It took me until 5 a.m. to finish off the first day's playoff action, but it was worth the acute case of advanced sleep deprivation that I'm currently experiencing. What a great start to what promises to be a memorable postseason. My lingering image: That Tim Duncan three-pointer. The guy simply can't shoot from that range. He never even tries. Yet when the ball ended up in his hands, and he was all alone, you knew it was going in. Are you kidding me?
Cleveland 93, Washington 86
The Wizards had their chances to put this one away but succumbed to another fourth-quarter rally by the best comeback team in the league.
The announcers on ESPN reported that Cleveland is the tops in the league in fourth quarter differential, and that LeBron James is the league's top scorer in the last period. A quick glance at the clutch statistics at 82games.com shows the rest of the story. In those situations, defined as the last five minutes of a game with neither team ahead by more than five points, James averages an incredible 56.0 points per 48 minutes. He leads the league in +/- per 48 clutch minutes and, because of his presence, six of James' teammates also rank in the top 11 of that category.
The strong finishing kick of James is likely the main reason that Cleveland was able to outperform its Pythagorean mark by more than five games, second-most in the NBA. The Cavs were 4-1 in overtime games and won 17 games when trailing after three quarters--five more than any other team.
All of this is a backdrop to those numbers playing out on the court on Saturday. Washington got away from the effective double-teaming of James that they'd employed early in the game, leaving DeShawn Stevenson on a very lonely island. That wouldn't have been so bad, but Washington's help defense faltered down the stretch as well. On one crucial possession with less than 40 seconds left, James went around Stevenson and got into the lane. The Wizard defender in best position to cut off his path was Antawn Jamison. For whatever reason, Jamison was content to watch as James sank a little floater.
The Cavaliers also ratcheted up their defense down the stretch as Washington missed shot after shot with the game on the line, self-professed king of closers Gilbert Arenas included. Washington actually led 84-82 with 4:38 to play but from that point, the Cavs went on an 11-0 run before a meaningless Wizards basket finished the scoring.
On the stat sheet, Washington was beaten by a 28-14 disparity from the foul line. It's one thing to foul James, who was 8-14 from the stripe. But Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West also attempted eight free throws each. The Wizards were attempting to play a physical, intimidating style and, in the end, it beat them.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Mike Brown sticks with his semi-inspired decision to start Wally Szczerbiak. Szczerbiak was lousy, 2-for-10 from the field, but he is the Cavalier (other than James) most apt at getting his own shot. If he can find his rhythm, that could really help prevent the often-plodding Cavs from breaking down on offense.
Also, Gilbert Arenas was tremendous, scoring 24 points in 28 minutes. It's unclear what his durability is at this point and, watching him, it's evident that he's still a long way from recovering his full range of explosiveness and athleticism. But the Wizards certainly seemed to have more verve when Agent Zero was on the floor. Caron Butler will also need to be more of a factor as the series unfolds.
In any event, this looks like it's going to be a long, hotly-contested showdown, if not the most aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball to ever grace the hardwood. If there is anything Eddie Jordan learned from Saturday's game, it is this: Don't let the Cavaliers hang close because, in the fourth quarter, King James will beat you.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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