LeBron leads Cavs past Celtics

In a game that was closer than the final score, the Cavaliers went on a 9-2 run in the middle of the fourth quarter to coast to an impressive 98-83 victory over the struggling Celtics. Cleveland benefited from a couple of favorable calls to start that run. First, there was a phantom offensive foul on Leon Powe, and then there was the officials’ decision not to reset the shot clock after LeBron stole the ball and lost it out of bounds (which ultimately resulted in a shot clock violation for the Celtics). Even though the Cavs outplayed the Celtics for much of the game, Boston was hanging around and it was those two defensive stops that ignited the run that ultimately put the game out of reach.

LeBron was outstanding — 38 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals and three blocks. Truly, it was an MVP performance for all of the doubters out there. In the past, I’ve been critical of his defense, but it looks as if his stint with Team USA has done wonders for his intensity on that end of the court. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s extremely motivated when he faces Paul Pierce. Pierce struggled for much of the night and that had everything to do with LeBron’s defense.

A few random thoughts about the game…

– Where was the crowd? Given a game of this magnitude, I was expecting to tune in to see a playoff atmosphere, but the Cleveland fans sat on their hands for much of the game. They didn’t really get loud until that aforementioned run in the middle of the fourth quarter. It looked like a typical NBA crowd and that’s pretty sad given the relative importance of this game.

– I don’t like the call to wear the throwback uniforms in a game like this — it’s just too important of a game to throw crazy unis on your players. Basketball players are creatures of habit and it messes with their psyche to be wearing road throwbacks in a game of this magnitude. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, but it might have.

– Did anyone else see KG intentionally run into LeBron after the refs refused to reset the shot clock? He walked right past LeBron and hit him with a shoulder. He looked like a high school bully trying to pick a fight. LeBron reacted by turning and glancing at Garnett, but kept his cool.

– The Celtics have to do something about their bench. They lost James Posey and P.J. Brown and the guys they currently have aren’t ready to step in and play crunch time minutes like those guys did in the playoffs last season. This will be one of the more interesting storylines between now and the trade deadline and then throughout the playoffs. If the Celtics don’t repeat or at least make the Finals, then Danny Ainge is going to be second-guessed for electing not to re-sign Posey. He is likely to make a move or two to bolster the bench, but as I wrote earlier this week, they don’t have any expendable pieces to offer in trade.

– I brought this up last season, but I don’t like the way Doc Rivers uses Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen. When you have three players of that caliber, there’s no reason to have more than one of them out of the game at any given time. Rivers elects to bench Pierce and KG at the same time and have Ray Ray out there with the reserves, but he’s not capable of carrying that unit night in and night out, especially now that they’re without Posey and Brown. I would have two of the Big Three on the court at all times. But that’s me.

– Mo Williams looks like a great fit in Cleveland. He had 13 points on 5-9 shooting, and was the Cavs’ main playmaker when LeBron went to the bench. I was sad to see the Bucks trade him away, but apparently he didn’t get along with Michael Redd — who knows, maybe Milwaukee should have jettisoned Redd instead. Williams has always struggled with his defense, but now that LeBron is doing most of the playmaking on offense, Mo can focus more on defending his guy and getting after loose balls. He had a couple of nice hustle plays tonight.

– Wally Szczerbiak is washed up. I don’t know if Mike Brown was trying to showcase him tonight for a trade, but it’s mind-boggling to me that this guy is getting minutes over Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic. He can’t really defend and if his shot isn’t falling (and it wasn’t tonight), he’s basically useless. It will be interesting to see if the Cavs decide to trade him for some more help or if they let his contract expire at the end of the season and take the salary cap relief.

– J.J. Hickson looks like a player. He’s raw, but he’s athletic and has some moves down low.

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David West drops 40 to help upend Lakers

Check out the 1-2 punch of Chris Paul and David West last night against the Lakers: 72 points (25-47 from the field), 15 assists (all by Paul) and 14 rebounds. West was unstoppable for much of the second half; he drained 18-footers like they were layups and the Lakers simply didn’t have an answer for him defensively. He finished with 40 points and 11 rebounds, while Paul posted 32 points, 15 assists and three steals en route to an impressive 116-105 win. It’s tough to beat a team when two of their players post numbers like that.

For his part, Kobe Bryant kept the Lakers in it through much of the third quarter, scoring 20 of his 39 points in the period. But he only managed two points in the fourth quarter on 1 of 6 shooting from the field. Meanwhile, the Lamar Odom Watch continues. LO only got 12 minutes, but managed 12 points, three assists and a rebound in that limited run.

The Hornets have won 16 of their last 21 games. After kind of a shaky start, it’s good to see one of the premier teams in the West actually playing like title contenders. However, I just don’t know how far that Paul and West can take them. Peja Stojakovic (12.9 ppg, 40% FG%) and Morris Peterson (6.3 ppg) are shells of their former selves , and other than James Posey (10.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg), the Hornets don’t have many other scoring options. I really thought after his fine play last season that Julian Wright would make a big jump this year, but he’s been struggling with a sore ankle and has only appeared in limited minutes in 16 games thus far.

What happened to the Hornets?

New Orleans was one of the best teams in the league last season. Chris Paul played at a MVP level and David West blossomed into a bona fide All-Star. Tyson Chandler turned into one of the best defensive centers in the league and the team got solid play from Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson. Over the second half of the season (and the playoffs) it looked like Julian Wright was turning into a starter-quality player right before our eyes.

Fast forward a few months, and after adding NBA Finals hero James Posey, the Hornets have lost five of their last seven games and are sitting at 5-5. It gets worse: they lost to Charlotte two weeks ago and lost last night, at home, to a Sacramento Kings team that was without Kevin Martin.

But Posey certainly is not the one to blame. His PER of 14.18 is actually the second-highest of his career. The only disadvantage I can see to the Posey signing is that it has taken valuable minutes away from Julian Wright.

No, the problem in New Orleans is not Posey, Paul, West or Chandler. They’re all posting the same numbers as last season. The problem is Peja Stojakovic. The team is paying him $13 million this season (and owe him another $29.5 million over the next two seasons) for the privilege of having him shoot 37% from the field and 38% from long range. Stojakovic is a poor defender, so if he’s not knocking down shots, he’s hurting the Hornets on both ends of the court. And right now he’s not knocking down shots.

I didn’t like the Stojakovic trade when it happened, and I really don’t like it now. I’d like to see the Hornets move him and give more minutes to Posey and Wright. But it’s going to be tough to find a team that wants to trade for a 31 year-old shooter who has two years left on a bloated contract and hasn’t shot better than 44% since the 2004-05 season. Stojakovic helped the team last year because he shot 44% from long range. Unfortunately, that was a career-high, and he’s not likely to match it this season.

2008 NBA Preview: #2 Boston Celtics

Offseason Movement: The Celtics were unable to re-sign James Posey, who ended up signing with the Hornets. GM Danny Ainge did re-sign Tony Allen, Eddie House, and Sam Cassell, while also signing Darius Miles and Patrick O’Bryant. Out of the draft, the team ended up with shooting guard JR Giddens and small forward Bill Walker.
Keep Your Eye On: The bench
Even more than last season, Boston is going to need a regular lift from its bench. With Posey gone, someone will have to pick up his defensive-mindedness and shooting touch. The bench projects to be very young, but with youth comes energy, and the Celtics will need it this season.
The Big Question: Now that the Big Three won a title, will they be as focused?
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Boston with one thing in mind – a NBA championship. Paul Pierce set aside his ego for the same reason. Throughout that season, the Celtics were focused on a singular goal, but now that they have their rings, will they be able to bring that same intensity every night? Hunger can really bolster a team’s success, and Boston will somehow have to manufacture that hunger this season. That’s a tough thing to do.
Outlook: The C’s are still the class of the East, but will face a bigger test within the conference given the improvements that the Sixers and the Heat have made, along with the continued maturity of the Magic and the Cavs. James Posey was so crucial to the team’s playoff success that one wonders if the team will be overcome that loss and stay as focused as they were last season. They are the odds-on favorites to win the East, but it’s shaping up to be a very interesting season in Beantown.

2008 NBA Preview: #3 New Orleans Hornets

Offseason Movement: The Hornets #1 job this offseason was to lock up Chris Paul, and they managed to sign the superstar point guard to a deal that runs through 2013. GM Jeff Bower poached James Posey from the Celtics in a move that will bolster the team’s bench. He also signed Devin Brown to give the team some depth at guard.
Keep Your Eye On: The Hornets’ wings
In Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, New Orleans has three of the top players in the league at their respective positions. (Chandler isn’t an offensive force, but he’s a terrific shot blocker and rebounder and his contract is a bargain at the center position.) The key to the Hornets success might be the play at off guard and small forward, which are currently manned by Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic, respectively. Both players are 31 and have shown signs of decline. Neither player is a defensive force, so if their shots aren’t falling, there’s really no reason for them to be on the floor. Julian Wright is an up-and-coming small forward who played very well in limited minutes last season and James Posey was signed for his championship experience, tough defense and clutch shooting. Devin Brown will also play a factor.
The Big Question: Can the Paul/West combo lead these Hornets to the Finals?
Both Paul (23) and West (28) are in their primes so the championship window is wide open. They nearly upended the Spurs in last year’s playoffs and have added a valuable piece (Posey) to their championship puzzle. The Hornets need good shooting from their wings to give Paul and West the space to operate. Whomever is on the floor in crunch time needs to be able to knock down shots because inevitably the Hornets’ season will depend on it.
Outlook: With Paul locked up for five years and West locked up for the next three, the Hornets are clearly in their championship sweet spot. But it seems like the team is one player away from being a serious title contender. Stojakovic was supposed to be that guy, but his defensive limitations and suspect shooting in the clutch may make the Hornets regret signing that huge contract two summers ago (if they aren’t already regretting it). Don’t be surprised if Posey gets a lot of crunch time minutes. If he can perform like he did with the Celtics last season, the Hornets have a good shot of getting out of the West.

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