Game 9 Preview: Blazers vs. Cavaliers

A Look at the Cavaliers

Why are the Cavaliers at 5-2 and on top of the Eastern Conference?  I know what you're thinking and no, that's not it.  Or at least that's not the whole story.  One of the main reasons is that they're obliterating the competition on the boards. They're more than 9 boards ahead of their opponents each game. Look at their front line:  Ilgauskas 8.0 rebounds per game, Gooden 10.4, James 7.4.  Nobody does that.  Nobody.    And it's not like they're playing that speed-up, infinite-possessions game that inflates stats either.  They actually play a solid halfcourt game in addition to running whenever you give them the opportunity--a nice, classic blend of NBA offense.  The thing is, they just never want you to get the ball unless they've put it in the bucket first.  They're holding opponents to a reasonably low 93.4 points per game and own one of the bigger positive point differentials in the league even while allowing their opponents to shoot a higher percentage than they do.  They just dominate the in-between game so it doesn't matter.  Another part of their success is simply not turning the ball over. No free points for you! A third leg is the enormous amount of free throws they attempt relative to their opponents.  The Cavaliers may very well try to run on the Blazers tonight because they know that Portland isn't great in transition, but here's the thing:  they don't have to.  If we try and slow it down and grind it out they will oblige and still feel more than comfortable.  This makes them a pretty dangerous opponent for us.

OK, now we can start talking about their individuals:

--LeBron James 28.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.4 apg, 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, 48% shooting, 42% from 3-point range, 11 free throw attempts per game...absolutely unstoppable.
--Zydrunas Ilgauskas  8 points, 8 boards...a classic center with range who's having an off year but will probably light up when he sees the defenders the Blazers will put on him
--Drew Gooden  13 points, 10 boards...a strong rebounder who can also score but not a great defender
--Larry Hughes 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists...a streaky shooter who can defend and is capable of going for 13 or 30 any given night
--Anderson Varejao  6 points, 5 boards and a ton of disruptive energy in 20 minutes a game off the bench, and he's 6'10"
--The rest of the cast, including veteran guards Eric Snow, David Wesley, and Damon Jones are not having great years so far, though Jones did drop 29 the other night against the Knicks.  Forward Donyell Marshall, though aging, can still get you a few rebounds and points.

Basically this team is built to run through LeBron, to get enough rebounds to get the ball back to LeBron, and to hit enough shots to take the pressure off LeBron, opening up the lane and not letting you guard him with four people.  It's obviously working so far.

Things I'd like to see:

  1.  If we could just stop LeBr...wait... ha ha ha.  Who am I kidding?  Of course if you could just stop LeBron they'd only score 70 points.  But you can't stop LeBron.  Your best hope is simply to try and keep him out of the lane, then pray.  This will be a big, big game for the likes of Ime Udoka and Stephen Graham.
  2.  Seriously, the rest of these guys aren't great individual defenders.  Their game isn't predicated on stopping you every possession, so don't make it easy for them to do so.  We shoot pretty well from the field so we have a leg up.  Again, drive, dish, finish, draw fouls.  Exploit their guards.  Exploit their guards.  Exploit their guards.  If you can get Larry Hughes in foul trouble (or if he's just disinterested) you should be able to make mincemeat of the rest of them.
  3.  We need to stay close on the boards even if we don't win that battle.  Limiting their second shots will increase our field goal shooting advantage.  I'm pretty skeptical of us being able to do this, however.  Since our injuries we've quietly become one of the poorer rebounding teams in the league.
  4.  Similarly, we can't get crushed in free throws made.  I say "free throws made" instead of "free throw attempts" because one of the things that almost everybody on that team does very poorly, including Bron-Bron and his three alter egos, is shoot from the charity stripe.  Using up some fouls may actually be a viable strategy.  Better fouls than dunks.  But to make up for that we'll have to draw some free throws ourselves and simply hit a higher percentage than they do.
  5.  I won't say this very often this year, but if we can manage to rebound with them one of our long-shot (and they all are) strategies for winning might be to simply use our younger, quicker players to outrun them.  We should have a significant hustle advantage.  It probably won't work, but it might work better than playing a heads-up game with them.  I have a hard time seeing us winning a game in the 80's or 90's.  In an up-and-down, floor-diving, semi-random 110-104 game I can see us maybe having a chance.
Because they overwhelm us in several key areas (and star-power and experience to boot) I have a hard time envisioning us taking this game unless they flat out just don't pay attention.  But even then, I don't see a lot of ways in which they could beat themselves.  (Turnovers?  Nope.  Allowing second shots?  Nope.  Ref help?  NOPE!)  Boston might be the road game we can steal.  Tonight maybe we should just hope not to make too many LeBron highlight reels.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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