Game Preview and Chat: The Cleveland Cavaliers

Kurt —  December 20, 2007

Records: Lakers 15-9; Cavaliers 11-15
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.3 (7th); Cavaliers 104.7 (20th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.0 (12th); Cavaliers 110.4 (26th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Cavaliers: Daniel Gibson, Aleksandar Pavlovic, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Lakers Notes: I’m not going to say anything, I don’t want to jinx how they are playing.

The Cavaliers Coming In: I don’t think you can overestimate how good LeBron James playing — he is shooting an impressive 51.6% while using a league-high 32.5% of his team’s possessions. His PER of 30.5 is not only higher than anyone else in the league, it’s better than anyone had last season. Or the season before that. Those are approaching Jordan at his peak numbers — in 90-91 MJ shot 54.7% using 33% of his team’s possessions and with a PER of 31.6. And LeBron does not have a Pippen or the rest of the supporting cast to draw attention and defenders away from him.

What is LeBron doing differently this season? Well, he’s getting inside for close shots more often (34% of his shots were in close last year, this year it is up to 39% according to 82 Games) and he has also developed a better and more consistent jump shot according to a breakdown done recently by The Painted Area.

That’s the good news in Cleveland. There are two key areas of bad news that lead to the Cavs being much worse than last year:

First, the Cavs have only one other player right now with an above-average PER — Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and that’s in part due to the fact he’s such a good rebounder. Outside of LeBron, nobody is contributing much on offense. Daniel Gibson can shoot — he has hit 50% of this threes this past year — but anyone who watched the playoffs last year knows not to leave him an open look.

The bigger problem is the defense — last year the Cavs had the fourth best defense in the NBA, and that got them to the finals. This year they are 25th. Teams are shooting at a higher percentage, those teams are also getting fouled more often meaning more uncontested free throws, and last year the Cavs created a lot of turnovers, this year not so much.

That defense is the key reason the Cavs are spiraling downhill — in the last 10 games the Cavs are 2-8 and got crush by 18 by the Knicks last night.

Keys To The Game: I think there are two schools of thought when dealing with a team like the Cavs where one guy generates so much of the offense: 1) put the clamps on him and make someone else beat you; 2) let him get 50 or whatever but make sure nobody else does well. Personally, I’m partial to system number two, I remember that as the most successful strategy against Jordan until his teammates became good enough to beat you too, and from the experience of the last few years we know that the Lakers playing team ball is more dangerous than Kobe going off for 50.

I hope to see the Lakers play their basic defense — give Odom and Walton and Ariza the impossible job of guarding LeBron, help them with doubles, rotate in the paint and don’t give up dunks. But, don’t let LeBron start getting Ilgauskas or Gibson or anyone else hot. Try to make sure LeBron isn’t efficient, but make sure nobody else gets even warm. (That said, the Lakers could go with option one, we shall see).

For the Lakers, I think the bench is the key — the Cavs suffered an embarrassing loss to the Knicks last night, and this is a thin team when they are not tired. The Knicks pulled away in the second quarter with their bench, and the Lakers bench is much, much deeper.

Also, the Lakers should score plenty, the Cavs have been a terrible defensive team this season, and particularly of late. This all comes down to executing on defense for the Lakers — and ultimately that means defending James on the pick-and-roll, that’s where he does most of his late game damage. Easier said than done because James can pass, but Drew and the bigs need to step out and take away those lanes. If he gets a head of steam toward the basket, forget about it.

Tonight’s Game: Where The Lakers Bench Happens: Cleveland is capable of putting together a very good game — remember they beat the Celtics this year. And LeBron should be pumped for a nationally televised game. And the Cavs should want to redeem themselves for a very poor showing last night.

All that said, if the Lakers as a whole and the bench in particular play like they have of late, the Lakers are 2-0 on this trip heading to Philly.

Where you can watch: Game time is 5p.m. (Pacific). In Los Angeles tune into KCAL (9) or you can join the rest of the nation watching the TNT broadcast.