(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Don’t bash the Cavs just yet. Having watched the first half of yesterday’s Celtics vs Cavs game, and the last quarter of today’s Raptors vs Cavs game (thank you ILP), I find myself for once agreeing with the Big Diesel (or “The Big Witness Protection” as he’s now apparently known in Cleveland). “You can’t win a championship in the first game” Shaq said after the loss to Boston. Or the second game, for that matter. No matter how many conclusions people will draw from Cleveland’s shoddy efforts the past two days, I find myself not worried in the slightest that they will eventually get their shit together. Firstly, Boston is a plain superior team. They are officially my number #1 favourite for the title this year, and watching them against Cleveland showed why. They are a team who has played together barely two years, yet they play with the poise, patience, trust and execution of a team that has been together eight years.
I thought the first quarter of yesterday’s Cavs game was so symbolic. Cleveland, the front-runners, looking lively and reckless (maybe angry?) as Lebron and Shaq bulldozed everything in their way. Boston, plodding out of the gates, slowly sizing up their pray and figuring out a way to kill it while not panicking in the slightest as the Cavs ran up a double-digit lead. What allows them to do that (not panic) is of course their defense, which may have just improved a notch this season with Sheed providing backup minutes for KG. (Sidenote on Sheed: can you believe he has taken 14 three-point attempts in two games already? This is out of a total 17 shot attempts. Never mind the fact he’s made 6 of them, I’m flabbergasted that Doc Rivers is allowing him to shoot like that. When Sheed walked into Boston, I was almost 100% certain Rivers would have said something to him along these lines very early in the piece: “Ok Rasheed, you’re going to be getting plenty of opportunities in our offense this season… but we just need you to focus on getting the ball in the post. That’s where you’re dangerous, that’s where we need you… Not 27-feet from the basket like you were in Detroit. We’ve got plenty of three-shooters. We got Ray, Paul, Eddie, Scal… a whole bunch. We need you, Kev and Perk to be our inside presence. Got that?”. Clearly that conversation didn’t happen. In fact, it must have been the complete opposite. Sheed has taken 82% of his shots so far from three-point range. Unbelievable)
So while Boston have clearly kicked the season off firing on all cylinders, the Cavs look like they will be stumbling for a while. And that is ok. Shaq actually prefers it that way. With Miami in 2006 the Heat were never in the title-contending spotlight. It was all about Detroit in the East, the season they were a shot at reaching 70 games. The Heat stumbled and stuttered, finishing a massive 12 games behind Detroit in #2 spot out East. And what happened? They peaked at the right time, right at the end of the season. Shaq did the same thing with Kobe in LA in 2000-2001. Peaking at exactly the right time to spawn the most dominant playoff run this decade. So as fun as it is to laugh at the Cavs current predicament (and as a Pistons fan I laugh heartily), there is no doubt in my mind that the Cleveland team you are looking at right now will be completely different to the Cleveland team you see lining up for playoff action in April.
Gilbert Arenas is ready to be one of the league’s elite again. I think I forgot how dynamic this guy is, how he can carry his team to victory in any literally any building when he’s feeling it. He wasn’t on my radar, and I was trying to figure out why I’d heard so little of Arenas during the pre-season. I only found out today he was fined $25,000 for not speaking to the media during the last few weeks. That explains it I guess. Welcome back Hibachi. Hope to see you blogging a lot less this season.
Andrew Bynum is looking sharp. Never read too much into one game, but as far as opposition centers go, Chris Kaman is a decent test. Bynum’s 26-13 was impressive, but what impressed me more was his movement and his aggressiveness. There was a lot more precision and a lot less indecision in the Andrew Bynum I watched yesterday, compared to the one I watched last playoffs. That probably means the knee is feeling great, which takes the Lakers to another level. Ultimately there was always a ceiling on what Artest would bring to the Lakers – they knew they were getting a defensive-minded wing who could shoot threes and play aggressively. But Bynum’s ceiling was non-existent because, well… no one knows what it looks like yet.
Early last season I said Andrew Bynum may just well be the most important player in the league, only because he was the one guy threatening to take a title-contender to a title-lock. That was all nullified when he was injured again, but I’ll make the same call again. The title-race is very open. Boston are my #1, then I have LA, Cleveland, San Antonio and Orlando. But watching Bynum yesterday I realised that the Lakers almost have an unfair advantage if things go their way. They won the title last year with very little contribution from a guy who might be a Top 5 center in this league this season – that’s to go alongside a Top 5 power forward and the league’s best shooting guard. Early days yet, but there is no understating the importance of Andrew Bynum.
Jason Williams might have slipped through the cracks. Rafer who? Today JW hits 4-5, scores 15 points and 5 assists, all in 23 minutes. And if you’re curious, Rafer had a craptacular 0 points, 3 assists, 3 turnover performance in his Nets debut – a loss to the Timberwolves. Can a debut for your new club possibly get any more depressing than that? Seeing your old team run up 120 points and looking inVincible (see what I did there?) when you lose at the buzzer to arguably the worst team in the league?
Gordon, Rip and Stuckey looked ok to me! Having just watched this game, I can say I’m a very happy Pistons fan indeed. It was only the Grizz, but there were a few things I liked about this Pistons performance. Firstly, Rip and Gordon seem to work together just fine, and it doesn’t surprise me because both get into their groove in very different ways. We know Rip’s one-hundred-screen routine – it’s predictable, and you can see it coming. Ben Gordon works in the exact opposite way. He fired off quick threes in today’s game without a moment’s hesitation, and most of them went it. And early in the fourth quarter I couldn’t help but start to feel the oncoming surge of a man-crush. With the Grizz down 14 with possession, home crowd behind them, the scene was set for a possible nightmare Pistons meltdown. And then Ben Gordon went for the jugular. Two threes on two straight possessions and the game was dead. It was a massive F**K YOU to the whole state of Memphis. On the next possession he fed his new pal Charlie V for the dunk, and the Pistons bounded back to their huddle looking pretty damn pleased with themselves. And for what it’s worth, I thought Coach Kuester did a terrific job today managing the minutes. He made a few crazy surprises, like running Ben Wallace and Kwame alongside each other for extended periods of time, but it worked (and thinking about it, that particular move makes sense because Kwame never has and never will be comfortable shouldering the defensive/rebounding load inside). About the only thing that was missing, from a Pistons fans point of view, was an Austin Daye sighting.
And Melo did this…