- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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A very bright friend of mine who serves as a personal coach for NBA players remarked to me today, "I had my back turned to the TV following the Cavs-Nets game and I was so impressed with the basketball IQ of the coach they were interviewing. Then I turned to face the TV, and I saw that the really smart guy was actually LeBron James."
I concur completely, and here is how James' smarts have given the Cavs a huge edge as they head home to close out the Nets.
In their lone loss, James spent too much time on the perimeter, as he is wont to do. In simple terms, he is in love with his jumper, though the rest of us are not. He took five 3s and made just one, and got just seven free throws to finish with 18 points on 16 shots. Even though the Nets have no one to match his combination of strength and agility inside (think of a Shaq-like advantage for his position), James did not set up camp inside and the Nets were able to make him look mortal.
But in the pivotal Game 4 win, James looked to use his distinct advantage inside to hurt the Nets, and ended up getting 30 points on 16 shots while earning 15 free throws. Most young players struggle to assert themselves to their best advantage when the other team knows what that advantage is. But James was creative at finding creases in the paint, then strong at finishing in traffic.
The Nets must foresee that James will do the same thing in Game 5, and orient their defense toward slowing him down even beyond what they have offered up to now. Compact zones and an extra body to shadow him, perhaps, and maybe even a box-and-one type of defense for a possession here and there.
There is a risk of giving up offensive boards when focusing so much on James, but the Nets can't expect to shut down James inside and not risk something. James' patience in reading his teammates' movements will be on display as well,
because there will be myriad opportunities for face cuts and seals inside.
Amazingly, the Nets trail 3-1 yet have only been outscored in these four games by a total of five points. It really has come down to fourth-quarter execution, in which the Nets have failed miserably. Outscored by four and nine in those quarters in Games 1 and 2, New Jersey's vets must be thirsting for one more chance to make the plays late to seal a win.
And after the disastrous fourth quarter of Game 4, we may see Nets coach Lawrence Frank pick a different go-to guy late in the game. As much as any other barometer, the difference between James and Vince Carter in this series has spelled out the difference between wins and losses. Though neither player has been terribly efficient in Quarter 4, Carter has hurt his team more with shots and costly turnovers. He has the look of someone who is about to bust, either in a breakdown or breakout.
If any Net had played well in Game 4, we'd have a tied-up series. Jefferson had been great up to the last game, so I look to him and Kidd to rally their team. Kidd's poor Game 4 from the field is a sign that he is human, after being an incredible
shooter in prior games. But his 17 rebounds (more than twice the amount of the Nets' top three bigs) suggests otherwise. His will to win will help propel the Nets' fast break and spearhead their defensive focus on James.
This Nets team knows it can win three straight against the Cavs, and Kidd will lead them to try and do that one quarter at a time. I actually think Chicago's rousing win in Detroit will serve to inspire the Nets, just as it will unnerve the Cavs. Bostjan Nachbar is due to have a big game, and Carter a monster one.
Kidd will still be given open looks instead of letting him slash and create, and Jefferson should get back on track. But I like Cleveland's effort at home, where the Cavs' big guys play with more energy and Larry Hughes is a much better 3-point shooter (40.7 percent at home, 25.7 on the road).
Factor in that James' intelligence helps him deal with anything the Nets throw at him, and that he's great at figuring out how to get good shots for teammates (he's averaging 9.5 assists this series), and I'm left with this: I think the Nets have too many weapons and we won't see all of them struggle again, but Cleveland is just too strong inside and will make the Nets pay for increased attention on James.
It would not be a real upset to see the Nets win, because these teams are so close, but I look for Cleveland to hold on and end the series.
PREDICTION: Cleveland wins Game 5
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David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he works as a personal coach for Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat), Orien Greene (Indiana Pacers), Alexander Johnson (Memphis Grizzlies) and Kevin Martin (Sacramento Kings). You can e-mail him here.
Video scouting services used in this report were provided by Synergy Sports Technology
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann