They had better hope that trend continues tonight at 8 in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Boston Celtics, or they’re going to be in really dire straits. Tied with Boston at two games apiece, the Cavaliers certainly aren’t in panic mode, especially knowing they have home-court advantage in what is now a best-of-three series, but they also know they’ve got to step things up tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
That’s what they did in Game 4 in the first round against Chicago, going on the road and winning by 23 points following their lone loss in that series, and that’s what they did in Game 3 Friday in Boston, when they followed an 18-point home loss with a 29-point road victory.
“Sometimes we get complacent, especially after we have a good game like Friday night,” said center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has played just five minutes in the series but has been with the team longer than any other player.
Ilgauskas was basically left as the unofficial team spokesman Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts, as J.J. Hickson was the only other player to talk to the media. LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal both turned down interview requests, leaving coach Mike Brown to field a lot of tough questions.
“It’s a natural human instinct to feel a little pressure,” Brown said. “But it’s a good pressure. You’ve got to welcome it at this point of the season.”
If the Cavaliers don’t welcome it — and handle it — in Game 5, they will head to Boston for Game 6 on Thursday night playing to keep their season alive.
There are a number of things Cleveland can do tonight to make sure that doesn’t happen:
Slow down Rajon Rondo
The 6-foot-1 Celtics point guard was terrific in Boston’s 97-87 victory in Game 4, putting up 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.
Despite James’ sensational performance in Game 3, which included a club playoff-record 21 points in the first quarter, Rondo (21.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 13.0 assists per game) has been the best player in this series.
Even though he’s not much of a shooter, the lighting-quick Rondo is giving the Cavaliers fits, which resulted in first-team All-Defensive pick James offering to take on the challenge following Game 4.
“I would love to,” James said.
“It’s something we maybe should explore because Rondo is definitely dominating this series at the point guard position. For me, I don’t have a problem taking Rondo or guarding Rondo throughout the course of the game. If the coaching staff or the guys want me to do it, I will.”
Brown, who said the Cavaliers “have to keep trying to put different people” on Rondo, hinted the 6-8 James may defend the point guard more, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll spend the majority of the game matched up that way.
Brown’s reasoning is that James has done a fantastic job on Paul Pierce, who is averaging 11.8 points on .320 shooting (16-of-50) in the series. Switching James to Rondo would leave Anthony Parker on Pierce, with Mo Williams then left to try and guard Ray Allen.
Since Rondo has had his way with Williams, Parker and even Delonte West, one option is to use long-armed Jamario Moon, who is 6-8, on Rondo. Playing Moon, on the court for just 2:59 in Game 4, would allow James to stay on Pierce, with West, Williams or Parker, depending on who is going well, defending Allen.
Moon isn’t the greatest offensive player in the world, but Williams is struggling tremendously at that end (3-of-9 shooting in Game 4, 16-of-40 in the series) and West was 0-of-7 from the field Sunday, when the Cavaliers were outscored by 18 points during the 19:58 he was on the floor.
More aggressive LeBron
The 6-8, 250-pounder is averaging 29.8 points on .540 shooting, 7.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists in the series, but except for Game 3, when he finished with 38, eight and seven, respectively, his numbers have looked much better on paper than they have to the naked eye.
Sunday, when James finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, was a prime example.
The 25-year-old had seven turnovers on the afternoon and posted just five points on 2-of-7 shooting, one rebound and two assists while playing the entire fourth quarter, when the Cavaliers were outscored 23-15.
How big a role James’ strained and bruised right elbow played is uncertain — he looked terrific with three days off between Games 2 and 3, then had only one day to recuperate between Games 3 and 4 — but the two-time league MVP made some curious decisions in the final 12 minutes.
With the Cavaliers down four, James passed up an open jumper from the top of the key, instead dishing to notoriously poor-shooting Anderson Varejao for a 21-footer from the baseline that clanged off the rim.
On another possession, James gave the ball to the equally poor-shooting Hickson in the left corner with the shot clock winding down, that trip ending with one of Cleveland’s five turnovers in the quarter.
“I was inconsistent sometimes coming off pick-and-rolls, (not knowing) if I wanted to shoot it or make passes,” James said following the game. “I turned the ball over, (which is) uncharacteristic of myself.”
Better coaching decisions
Game 4 is not one Brown should put on his resume if he’s ever forced to look for another head coaching job.
Beginning with his decision to use Leon Powe — he was inactive for the first seven games of the postseason — for the last 49 seconds of the first period, continuing with his decision to not go to Moon on a day when West and Williams were playing terribly and culminating with leaving Shaquille O’Neal on the bench for the final 11:11 of the game, Brown left himself open to a lot of second-guessing.
The most glaring mistake was leaving O’Neal on the bench, especially since the 38-year-old was having by far his best game of the postseason with 17 points, not to mention the fact Boston counterpart Kendrick Perkins had none.
“I thought quickly about it,” Brown said of leaving O’Neal in with five fouls. “It would have been tough to keep him in.”
Instead of going back to Antawn Jamison, who had played the entire third quarter, Brown turned to Hickson, whose plus-minus rating ended up being minus-11 for the 5:23 he was on the floor in Game 4.
Exactly 1:23 after taking O’Neal out, Brown put Jamison back in, but for Varejao. Fifty-two seconds after that, he put Varejao in for Hickson, but by that time the Cavaliers, down two after three periods, were behind by 10.
Boston also scored the next two points to complete a 10-0 run — Cleveland missed five shots and had four turnovers on its first nine possessions of the fourth quarter — and go up 12.
Brown said Monday he was going to go back to O’Neal soon after, but the Cavaliers then went on a 12-2 run of their own to get back within two with 4:34 to play.
O’Neal ended up not playing again, as the only substitution Brown made in the final 8:55 was putting in Moon with 33.3 seconds to go and the Cavaliers down nine.
“He might have been upset about it,” said Brown, adding he had heard nothing directly from O’Neal. “Any player in his position should be upset about not coming in.”
The list of things the Cavaliers have to do better tonight could grow — cut down on their 17 turnovers, shoot better than 4-of-21 on 3-pointers, have Williams show up at least for a little bit — but history suggests they’ll bounce back strong.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is we always respond well,” Ilgauskas said. “Every time we get slapped around, we get a cold shower and we respond well.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.