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Eastern Conference Finals Autopsy

One Season, One Goal. That was the battle cry for the 2008-09 season. By that standard, the Cavaliers were a failure this year. I’m sure anyone on the team and any fan in the Cleveland area will agree with that point. While I am disappointed by the outcome – the true failure would come from the team refusing to learn from this season’s disappointment and get better for next year’s run. So now that the Cavs season has flatlined, let’s do an autopsy on the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. Where did the Cavs get beat?

1. Post Play
Dwight Howard OWNED the Cavs this series (25.8 ppg, 13 rpg, 65.8% FG%). I can’t say that I’m shocked by this development, the part that surprised me was the lack of defensive resistance Cleveland offered. With the exception of Game 2, Howard was a man among boys down low, or more accurately, a young man among senior citizens. With Z moving about as well as a glacier and Ben Wallace contemplating retirement because of the decline in his skills – who were the Cavs going to put up against the most physically dominating center since Shaquille O’Neal weighed in at 325? Andy didn’t do much better, officials stop buying the soccer style flopping defense once the playoffs starts, which leaves Joe Smith (we’ll cover that later). Cleveland has no post toughness at all. Their bigs are finesse players (Z, Varejao) or old men (Wallace and Z again).

2. Bad Matchups
Let’s be honest, this team was not built to face the Orlando Magic. When Danny Ferry went to work last offseason, he had one team in mind – Boston. Had Cleveland played Boston, I am confident that we would have punched our tickets to the NBA Finals in four or five games. Andy can handle Garnett, who is not nearly as strong or athletic as Howard or as effective on the perimeter as Turkoglu and Lewis. Z can handle Kendrick Perkins, who also moves very glacier-like*. Delonte and Mo would have been able to chase around Rondo and Allen. LeBron would have completely worn Paul Pierce out over the course of a seven game series and Cleveland’s bench would have had the upper hand on Boston’s. Instead, Andy had to defend a perimeter player and Z matched up against Howard. Those two matchups alone will kill a team. Then we go to Delonte guarding Turkoglu, who is seven inches taller than West. Mo Williams guards Courtney Lee and Mike Brown puts LeBron on Rafer Alston (once again, more on this later.) Orlando’s bench vs. Cleveland’s bench isn’t even fair to match up – Orlando and Denver have two of the most explosive benches in the league. Keep in mind J.J. Redick started for Orlando against Boston in the semis and proceed to play nine minutes and 47 seconds against the Cavs – for the entire series. Out of those match ups, there is one that I can live with – Mo defending Courtney Lee. That’s normally not a good sign going into a series.

* Can we organize a 100 or 200-meter race between Z and Kendrick Perkins. Have you seen the two of them sprint up the court? You can’t tell me you wouldn’t watch and you can’t tell me that this wouldn’t redefine athletic comedy.

3. Mo Williams
Mo Williams performance against the Magic was horrendous. His whole series, save for Game 5, reminded me of John Starks in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals. This is a huge problem, right? Truthfully, I am not worried about this issue one bit. This season was Mo’s first real trip to the playoffs. I know he went in 2006 with the Bucks, but I am not counting 15 minutes per game in a first round series in which his team was waxed against the Pistons. Most players don’t play well in their first trip to the playoffs, these things take time and reps. Remember, Kobe Bryant (who is going to win this “Great Debate” thing after the run through the Magic) AIRBALLED three consecutive late-game jumpers in an elimination game against the Spurs in 1999. He may have shot the team in the foot this series, but I am not worried about Mo in the long run.

4. Defense
Despite the bad match ups Orlando presented, the Cavs did not give their best defensive effort. The bigs showed little to no pride as they were stomped into the ground by Dwight Howard. I recall hearing Mike Brown yelling “FOUL HIM!” several times about Howard and can recall one or two good hard fouls against him. If the Cavs were worried about flagrants, fine, but you have to believe even Howard would have thought twice if he caught a real good hard foul (think Kevin McHale on Kurt Rambis - toned down just a tad).

On the outside, Mikael Pietrus shot about 85% from three point (really 47% on 17 of 36 shooting), Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis did pretty much whatever they wanted and Rafer Alston beat them in Game 4. How in the world can you allow Rafer Alston – streetball legend, yes – but NBA journeyman to beat you in a pivotal playoff game. The defense that was this season’s calling card was just not there.

5. Coaching
Before I get into this, I would just like to point out something. We are talking about this season’s NBA Coach of the Year. You would think that makes him untouchable, except the previous four winners - Byron Scott, Sam Mitchell, Avery Johnson and Mike D’Antoni – have all been fired, or in Scott’s case, are a lame duck coach waiting for his pink slip. It doesn’t feel so good having the reigning Coach of the Year anymore after thinking about that. Especially after watching him take a 1st team all-defense player (James) and putting him on perpetual non-factor Alston to have him play like a free safety, only to have the two players James would match up best with (Turkoglu and Lewis) completely destroy the Cavaliers. Then as he stubbornly sticks with the same game plan, Alston decided to knock down some shots and win a game himself in the meantime. I don’t understand how you don’t put your best defender on Turkoglu when they match up so well. He made that offense go, as you saw in Game 5 when his playmaking ability (28 points but only 2 assists) was stifled. If this were a game of poker and LeBron is the wild card – Brown is holding off suit 7, 8, 10 and Jack, only to say he would rather have James as a King (no pun intended) and go for the King high win rather than use him as a 9 and the straight.
Secondly, where was Joe Smith? Between Z’s molasses-like drives to the basket and ill-fated three pointers, wouldn’t Brown think to put in a tough veteran who can knock down the same 15-18 footer that has become Ilgauskas’ entire skill set AND move his feet on defense? What was the purpose of picking him up at mid-season if he’s going to play 51 total minutes when the pressure is on? I can’t believe Ferry signed Smith because of his experience playing mid-March games against Sacremento.

I won’t go into the offensive problems too much because I doubt anyone is still reading after 1,200 words, but I will say this: I could have sworn I graduated college and I turn 24 next week, but after watching the Cavs for the last six games, I guess I was wrong. It’s 2007, I still have another year of college left and am looking forward to blacking out at the Valley in Akron next week as I celebrate my 22nd birthday. The only difference was instead of watching the abilities Damon Jones, Eric Snow and Ira Newble have to stand still, we were watching Mo Williams and Wally Szczerbiak. Although holdovers Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic seem like they have worked extremely hard on their ability to stand around and watch LeBron over the past 2 seasons. They were as good as ever at doing that.

As Cleveland fans, we all know that there’s always next year. This team seems as close as ever as they re-tool to take on their newest Eastern Conference nemesis. The problems the Cavs had in the past series are not un-fixable, but they must be addressed. This is a tough season to swallow – it was like watching Ricky get shot at the end of Boyz N the Hood. There’s always next year in Cleveland, but I just can’t shake the feeling that rooting for Cleveland sports is like rooting for Dukie in season 4 of The Wire. You know it’s going to end badly, but you still hope he (or this team) will be the one to beat the odds and give you the ability to say, “I knew it would turn out this way the whole time, they just wouldn’t give up.”

- Patrick Bauch

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