Preview and Chat: The Cleveland Cavaliers

Kurt —  January 27, 2008

Records: Lakers 27-14 (6 seed); Cavaliers 23-19 (6 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.9 (6th); Cavaliers 106.2 (17th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.0 (8th); Cavaliers 110.4 (26th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown
Cavaliers: Larry Hughes, Ira Newbie, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Lakers Notes: It’s raining in Southern California, but if you listen to Lakers fans you’d think the sky is falling. It’s not.

Three weeks ago people were debating if this team could beat the Spurs in a seven game series, and after two losses in a row half the fan base is willing to trade anyone and everyone just to stop the bleeding. Relax, people. This is not the time for a panic move to “salvage the season” because that is how you end up with the Knicks roster.

The Lakers are 2-3 without Bynum and those losses are to Phoenix, San Antonio and Dallas. They beat a good Denver team in that stretch (and Seattle). Sure, the Lakers looked bad on a trip through Texas, but a lot of teams look bad in Texas. The Lakers are still trying to find themselves without their second best player. Good teams find a way through this, the Lakers have and need time to figure it out. Doing so makes them better come the playoffs, better for next season.

Not that the Lakers players, fans and coaches shouldn’t expect better and more consistent play than we saw the last couple of games. I rewatched the third quarter of the Lakers game against the Mavericks yesterday afternoon. Because I’m a masochist. But the lessons from that experience have been well documented before — the Lakers start ran too much isolation offense; then when someone (Kobe, Fisher, Farmar) drive into the paint, the help defender comes off Kwame, something teams dared not do off Bynum; the help defense is slow; Odom is not being aggressive and does not fight for position on the block to get a pass; Walton his hobbling.

But none of that is reason to panic.

The Cavaliers Coming In: Since the Lakers played Cleveland last month, the Cavs have gone 11-4, looking like a team that Boston and Detroit would like to avoid in the playoffs. How have they turned it around? I asked Brian Windhorst, the Cavs beat writer for the Akron Beacon Journal (and True Hoop favorite, one of the beat writers around the league that really gets the blogging thing right).

The Cavs turned things around when they starting using a defensive lineup to start games — with big guards Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic defending the perimeter — and using a small lineup to finish them. This often means Anderson Varejao at center, LeBron at power forward, versatile Devin Brown at small forward and Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson at the guards. This is a hard lineup to defend because LeBron plays point guard and attracts double teams and he can kick it to the shooters or play pick-and-roll with Varejao, who is hard to deal with. They have been a great fourth quarter team for most of the season, they play many games close and then let James make plays at the end to win it.

The Cavs will not start Pavlovic as he got injured and is out for six weeks.

James is still having an MVP-caliber season — he is shooting 51.2% (eFG%) while using 32.5% of his team’s possessions (the highest percentage in the league, and nobody else in the top five shoots over 50%). He also has the highest PER in the league right now.

And in those clutch moments Windhorst talks about? (Fourth quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points). James is shooting 53.9% (eFG%), a higher percentage than he shoots the rest of the game.

The best way to stop him from beating you at the end of games? Don’t let it be close.

Last time these two met: This was one of the few times this season the Lakers bench cost them a game. The starters (with Bynum and Walton) built up an 11-point lead that came completely unraveled with a 16-0 run from late in the third into the fourth. The Lakers got close and even took a 2-point lead back in the fourth.

But it was a close game. And James took over. And the Cavs won by four with a 6-0 run to close the game.

Keys To The Game: The Lakers have to crash the boards hard. Yes, Kwame and Lamar, I’m looking at you. The Lakers gave up 13 offensive rebounds to the Mavericks and now they go up against the third best offensive rebounding team in the league (Cleveland grabs 29.8% of their misses). The Lakers can’t give up a bunch of easy second chances.

Besides James, only other player who has provided a season of good offense for the Cavs is Ilgauskas, who is shooting 48.4% for the season. Kwame can use his strength to defend him in the post, but he’s got to step out with him because Ilgauskas can hit the 17-footer if you give him the look. Watch out for the pick-and-pop with him.

With teams like the Cavs that rely so much on one player, I’ve always been a fan of letting him have a big game but not letting the other Cavs get in the action. When LeBron drives and dishes to an open Gibson for a three, that’s when they make runs. The Lakers need to stay disciplined on defense.

On offense, Kobe should be able to get his and if the Lakers just run the offense and don’t fall into an isolation game they will be fine.

Where you can watch: Game time is 12:30 p.m. (Pacific) and no matter where you live you will be subjected to the ABC broadcast.