Happy Thursday. Might want to pour yourself another cup of coffee if reading this as part of the morning routine, as this might take a while. No championships for Cleveland this week, but some thoughts on the Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics while we’re waiting…
- I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Tristan Thompson may be the key to the series. The Cavaliers dropped Game 1 as Al Horford repeatedly karate-chopped them in the neck, scoring 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting with six assists. Horford is a superb facilitator and makes sure the ball goes in the right spreadsheet column for the Celtics to optimize their offensive outcomes — the Celtics offensive accountant. He’s not a janitor, though. Tristan Thompson is. Thompson, despite his lack of appreciable offensive skill, is willing to scrub toilets for 48 minutes to find a few loose offensive rebounds and isn’t afraid to follow Horford around the floor with a mop bucket. He switches well too, defending the Celtic guards and forwards as well as someone of his stature can. Before Game 1, Al Horford was 1-12 against the Cavaliers in the playoffs dating back to 2015 (1-15 in his career), and Tristan Thompson started in all 13 of those games. This seemed like a no-brainer to me, so naturally, Thompson didn’t start until Game 2, in which Horford shot 38.5 percent, down from 80.0 percent in Game 1.
- The Celtics should fine Marcus Smart every time he shoots the ball. As a fan of their opponent, nothing gives me more relief than Marcus Smart abusing a Celtic possession by chucking a cinder at the hoop. Occasionally, Smart makes a shot — but it always feels like an accident.
- Meanwhile, the main reason I’m happy with Marcus Smart taking more shots is that the young Celtic core — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — are taking a blowtorch to the Cavs. They were both stellar in Game 1: Tatum had 16 on 6-of-11 (54.5 percent) shooting, and Brown had 23 on 9-of-16 (56.3 percent) shooting. Brown scored 23 points in Game 2. They’re hard to guard and make shots even when they are guarded satisfactorily. I’ve coveted Brown since I watched him play surprisingly well in spurts in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, and Tatum has been excellent all season, even making an advanced leap over just the last two weeks. I may be alone in this opinion — but I think Tatum, a rookie, scares me more than the injured Gordon Hayward ever has. Tatum has the rare combination of athleticism and shot-making. Hayward is solid athletically, but I’ve never been afraid that he was going to cook great defender. I am afraid Tatum will, and he has. While Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving, it is Brown and Tatum that make the Celtics’ ceiling sky-high over the next several years.
- What detectable positive impact does Jeff Green contribute to the Cleveland Cavaliers? You could look at the box score with the most powerful scanning tunneling electron microscope in the most advanced laboratory on earth, and the most you would find are a few throwaway points of no consequence — maybe the occasional rebound. Why does Green receive so much playing time? He has a plus/minus of -22.2 per 48 minutes and is only scoring nine points per 36 minutes (six in each game with over 47 minutes of playing time).
- It’s not even that Jeff Green doesn’t have basketball ability. He does! Everyone once in a while Jeff Green will do something awesome on the fast break that will arouse amazement, and I’ll think, “Wow, that was great! Why doesn’t he do that more often?” Does Jeff Green subsequently deploy his abilities in an efficacious manner? No. Then he goes back to heaving above-the-break, undefended threes that the Celtics are gratifying themselves to let him take. Green’s not even a good defender. What makes it doubly frustrating is my next point.
- Are we sure Jeff Green even likes basketball? Green is one of the most aloof basketball players I’ve ever seen. He looks detached, disinterested, and borderline bored. Jeff … you’re in the Eastern Conference Finals, buddy. Look alive! Show some emotion! Have a pulse! Cedi Osman has the enthusiasm of a child meeting Mickey Mouse for the first time 150 times per game. Jeff Green has the somber demeanor of a veterinarian about to tell a family, “We tried our best but we lost Snowball.” Jeff Green … you don’t need to do this! You’re rich!
- I sincerely hope and even suspect that Jeff Green is this super complex, nuanced human being with a vibrant personality. I yearn that he like … writes tortured poetry about how he’s this fantastic athlete doomed to financial enslavement in the National Basketball Association who wants to be recognized for his art and his soul and just not his fantastic ability to miss dunks. Like … Sylvia Plath or something. Jeff Green is the Cavs’ Sylvia Plath (I hope). Jeff Green, The Bell Jar. Which is great and awful and great that Jeff Green suffers under the immense burden of the human condition like Sylvia Plath and all of us! But Sylvia Plath isn’t playing for 23 minutes and 48.5 seconds per game for my team in the Eastern Conference Finals.
- [baritone voiceover]: “The preceding four bullet points were brought to you by the author’s irrational, borderline pathological dislike of Jeff Green, and Viewers Like You.”
- The Cavaliers’ starting backcourt was only able to muster three points in totality in Game 2 on Tuesday. Red Panda could have flipped more basketballs into the hoop with her foot while riding her unicycle. Surely readers are saying, “But Kyle, Red Panda is a legend and George Hill is an average point guard,” and maybe they’re correct. But the Cavs can’t win this series with three points from their starting guards. If Hill isn’t going to at least be aggressive, then it makes more sense to start Jordan Clarkson, who may do something reckless and psychotic but at least it will be something.
- If the Cavs are unable to rally and win the series, the moment I’ll look back on as knowing the series was over was when George Hill had Al Horford switched onto him in the first half of Game 2, and was unable to shake him on the way to the hoop. Horford rejected Hill at the rim, another grim, foreboding sign of where this series could be headed.
- J.R. Smith was Classic J.R. (Bad Version) in Game 2. The single most upset I’ve been so far in the series is J.R. Smith jumping to defend Marcus Morris on a dive when LeBron James was covering Horford, abandoning Jaylen Brown — the guy who had been destroying the Cavaliers for the entire half — wide open on the weak side. It was totally inexplicable, in this or any other universe. Don’t leave Brown for any reason. Leave Marcus Morris be. I would suggest swapping Smith for someone else, but the fact is the Cavs aren’t going to win the series without a significant offensive contribution from Classic J.R. (Good Version).
- Can the Cavs play Rodney Hood with a lineup of Smith-James-Love-Thompson in the hope that he discovers his offense? At 6-8, he should be able to back down the 6-2 Terry Rozier, creating an interesting matchup dilemma for the Celtics. This would entail James shouldering all of the ball-handling duties — but he already does that. This, of course, is making a quantum logical leap that Rodney Hood can do something to help the Cavs win.
- When Kyle Korver starts 4-of-5 from the field, as he did in Game 2, it’s paramount to give him the playing time to keep making shots, not put him on ice until midway through the third quarter. Korver is a huge defensive liability, though. Unlike the Raptors, the Celtics are smart enough to harass Korver incessantly and have the weapons to make it hurt. It puts the Cavs in a tough bind. Such are the problems of relying on a shooting guard old enough to run for president in the playoffs.
- At the expense of being a sore loser, I’m still astounded by the disparity between what it takes for James to get to the free throw line and everyone else in the league. By my own model, James has 30 more free throws attempted than expected in the playoffs and has 30 more attempts than even James Harden so far. But James sustains an extreme amount of contact. In Game 2, Jayson Tatum flew across the lane to defend James and hit him with his shoulder in the chin like a free safety trying to break up a pass to an unsuspecting receiver. That’s not something you ordinarily see in a basketball game. Against the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner drew blood from James’ eye and didn’t even earn a personal foul. I’m not envious of what the officials are tasked with to handling James, the closest thing to Shaq in the league, and I don’t even want to watch James shoot 30 free throws per game. But when the other team’s strategy is to initiate contact with James as much as possible by design, maybe sending James to the line 20 times is the proper disincentive to align what he faces on defense with that of the rest of the league.
- I’m not out on the Cavaliers yet — I learned never to discount them in 2015 and if I hadn’t already learned, in 2016. But they’re going to need to make more shots and discover a game plan that works against a team that’s clearly outplaying and working them. When the Cavs can’t win when James gives them 42/10/12, that seems problematic. It’s James and Love on offense, and a lot of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ otherwise. May they fare better in Game 3.
Tom Wolfe, one of America’s great living writers, passed away this week. Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the Bonfire of the Vanities, was one of my personal favorite writers. Often lumped in with Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese as creating the “New Journalism” paradigm that incorporated fictional writing techniques into non-fiction, Wolfe was a pillar of American cultural insight in the second half of the twentieth century. While many may dislike Wolfe for his literary ostentation, I fell in love with his writing for his ability to use language, often unconventionally, to inject a reader with the spirit of an experience, moment, or movement in an unusual and profound way, whether it was California car- and counterculture, the folk-heroism of bootlegger-turned NASCAR racer Junior Johnson, or the insanity of landing a jet plane on a floating “skillet” of an aircraft carrier pitching and heaving in the ocean.
If what we read is the equivalent of a diet for our minds, then Twitter is intellectual Cheetos, journalism and prose are our vegetables, and the likes of Wolfe and Thompson are the juicy steak that make language ooze and drip in juicy deliciousness. Here’s a passage from the classic The Right Stuff, where Wolfe discusses the horror from the point of view of a wife of a fighter pilot waiting for news of her husband’s demise. It encapsulates the bravery of the men risking their lives in the technological war against the Soviets, the pain felt by their wives, the suddenness of death, the inattentiveness of the world at large, the flippant attitude toward annihilation of the pilots, and the sheer lunacy of the whole endeavor.
My own husband — how could this be what they were talking about? Jane had heard the young men, Pete among them, talk about other young men who had “bought it” or “augered in” or “crunched,” but it had never been anyone they knew, no one in the squadron. And in any event, the way they talked about it, with such breezy, slangy terminology, was the say way they talked about sports. It was as if they were saying, “He was thrown out stealing second base.” And that was all! Not one word, not in print, ont in conversation — not in this amputated language! — about an incinerated corpse from which a young man’s spirit had vanished in an instant, from which all smiles, gestures, moods, worries, laughter, wiles, shrugs, tenderness, and loving looks — you, my love! — have disappeared like a sigh, while a young woman, sizzling with the fever, awaits her confirmation as the new widow of the day.
The Calvin and Hobbes Strip of the Day. Like Calvin, a lot of things keep me up at night. Points on the same record traveling at different speeds, the impossible natural wonder of the world, the concept of pre- or non-time before the universe began ex nihilo, Ty Lue’s rotations. The usual stuff.
And now for the random 90s song of the day. With Cleveland Sports distressing me, I had to turn to a musical security blanket for Thursday’s Random 90s Song of the Day. Some people turn to a grilled cheese sandwich to comfort them, others a bubble bath. But for me its Radiohead’s The Bends. From their 1995 classic album, “Black Star” is a relatively upbeat Radiohead song as long as you don’t listen to the lyrics or read the title. “Black Star” is about someone trying to grapple with the imagined, conspiratorial evils vexing a depressed romantic partner, who discovers his or her own mysterious problems after leaving the partner who’s tortured by black stars and nefarious satellites.
What are we coming to?
What are we gonna do?
Blame it on the black star
Blame it on the falling sky
Blame it on the satellite that beams me home