Commentary

Glass-half-full approach for Cavs

Updated: May 28, 2009, 2:26 AM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesElsa/Getty ImagesAfter breezing through the first two rounds, the Cavs find themselves on the brink of elimination.

Let's start with the Master of the Obvious stuff: It's not looking good for Cleveland. Historically, teams that are down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have been screwed -- only eight teams have come back to win in 190 tries, a 4 percent success rate. Even if you want to include two other near-misses where teams came all the way back only to choke away late Game 7 leads (San Antonio against Dallas in 2006 and Portland against LA in 2000), that just gets you to 5 percent.

But 5 percent is better than 0 percent, and if Cleveland fans need to see the glass as half-full, then the following bears mentioning: On virtually every indicator except the scoreboard, the Cavs played much, much better Tuesday night than they did in the first three games.

Let's start at the offensive end. LeBron James had 44 points, but his passes set up just 13 points by his teammates (according to ESPN Stats & Information). James is averaging 42.3 points per game in the series, and his passes set up an average of 21.0 points in the first three games before last night's decline.

The woulda-coulda-shoulda part of the equation is that the number should have been well north of 30 in Game 4. Unfortunately, the Cavs' guards are suffering from a strange inability to hit wide-open jump shots that they've been making all season. Mo Williams and Delonte West combined to shoot 0-for-6 on 3-pointers last night, and they were getting great, clean looks that normally they knock down -- Williams shot 43.6 percent on 3s for the season, and West shot 39.9 percent. The only Cavs guard to find the net from distance was Daniel Gibson, who was brought out of cold storage to play 21 minutes and hit a pair of 3s.

Nonetheless, this is a feel-good story going forward. If the Cavs get the same kind of looks for their guards in Game 5, they'll almost certainly make the shots and win. If they get the same kind of looks in Games 5, 6 and 7, then perhaps the near-impossible is more possible.

Of course, they've had those looks before and still couldn't convert them. Cavs not named LeBron are now shooting 15-for-65 on 3-pointers in the series (23.1 percent); take out a 67-foot halftime-buzzer heave by Williams, and the percentage looks even worse.

Obviously, the law of averages is going to revert back in Cleveland's favor eventually in the 3-point department, and that's one of the big things they have going for them heading into Game 5. On the other hand, the law of averages needs to revert back right now or they're hosed, and it's possible that with Williams in particular there's a mental component to his slump rather than just random chance.

Up front, Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 12 points and, better yet, didn't attempt any 3-pointers. The Cavs worked harder to get him the ball in situations when the smaller Rashard Lewis was covering him, and that appeared to pay some dividends. The Cavs also had quite a bit of success with the new tactic of posting up West; it's an unorthodox way to attack but one that West seemed pretty comfortable employing.

At the defensive end, the Cavs did a lot of things quite well, too, at least until the part where they stopped guarding Dwight Howard in overtime. Cleveland was able to take away Howard for the bulk of three quarters, and while the cost to that strategy was a bomb-fest from the 3-point line, the Cavs managed to funnel the shots to the right people.

Rafer Alston led the team in field goal attempts with 17, 12 of which were 3-pointers. While he made the shots, finishing with 26 points, I can't emphasize enough what a spectacularly positive outcome this is for Cleveland. Alston shot 38.5 percent from the field and 33.9 percent on 3s for the season, so most nights he won't make 10-of-17 and 6-of-12, respectively. Of course, on most nights he won't accidentally bank in a contested 3. It was that kind of evening for the Magic.

Similarly, having Mickael Pietrus launch 11 jacks from beyond the arc is highly preferable to having Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu take them. Orlando beat Cleveland badly on 3-pointers, but the Magic players taking the shots were the ones that the Cavs wanted. Over time, that's an advantage that should produce much better results than we saw in Game 4.

Meanwhile, the Cavs finally got their matchup against Lewis under control by going small more often and frequently using either James or Wally Szczerbiak as the power forward against Lewis.

Lewis had 17 points and not a single assist; the one time Cleveland let him get loose for a big shot was when they matched up big against him with Ben Wallace at the end of regulation and he hit a costly 3.

(Isn't it odd to see the last two Sonics small forwards dueling at the 4 in the East finals? Isn't it even more odd to see a postseason in which both J.J. Redick and Szczerbiak are unveiled as defensive stoppers? Who's next, Sun Yue?)

Coach Mike Brown occasionally went super-small, in fact, by employing a backcourt of Delonte West, Daniel Gibson and Mo Williams. I've been arguing for a while that the Cavs need to use smaller, quicker players so they can double and rotate faster and play Lewis with a perimeter guy instead of checking him with Varejao, so I'm firmly on board with these moves and think they'll pay greater dividends in the coming game(s).

Of course, that's all the glass-half-full approach, and Cavs fans could just as easily be in glass-half-empty mode right now. It's hard to ignore the fact that they've played four games against the Magic and trailed at the 47:59 mark in all four of them, or that they've played the Magic seven times this season and lost five, or that even the two times they beat them were white-knucklers, or that they've tried several different defensive schemes and have yet to find one that takes away both Howard and the 3s.

But until the Magic beat them again, they're still alive. And aside from the giant, glaring negative of being down 3-1, the Cavs have a lot of positives they can take away from Tuesday night. If the same players take the same shots in the next three games that they did in Game 4, the Cavs have an excellent chance of turning that 8-in-190 statistic into 9-in-191.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.