Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pain Infliction

Is there anything more painful in sports than watching a team in an offensive slump? As Cleveland sports fans, you can take your pick: the Indians or the Cavs. Whichever you chose, though, is mostly irrelevant. The local teams lately have been an assault on the eyes and the senses.

While it may be difficult for the moment to forget about the results of the Cavaliers-San Antonio Spurs snore-fest in Game three of the NBA Finals, try. While you’re at it, dispense with the notion that the game was some sort of sublime defensive struggle. Focus instead on what you were forced to endure: 48 minutes of really bad basketball by two teams playing in their sport’s premier event.

One team had to win that game and one team did, the better one. But if San Antonio is truly the elite team of the league, a dynasty in the making, then the league needs to do some serious soul searching and figure out how to re-introduce offense to the game. The level of play by both teams has been remarkable only in its ability to sap the enthusiasm of even the most die hard fan, let alone the casual fan whom the league needs to really reach.

A good game need not result in a 122-118 score, but neither should it ever devolve into a 78-72 grind. The supposedly top two teams in the league played 48 minutes of basketball, collectively took 185 shots (38 of which were 3-pointers) and made only 70, for a rousing shooting percentage of 37.8%. If you want to get picky, the Cavs 3-19 from the three-point line was a major contributor to that figure, but looked at from the other angle, the Spurs 10-19 shooting on their three-pointers helped raise the two teams overall shooting percentage .8%. From inside the line, the teams were a collective 57-147, or 37.0%. When professional basketball players can’t even make four out of every 10 shots with the championship on the line, something is wrong.

There is always a certain amount of defensive pressure that results in forced shots. But anyone witnessing Tuesday nights’ game knows that defense was hardly the reason. The Cavs had so many open looks at the basket from nearly everywhere on the court, they could have been playing the Knicks. Players were missing all manner of layups and 10-footers. Time after time, player after player bounced shots off the back of the rim. Maybe it was defensive pressure or maybe it was the pressure of the moment, but when players are missing long, it tends to mean they are having trouble controlling their emotions. Besides, if defensive pressure was really the culprit, then why were the teams a collective 10-31 from the free throw line?

If you dig deeper into the statistics of this series you’ll see that in each game the Cavs have had two quarters in which they’ve failed to score even 20 points. In game one, it was quarters one and three. In game two, it was the first and second quarter. In game three, it was quarters one and three again. That accounts for half of all the quarters played in the entire series. More to the point, the Cavs simple inability to put the ball in the basket in the first quarter has set an offensive tone that has carried on throughout each game. Thus, if the Cavs are to be successful in game four, and they have to be, a good place to start would be a way to score at least 20 points in the first quarter. It hasn’t happened yet.

You could point to the second half of game two to counter the argument that the Cavs haven’t scored all series, but you can’t consider the second half without taking into account how deep of a hole they dug for themselves in the first half. The Spurs had a whopping 25-point lead going into the second half of that game which obviously changed the nature of how the rest of that game would be played. Moreover, it’s hardly as if the Cavs carried over that momentum in game three. They scored only 38 points in the first half and 34 points in the second half. At best, the second half of game two was the anomaly. Game three was the standard.

While the Cavs and their offensive woes are partially responsible for a series that is devoid of any real drama, the Spurs shouldn’t be given a pass. They have failed to score 20 or more points in three quarters and have scored only 20 points in three others, which accounts for exactly half of the entire series as well. No wonder you’re left with a sense that this series is being played in monotone. Maybe the grind of the playoffs has taken its toll on both teams, but if that’s the case then the NBA needs to find a better system quickly or they’ll find themselves splitting time on the Versus network with the NHL begging people to watch their playoffs.

And as if the Cavs offensive ineptitude hasn’t been enough to cut the legs out from most Cleveland fans, then the Indians are doing their level best to complete the job these days. In the month of June, they are 5-7. While two of those losses were against the Detroit Tigers, five have been against the relative dregs of the league: Kansas City, Cincinnati, Seattle and Florida. The formula for success in baseball hasn’t changed in a hundred years: beat up the bums and play .500 against the rest. That’s certainly not the formula the Tribe has used lately, but if they plan to return to post season, they simply can’t keep playing down to their level of competition, something they seem to do all too frequently.

Where the Indians have really suffered of late, though, is on offense, much like the Cavs. They’ve been shut out twice in their last four games. Against Florida on Wednesday and on the heels of just being shut out the night before (and two nights before that), the Indians remained in a coma until the 6th inning, when they scored six runs. But that “explosion” was aided greatly by some really bad baseball on the part of the Marlins as five of those runs were unearned.

The one really bright spot of that inning was David Dellucci’s three-run home run. Prior to that and even going back over the previous three games, the Indians hitters were having trouble getting themselves into good hitting counts and even when they did they either popped out or grounded out. You’d search in vain for a hard hit ball. Even more difficult was finding a way to take advantage of a pitcher in trouble, exemplified by their ineptness on Sunday against the Reds with the bases loaded and the game on the line.

When Dellucci came to bat against the Marlins in the sixth inning, it was just after relative chaos had ensued. Byung-Hyun Kim, as most will recall, is a converted closer after having been run out of Arizona following his post-season Jose Mesa impressions while with the Diamondbacks. As a starter, he’s been the kind of pitcher that would make a team long for Scott Elarton. In other words, his appearance on a major league roster wouldn’t be possible without expansion. Still, there he was shutting out the Indians until his defense took on the character of a Sunday morning beer league and booted the ball around.

Taylor Tankersley, who is hardly Dennis Eckersly, came in for relief, an appearance notable only because he was summarily tossed by home plate umpire Brian Knight for drilling Grady Sizemore in the shoulder on a 0-2 pitch. By that point, all manner of argument had broken out and Aaron Boone (yes, that Aaron Boone) another beneficiary of baseball expansion, found himself with an early shower as well. By the time order had been restored, Lee Gardner was suddenly on the mound for the Marlins and four pitches later Dellucci put the game out of reach.

It’s hard to know when a team’s offensive slump might end, but an at-bat like Dellucci’s is often a good start. Not only had it been awhile since any Indian had gone deep, but it also was the first time in awhile that the Indians had actually taken advantage of a gift-wrapped situation. While this may not be the most critical point in the season, it is pretty clear that the Tigers aren’t going away. As such, the Indians can ill afford a prolonged offensive slump, particularly with the Atlanta Braves making their way to Jacobs Field this weekend.

As for the Cavs, they really have no choice but to end their offensive slump. No team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit and nothing the Cavs have done thus in thus far in the series foretells any change in that precedent. All that says is that it’s unlikely that the Cavs will win the championship. What it doesn’t say is that they shouldn’t at least use every opportunity they still have in the waning days of this season to find their stroke, if only to make watching the game a bit less painful.

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