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NBA Playoffs, Cavs v. Celtics Game 6: Shaq identifies the elephant in the room, but that doesn't make it disappear

May 13, 2010, 12:58 PM EDT

rondo cavs layup.pngLeBron James blew it big time on Tuesday, and tonight will be his chance to redeem himself. That wasn’t the only storyline from Game 5 though, as the Cavs struggled in just about every way possible to keep pace with an awfully impressive Celtics team. The problem with James’ particularly woeful performance was that in the scramble to figure out what went wrong with LeBron, some of the other poor aspects of the Cavaliers’ play went unscrutinized.

Could LeBron have played better in such a significant game? Of course. But as J.E. Skeets of the Basketball Jones wisely put it, James could have played a great game and still lost to Boston. The Celtics were just too effective against a revered Cavaliers defense. That includes LeBron, who looked as passive and disinterested on the defensive end as he did on the offensive end, but it extends to each and every Cav that hit the floor in Game 5.

Shaquille O’Neal, to his credit, seems to understand that although LeBron’s performance certainly didn’t help Cleveland’s cause on Tuesday, the Cavs’ bigger problems are on the defensive end. From Ken Berger of CBS Sports:

Though much of the focus has been on LeBron’s 3-for-14 shooting night
– his third sub-par offensive performance in the series — Shaq
remained focused on the aspect of the game that has put the Cavs in the
hole they’re in.

“Our problem is not offense,” Shaq said. “Our
problem is, you can’t let guys get historical triple-doubles and you
can’t let five guys get into double figures. So our problem is not
offense…”

I wouldn’t say Shaq is completely right. O’Neal may have played pretty well offensively in Game 5 (21 points on 11 shots), but the team as a whole performed well below the norm. Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison combined for 18 points on 7-of-18 shooting with five turnovers, which isn’t quite what the Cavs need on one of LeBron’s off-nights, even if no one but James is to blame for his own performance. As a result, the Cavs scored at a rate of 95.7 points per 100 possessions in Game 5, a far cry from their 108.8 mark in the regular season.

The more pressing issues, as Shaq notes, are on the defensive end. The previously strong Cavs defense has broken down against not only match-up problems like Rajon Rondo, but even the aging and limited Kevin Garnett. KG isn’t supposed to be the scorer that he was five years ago, but with Antawn Jamison failing to provide any defensive pressure on Garnett, he’s averaging 18.2 points per game on 50.6% shooting in this series.

Limiting Garnett could be as simple as matching him up with Anderson Varejao rather than Jamison, which would be an offensive concession but a defensive boon. However, Mike Brown and his staff will have to be pretty creative in their
defensive adjustments for Game 6. The Cavs’ guards — be it Anthony Parker, Delonte West, or the defense-less Mo Williams — have all failed to hamper Rondo’s ability to get into the lane. The impact of that isn’t just Rondo’s 20.6 points per game in this series, but also his 11.8 assists, as Rajon’s penetration is opening up all kinds of opportunities for his teammates.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the problem, and another to solve it. Garnett’s offense may not be that difficult to counter, but the Cavaliers are going to have a rough Game 6 if they can’t at least make Rondo’s job difficult. LeBron will have to show up for Cleveland to stay alive, but so will the Cavs’ defense.   

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