let him find his groove at home with cheering fans. If we need to spell Daniel Gibson or Larry Hughes, we may well have to do it with Eric Snow, if only to keep the Pistons honest on the offensive end. I wouldn't be opposed to running a smaller, more athletic lineup of Snow, Gibson, Sasha, LeBron, and Varejao/Gooden when we do need to put Snow in the game so as to ensure that we have guys who will move on offense and offset the Eric Snow 4-on-5 effect.

4.) Whether Drew Gooden shows up.

Gooden is an underrated key to the Cavs offense. Mike Brown got down on him a bit after Game 2 for not being as involved as he could be on the offensive end, and Gooden responded. If Gooden can stay engaged in the game and not beat himself up for defensive or offensive breakdowns, he should have another dominant performance. He's a surprisingly good shooter off the pick/screen and roll, and will have open shots along the baseline pretty much every time LeBron comes his way. If Gooden is draining those open looks, we can stretch oud the Pistons D even more. Also, if Gooden can keep playing tough D with a few hard playoff fouls on Sheed, we may be able to take Sheed out of the game a bit. Remember: after Gooden hacked Sheed in the last game, Sheed threw up a wild 3, got a technical, and proceeded to have no impact on the game anymore. Sheed really is the emotional center to that team, and when he's on tilt and yelling at his teammates, they really seem to fall apart.

5.) Whether LeBron has "the look."

This is closely related to my first point, but I wanted to make LeBron the first and last key to victory to emphasize just how important his attitude and approach are to our success. In Games 1 and 2, LeBron had his traditional friendly and upbeat persona before tipoff; before Games 3 and 4, he showed up early to the gym to refine his jump shot and had a killer look throughout the game. The "new" LeBron HAS to show up for us to win. When he has that jump shot going, it makes him that much harder to defend. But it's not just the technical improvements that make the "new" LeBron so deadly--it really is that look in his eye. The look my friend Scott talked about. The look he had when he thrash-dunked on Rasheed Wallace, the look he had when he slammed down Gibson's sweet feed on the alley-oop, the look he had when he hit that Jordan-esque fadeaway jumper at the end of Game 4. In Game 3 and 4, he seemed to just have a higher understanding of the game than I'd ever seen from him--for example, he saw that the refs were calling a loose game (and make no mistake, he'll get even fewer calls in Detroit) so he decided to double his aggression. If that LeBron comes out--the one Cavs fans love and Pistons fans fear--we may well be able to replicate and even surpass last year's three-game run against the Pistons.

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