Posted Dec 18 2009 11:12AM
This is a different Cavaliers team than the one that cruised to a league-high 66 wins last season. But according to coach Mike Brown, those 66 wins hurt his team in the long run. And he seems to be happy that this year's Cavs are three games behind last year's pace.
"You don't ever want to lose, but sometimes, when you lose a game or two, it wakes you up," he said. "And it also makes you find out how well you can handle adversity. We've lost a couple of games that we believe we shouldn't have lost, and our guys have responded the right way. That's good, at least in this point in the season, to be able to do and be able to see.
"If you can handle some adversity right now, it may pay off later down the road. It also lets you know that you haven't arrived yet."
Brown says that last year's team was built "for regular-season basketball, with the interchangeable parts we had and the athleticism, the toughness and the quickness." His more mobile big men allowed his defense to be more aggressive in defending pick-and-rolls, which can be a difficult thing for opponents to adjust to inside a single game.
Now, with either the slow-footed Shaquille O'Neal or the slow-footed Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the floor for most of the game, the Cavs can't defend the pick-and-roll as aggressively as they have in the past.
But according to Brown, O'Neal makes the Cavs more capable of defending the league's best big men. He points to last year's results against the Lakers, Rockets and Magic as evidence that the Cavs needed more size. Cleveland went 2-5 against those teams in the regular season, getting outscored in the paint by almost 13 points per game.
In the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavs' defensive problems against the Magic started with the center position, where Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace provided little resistance for Dwight Howard.
Through Thursday, the Cavs rank fifth in the league defensively, allowing 100.2 points per 100 possessions. They're not quite at the level they were last season, but they're close. And they're defending in a different way. Their opponents' turnovers are down, but so are their points in the paint and offensive rebounds.
The Cavs are a little further behind last year's numbers offensively than they are defensively, primarily because they're turning the ball over more and their offensive rebounds are down. But they've been much more efficient over the last 13 games (109.1 points scored per 100 possessions) than they were over the first 13 (105.3).
A month ago, Brown was in an experimental stage with his team.
"At the beginning of the season, it was a mish-mash of talented bodies that didn't quite have a feel for one another because the head coach didn't," he said Wednesday.
Integrating O'Neal into the lineup was not nearly as easy as it was to integrate Mo Williams a year earlier. Brown had to make changes to the offense to get Shaq his touches in the post. He also had to try different lineups and combinations to see what would work.
Now, 26 games into the season, Brown's got a much better handle on things. He has settled on a starting frontline of O'Neal and J.J. Hickson, with last year's starters, Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, coming off the bench.
"There's still some things that we're feeling out," he said, "but we're a lot more comfortable now on both ends of the floor than we were at the beginning of the season."
Despite the success the team has had since he arrived, Brown has always been criticized for his fourth-quarter offense, which can become very LeBron James-heavy, lacking ball movement.
Last season, the fourth was actually Cleveland's most efficient quarter offensively. This season, it's not. The Cavs are scoring just 101.3 points per 100 possessions in the fourth, as opposed to a scorching 121 in the first quarter. Their assist-to-field goal ratio is also at its lowest in the fourth.
|Cavs Efficiency by Quarter, 2009-10|
|Off. Rat. = Points scored per 100 possessions|
Def. Rat. = Points allowed per 100 possessions
Brown admits that the clear-out-for-LeBron strategy can backfire at times, but still believes the reigning MVP is his best option in critical possessions.
"When you win games and you have success, sometimes it can be fool's gold, because the tougher teams obviously are able to load up and play him and us a little bit better," Brown said. "[LeBron] has shown time and time again that he is capable and he is our guy in the fourth quarter. So come fourth-quarter time, especially at the end of ballgames, as long as we're defending, I'm going to live with whatever he brings to the table for us."
The offensive dropoff after the first quarter is evidence that Brown is still searching for some answers. He has yet to figure out his team's best second unit. The numbers show that the Varejao-Ilgauskas combination is more productive (both offensively and defensively) than Hickson and O'Neal, but the backcourt, with Delonte West's status a nightly question mark, is another story.
Defensively, the Cavs have shown that they're better in the second half than they are in the first.
Brown hopes the same will be true of the Cavs' season.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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