Alright, so I was out of town at a wedding this weekend, with no working computer and two giant Cavs games. Inconvenient, to say the least (though I had a blast) . So this is gonna count for both Game 6 & 7.
I think as Cavs fans, we can be disappointed and we can be bummed out, but I don't think we're allowed to be angry at this result. The Cavs weren't supposed to win this game or this series. You can expect them to play well and expect them to force a Game 7, but I don't think it's realistic to expect them to go into Boston and pull it out. They had good looks and they played with a strong effort, they went out playing fairly well. You can want more but you can only expect so much. And the way this game was played out, I thought the Cavs were actually gonna pull it off.
I could take them losing the final game if a couple things happened: I wanted to see Boston win a close game at home, in front of their fans, with LeBron James going nuts. That's all I wanted to see. I didn't trust Kevin Garnett down the stretch, Boston hasn't played tight games all year and LeBron can take a crowd completely out of a game when he's on. I didn't think that the Celtics had anyone who could match LeBron basket for basket in a tight game. I figured that Boston would fold under the pressure and the Cavs could win a close one simply because of James. I just didn't account for Paul Pierce having the game of his life. I didn't see that one coming and I don't think anyone else did either.
Pierce was spectacular with 41 points, 4 boards and 5 assists. He was really hot early and I still wasn't worried. I was hoping that Pierce would start shooting well, start taking some bad shots and then cool himself off down the stretch. I was fine with him scoring early, I didn't think he had it in him to continue it all game long. He matched James shot for shot (or James matched him, as the Cavs were playing catchup the entire afternoon). You know going in that the Celtics have the better supporting cast and if they can get someone to match LeBron's output, the supporting case would put them over the edge. And with KG, Eddie House and PJ Brown all doing the little things, the Cavs' role players couldn't match.
And the Cavs had their chances in Game 7, make no mistake about it. A couple of fouls go their way, a lose ball bounces the other direction or if West's game tying 3 doesn't rim out, the Cavs would be walking away the victors. I thought the refs did a poor job in Game 7, for both teams. LeBron ended up shooting 19 free throws (making 14, 73%) and he very easily could've had a dozen more. The Celtics were grabbing his arms when he drove, hit him in the face and generally roughed him up on the way to the rim. But the refs weren't exactly kind to the Celtics either, LeBron definitely hacked Pierce a few times with no recourse and Kevin Garnett got called for a weak pushoff on Joe Smith late in the game (however, KG was pushing off throughout the first 40 minutes, so I'll take that one, even if it was bunk). Though, I will say that I thought Boston was on the receiving end of the worst call of the afternoon, when Ben Wallace was whistled for a block after Pierce elbowed him in the chest while trying to create space while being trapped. How that was even debatable was beyond me (also, I was unaware that just because it's a close game, you're allowed to neck tackle people. Good to know).
Despite how awful the offense looked this series, I think you have to give the Cavaliers credit. They took the Celtics to seven games and they only really had three terrible quarters in Boston (quarters 2 & 3 in Game 2 and 3 in Game 5). Boston's the better team, plain and simple (not that the 66 wins didn't tell us this already). And things broke their way this last game. Look, if it takes Paul Pierce getting lucky bounces (once on a 3, once on a free throw and once when a tipped pass landed in his lap for an open trey) and PJ Brown hitting the game winning shot for the Celtics to put away the Cavaliers, then so be it. I'll tip my hat and go on my way.
But if the Cavs had put forth an effort like the second half of Game 5 or if LeBron put up another 2-18 game, I'd have been pissed. But they kept it close and LeBron was going off; that's what you shoot for in this situation. You can't really ask for much more from this group of guys. They won their three home games convincingly and had legit shots in both Games 1 and 7 on the road. The injury to Daniel Gibson hurt more than people realize. Gibson has played well in big playoff games and having him out there rather than Sasha Pavlovic (not the trainwreck I thought he'd be, but they need more from him), Wally Szczerbiak (who may be the slowest guard in the NBA) or Damon Jones (who hadn't played for the past month) could have been enough to tip the scales in the Cavaliers' favor.
And though Mike Brown and Danny Ferry will draw a lot of the fans' ire (some deservedly, some not), I think you have to give them some credit as well. Sure, the offense had some terrible moments and the role players were inconsistent, but for all intents and purposes, if the Cavs had gotten just a mediocre performance out of LeBron in Game 1 (as opposed to a terrible one), the Cavs take that game and probably the series. Despite all of the other issues, that's basically this series came down to. 45 win teams aren't supposed to upset 66 win teams. It's hard to do. The Cavs had a good of chance of anyone and they didn't capitalize on their chances.
I think you have to say February's trade was a success, even with the Game 7 loss (and Szczerbiak's poor performance). The Cavs basically traded two rotation guys (Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden) for four (Ben Wallace, Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith). Once everyone got settled, I don't think it's a question that the post-trade Cavs were both the better and deeper team. Could you imagine if while LeBron was shooting 25% we had Larry Hughes turning in 5-17 nights? Do you think Drew Gooden would have been a factor in any of these seven games? Or if Joe Smith is a better fit off the bench than Donyell Marshall? Delonte West has had his moments (a little too turnover prone at times) but I think you have to be pleased at how he reacted to the playoff spotlight. And sure Ben Wallace is as overpaid as Hughes, but at least Wallace tries to do what he's supposed to be doing. I can live with that.
However, that's not to say that there aren't issues. The offense has be fixed and it's imperative that they hire an offensive coach for Brown's staff. Some will probably say that it should've happened this past offseason, and I tend to agree. However, if your coach, who just took the franchise to their first ever NBA Finals appearance, says that he's going to work on the offense in the offseason, I think you owe him enough respect to let him try to work things out on his own. But it didn't work, the offense still stagnated and things need to change. Now. Brown had his chance to fix it, but now it's time to get another coach in there for help, Brown's feelings be damned. But let's not neglect how good of a defensive team the Cavs have become; that fact they can be so bad on offense and yet compete with the best teams in the league is more than somewhat remarkable. I still don't think Brown's defense gets the credit it deserves (but that tends to be because his offense is so horrible).
But GM Danny Ferry will have more on his plate than simply hiring an offensive minded assistant. The Cavs are going to have roughly $30 million in expiring contracts to play with and he needs to add at least upper level talent, if not two. They'll also have a first round pick (#19) for the first time in a couple years and they'll be scouting for both their needs (young, athletic big man) and for potential trades (the "best player available"). The Cavs should be major players in almost every trade scenario that comes up over the next 8 months and we'll see what kind of talent Ferry can put around LeBron.
And LeBron. What can you say about this kid? I think he's clearly the best player in the NBA. The pounding he takes on a nightly basis is astounding, his defense is improving and he's a force of nature when he gets a head of steam. There are still some issues that have to be addressed; he needs to get his jumper more consistent, he needs to work on his free throw shooting and I'd like to see him put more effort in his offense without the basketball. Granted, some of this can be addressed by hiring a coach that can diagram something other than a pick and pop, but there are things that can be worked on. James has turned himself in to a dynamic off the ball defender and his jumper has improved remarkably. There's no reason to think that he won't continue to improve his game.
With the Cavs losing the way they did (LeBron scoring 45 and no one else doing squat) there will continue to be talk about LeBron bolting because he has no help (I already heard an ESPN radio guy talking up Mike D'Antoni and the Knicks- but I thought he was going to play for Jay-Z in Brooklyn? I'm so confused). And if his contract was up this July, I'd be terrified. But it's not, he's got at least two more years in a Cavalier uniform. With all the expiring deals, the team that walks off the court to end the 2010 season should look starkly different than the one we watched on Sunday afternoon. The Cavs have some time to make things over and I doubt LeBron will leave in 2010 because of anything that happened in 2008. However, if in 2010 the Cavs play a Game 7 and Sasha Pavlovic plays the entire second half.... be afraid.
All in all, I think you have to say that the Cavs had a successful year. They had key players miss a lot of time due to injuries, hold outs and other various issues. They revamped the roster mid-season and then couldn't get everyone on same page (and healthy) until the playoffs.
The Cavs got as far as their previous roster could take them and though they ended their season two rounds earlier, I don't think it's fair to say that they took a step back. If you actually think that last year's team is making that same run this time around, well... you need help. The Cavs had a good run and gave a great Boston team a legit scare. With all the games missed and other factors, I think they're a better team than their 45 win season says and I think there's enough pieces here that one or two key addition could turn them into a legit title contender (and one major piece *cough* Carmelo Anthony *cough* that could propel them to dominance).
Like a certain basketball playing presidential candidate, Cavs fans will be chugging the hope and change kool-aid quite a bit over the coming months. The offense has to change and with all of their expiring contracts, there's good reason to expect that the roster will change quite a bit as well (and ideally for the better). There are some reasons to be optimistic and hopeful; I think that Ferry tends to make good moves, even if he can be a bit gun shy (and for what it's worth, neither Mike Bibby nor Jason Kidd turned in that good of postseasons). While in some ways this turned out to be a lost season, with injuries playing a large factor for the entire year, I'd still says it's a successful one, if only for trade (and the roster turnover) alone. The trade was the first step in building a dominant team around James, where everyone knows their roles has the skills to compliments LeBron's skill set. All I wanted if for Ferry not to make a panic move and keep his options open for the coming summer. He did that and more.
The coming months should be really, really interesting.