Game Notes: Cavs at Clippers
Long live the King.
by Graham Flashner and John Krolik
– With 10:56 to go in the fourth quarter, after Marcus Camby drills a 19-footer, the Clippers lead the Cavaliers, 73-54. A sold-out Staples Center crowd is rocking. Is this even real? Is this a dream? Can the Clippers hold on to defeat all the King’s horses and all of his three-point shooting men?
– Of course not…
– 6pm. I’m supposed to meet my wunderkind SLAM colleague John Krolik somewhere in the halls, but he’s held up by college classes, something I haven’t had to think about for at least 100 years.
– While John pursues higher education, a bunch of us set out in pursuit of LeBron James, who is nowhere to be seen. There was no way I could pass up the King’s last visit to Staples Center this season (a possible June encore notwithstanding). If he could drop 50 on the Knicks at the Garden, there was no telling what he might do to the Clippers.
– Except that tonight has all the making of a classic trap game for the 49-13 Cavs. They get to face a Clipper team at full strength – something that last occurred when the Dow Jones was still above 10,000. For the first time in 48 games, the Clips have Chris Kaman back – they’ve gone 13-35 in his absence. They have Zach Randolph, back (briefly) from Indianapolis after his father’s death. They have Marcus Camby, back from migraine issues. Even Baron Davis is healthy, and looking ready to return from his exile in going-through-the-motions-ville.
– No wonder Mike Dunleavy looks giddy as we file into his office. The coach points out that he’s seen Camby play with Kaman and Randolph, but hasn’t yet seen Randolph play with Kaman. He also points out that, as he always does, that the Clippers have a lot of guys playing well who never seem to be on the court at the same time. Just in case we thought he was a bad coach or something.
– He offers up the play of Randolph, rookie Eric Gordon and Mardy Collins as proof that Clippers fans need not lose hope after 25 years of futility. But Dunleavy saves his proudest comments for son Mike Jr’s bone spur surgery – shots of which he displays on his computer, for anyone who’d like to see.
– On that note, it’s time to head into the locker room.
– Chris Kaman is getting dressed. Kaman’s a free-thinking dude who talks fast, words tumbling out of mouth, some of them that he probably wishes he could retract later. After saying all the right things about being fully recovered from the plantar fasciitis that plagued his left foot, he addresses the Clippers ‘curse’ that he’s brought up a few nights ago.
– “Seems like we have a lot more injuries than most teams,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s a curse on this organization, but we’ve been in the playoffs two, three times in the last 30 years, and every time Coach tries to do something new, someone gets hurt.”
– It’s only been a week since owner Donald Sterling launched a tirade in the locker room after a brutal loss to the Spurs, a loss that so motivated the players, they went out and lost by 23 to Memphis.
– “He felt like he did what’s necessary,” Kaman says. “Everybody’s frustrated around here, including the coaches. Everybody works hard, and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere right now. Could be anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a worker in the ticket sales office. Can’t be fun trying to sell tickets to people who know the Clippers are 15 and whatever, I don’t even know what we are anymore.”
– The thing is, Kaman doesn’t sound mad when he says this stuff – more nonchalant, just a guy who’s telling it like it is.
– On to the Cleveland side, where coach Mike Brown defends his team’s interior defense, which came under fire after the big loss to the Celtics, and plays down the pressure of trying to gain home-court advantage, touting his mantra as a “one day, one practice, one game, one shoot-around-guy.”
– The Cavs locker room is largely dead until King James emerges from the training room, discards his headphones, and makes his way to a crowded corner. Bare-chested and smiling, he holds court on a variety of topics, starting with Dwyane Wade’s 48-point, buzzer-beater-to-win-the-game performance against the Bull sin double overtime.
– “I emailed him,” the King says, and isn’t it cool to know that DWade is in his Fab Five? “Told him he was playing games with himself. Won the game, then lost the game, won the game, then lost it – then he won it again.”
– Regarding his recent offensive funk, after a tough road trip, LBJ admitted some fatigue set in in the second half of games, but proclaimed he’s back.
– LBJ demurred on who he thought should win the MVP, and wouldn’t say whether he’d vote for himself. “I want to be the best player I can be on the court every night I go out. I feel like individual accolades will take care of itself. I’ve never been a guy that was sold on individual achievements.”
– Asked why the Cavs have so much trouble winning in Boston, LBJ says “We’re not the only team that struggles in Boston…. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. We’re gonna have to figure it out. Only way you can win the big games s if you win on the road. You can ask the same question of them – when they struggle in Cleveland.”
– The Cavs’ locker room closes. As I pass the Clippers locker room, Zach Randolph stands outside. Without prompting, he shakes my hand as if he knows me, giving me an easy smile. Say what you want about Zach’s reputation and character issues; in person, he’s as warm and friendly as they come, and seemed happy to be back in uniform. We retreat to his locker for a few words.
– Speaking about the death of his 59-year-old father Zach says, “Emotionally, it’s been very tough, but I’m a strong individual. This is what he wants me to do; my Dad don’t want me to mourn, he wanted me to be strong, keep going about my business the right way.”
– “It definitely changes your outlook on life,” Zach continues. “You tell the people how much you love you love ‘em every day. I try to be a better father… it’s very difficult, cause I didn’t expect this – he got sick all of a sudden.”
– As for the rest of the season, Zach says: “As a team, you just finish out hard. Win more than half – just show what we got with everybody healthy. We got young talent. Come back early in the summer, get the guys together, working out, playing, get the chemistry going before training camp starts.”
– I enter the dining room for the pregame meal, and it’s obvious the kitchen staff has brought their A-game: with three choices of gourmet pasta, steak, soup to die for, and cheesecake, the Clipper cook have outdone themselves in honor of the King.
– Making my way up to press row, I finally meet John, who’s nursing a bad cold. Nothing, however, can dampen his enthusiasm for his beloved Cavs.
John’s In-Game Notes follow below:
– BIG ovation for LeBron. This is not a Lakers crowd.
– Randolph leads off the game by air-balling a three. This would become important.
– 7:21, 1st Quarter: LeBron is on the line for his first point of the game, and we have our first “Fire Dunleavy” chant.
– 4:26, 1st Quarter: During the 2nd “Fire Dunleavy” Chant, a guy in the tunnel to my right starts chanting “Hire Porter!” Good to see positive heckling. Later, he wins $1,000 in a “Deal Or No Deal” game on the floor. Karma.
– LeBron misses a left running sky-hook down the lane. Good to see he’s taking this one seriously. It almost went in, though.
– LeBron’s first field goal of the game is a “screw this, I’m dunking now” jam with 0.8 seconds left in the 1st quarter, as the Cavs enter the break down a significant margin.
– Mo Williams is absolutely wearing YouTube sensation Mike Taylor — he doesn’t give you much offensively, but he can really defend. Taylor just forced Williams into a travel.
– The Cavs are really looking flat-after a Baron fast-break layup and Cavs timeout, the Clips got a standing ovation up double-digits. The reporter to my right: “This does not happen often.”
– LeBron bricks a dunk and Baron finishes with a layup. It’s been that type of night, as the Cavs go into the locker room down 48-34.
– 5:00, 3rd quarter: LeBron, who has been getting shaded to the right and into help all night, goes to his left, gets the middle, and absolutely unleashes a double-pump slam right in front of our section of press row. Whoa. That’s what “Witness” means.
-2:43, 3rd quarter: LeBron blows through everyone for an easy And 1. He’s starting to get that look.
– 5:00, 4th quarter: Mo Williams, enjoying easily his worst game as a Cavalier, finally nails his first three to give LeBron a triple-double and put the Cavs (somehow) within striking distance.
– (Graham interjects: That 19-point lead? Almost all gone. And Kaman looks too rusty out there – one bad play after the next, till Dunleavy finally pulls him, too late, with a minute left).
– 3:41-Mo Williams gets fouled shooting a three. Huge mistake there by an overeager Al Thornton.
– Joe Smith, already getting crunch-time minutes, converts a layup and LeBron drives for one of his own.
– Daniel Gibson, who hasn’t hit all game, gets the ball, tees up a corner three, and NAILS IT. TIE GAME.
– This is a very loud and ambivalent crowd. Many Cleveland fans.
– LeBron flies down the lane and hits two free throws to put the Cavs up two, then bricks a 19-footer to give the Clippers a window…
– AND THORNTON NAILS A THREE. 83-82 Clips. But–
– With one possession left, LeBron dribbles with Baron pressuring him for the full shot clock, finally finds a corner and gets into the lane, gets cut off, makes the pass, and there’s an extra pass, and it goes to 3-16 Mo Williams for three…
– Count it. Great shooters don’t think about the last ones.
– One possession left for the Clippers with six seconds left; Zach Randolph gets it and launches a flat-footed 28-footer with time on the clock, which he airballs. Mo hits the clinching free throws. Wow.
Post-Game – Cavaliers (John)
Mike Brown: “Phenomenal performance by LeBron to stay with it not just physically but mentally.”
Asst. Coach Mike Malone recognized that Baron was hurting them in post and that they weren’t going to Thornton, so he switched James onto Baron and Gibson onto Thornton.
“Great character win. We came out flat, did not come out the right way.”
Why he played Smith over Z in crunch-time: Z had run whole quarter, MB was going to give Z a quick rest, Smith made shot and big defensive stop so he stuck with him.
On how they defended final play: “We didn’t want to double-team and give up a three, guys did a great job staying with and denying their men the ball.”
“Mo never thinks about the last shot he missed, or the last one he made.”
“I’m not just a scorer, one day you’ll figure that out.”
Joe Smith, on playing crunch-time in his 3rd game with the club: “The thing is to be ready, never know when your number is going to be called, got experience and has been in all types of situations”
Mo Williams, when asked if this was the “Best Worst Game of his Career,” said yes.
Post-Game – Clippers (Graham)
– Mike Dunleavy took a long time getting to the podium. One writer swore you could hear him yelling at his players through the cinder block walls. When the coach finally arrived, he was clearly worked up.
– “I probably played the guys who were out due to injury a little too much, and it showed that they were unconditioned,” Dunleavy admitted. “It’s hard not to do when the game is on the line. It is disappointing to play as well as we did in the first three quarters and not finish the game strong.”
– Dunleavy bemoaned bad shot selection, particularly Zach’s egregious final miss, taken with three-plus seconds still showing on the clock, and the play still unfolding.
– “He had plenty of time. Zach had the time, but he turned around and shot that shot. I guess Zach did not realize the time and just took the shot. Normally, we like to get the ball in, get the cutters to come off, get into attack mode, get to the rim for a score, or draw and kick the ball to a good shooter. That shot was definitely not designed for anyone.”
– In a predictably subdued locker room, Zach Randolph agreed with Dunleavy: “It was a bad shot. I should’ve drove it. I thought he time was shorter… we didn’t draw the play right. Baron was supposed to get the ball, I was supposed to pick and roll… tough loss.”
– Al Thornton, who had the unenviable task of trying to contain the King and his triple double (32/13/11): “We had bad shots, we had trouble transitioning, and finding the shooters. It felt like LeBron took over and got his whole team involved. He is a beast. We try and make him take jump shots, but when he gets the pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, keeps coming off that, it’s tough.”
– Baron Davis: “There’s no such thing as a moral, victory. What we do know is, getting our whole team back makes us a better team than we were. We have to find a way to get aggressive, and not just manage a lead.”
It’s after 3am in L.A., so don’t expect much insight. Or profundity. John has signed off, and I’m just about to. For three quarters, the Clippers looked like the team Donald Sterling thought he paid for. But this collection of castoffs, semi-stars, and wannabes has no sense of cohesion or identity. They may win more games and sell more tickets, but they’re no closer to turning things around.
The Cavaliers shot miserably for three quarters, but they were willed to victory by the incomparable LeBron and an opportunistic defense that put the clamps on when it counted. Offensively, they’re vulnerable when the King’s supporting cast deserts him, as it almost did tonight. And they’re susceptible to poundings from bigger teams down low. If they want to come out of the East, they’d best get home court.