Cavaliers Miami - Over the past week, Cavaliers players have had a gathering every time the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks have played to watch and scout. The coaches have had their own as well, immediately breaking down tape and also fielding reports from advance scout Bryant Moore, who has been at every game.
What they are seeing is two different styles, and it has their game-planning somewhat torn as the Hawks and Heat get ready to settle things this afternoon before heading to Cleveland for Game 1 of the conference semifinals Tuesday.
Of particular interest is how the opposition will be defending LeBron James, which essentially sets up everything the Cavs do on offense. The Cavs have seen all the standard attacks and have varying countermeasures. The preferred setup is debatable, but the Cavs have their secret preferences, and it might indeed affect for whom they will be rooting in Game 7.
Watching the unfolding series gives plenty of hints because two of James' Team USA teammates play nearly the same roles for their teams as James does for the Cavs. But the way the Heat are dealing with Joe Johnson and the way the Hawks are handling Dwyane Wade are different. Both are major hints of how they'd play James.
"I have seen every defense there is in the league," James said last week. "We'll be ready for anything."
While that may be true, it doesn't mean it is easy.
The Hawks have decided to guard Wade 1-on-1 for most of the series. It happens even when Wade comes flying off picks; often the Hawks will just switch defenders instead of throwing two bodies at him. To offset it, Hawks coach Mike Woodson has been constantly changing who defends Wade, who is averaging 41 minutes a game in the series.
"I don't think one player can stop Wade, he's been an MVP candidate this year," Woodson said. "He wills his team, and he's the leading scorer in the league, so one guy can't stop him. So we've been trying a team approach."
It is certainly a cast. Johnson will spend time on Wade as will guards Mike Bibby and Flip Murray and forwards Mo Evans and Josh Smith. Often Woodson will change the defender in timeouts and let the player defend Wade until the next timeout. That creates roughly six-minute shifts.
But they'll all play him straight up and depend on the Hawks' rather impressive line of shot blockers, especially Smith and center Al Horford, to defend the rim when Wade gets free.
The results have been mixed. Without being forced to give up the ball much, he's been able to maintain his regular season scoring average at just less than 29 points per game. He's taken 54 more shots than anyone else on the team. In Game 6 on Friday when Horford was sidelined with a sprained ankle, Wade attacked the rim without fearing the second line of defense and put up 41 points. But in other games he hasn't been as much an impact.
Meanwhile, the Heat has been dealing with Johnson in the opposite fashion. It has been so successful Miami likely would carry that game plan over to James.
Much like James, Johnson basically plays a point forward role, though he technically is a shooting guard. He doesn't always bring the ball up the floor but will usually get it and start the offense in the halfcourt. Bibby plays about the same role as Mo Williams does with the Cavs; he often gives the ball up and spots up for jumpers off passes from Johnson. It works well, and there is no secret as to why the Cavs tried hard to trade for Bibby before getting Williams.
But the Heat has been attacking Johnson aggressively with double-teams out past the 3-point line. This has forced Johnson to give up the ball much more than Wade. As a result, his scoring average has plunged six points from his regular season average, and the Hawks have employed more balanced scoring.
Johnson is tied with Bibby and Smith for the team playoff lead in scoring at 15.5 points per game. But he's shooting just 39 percent and a poor 4-of-15 from 3-point range. He's also got 20 turnovers to just 18 assists as the pressure has gotten to him. Though there is a school of thought that Johnson, who played the most minutes in the league this season after playing all summer for Team USA, could be worn down.
Wade, veteran James Jones; rookies Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers; and second-year pro Daequan Cook have been active in trapping Johnson.
"We've been asking a lot on defense from our young guys," Wade said. "And they've done a pretty good job so far."
Ferry loses out on exec award: Denver Nuggets Vice President of Basketball Operations Mark Warkentien beat out Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry for the NBA Executive of the Year Award. (Yahoo Sports first reported the story Saturday.)
Warkentien, who executed a huge trade in bringing in Chauncey Billups and getting the Nuggets to the No. 2 seed in the West despite being ordered to cut $15 million in payroll, and Ferry were viewed as the top two candidates. Ferry's resume was bolstered by his trade to acquire Mo Williams and his signing of Joe Smith.
NBA executives vote on the award, and the Sporting News administers it. The final voting is expected to be released when the award is officially announced in the next few days. Warkentien was the Cavs' interim general manager when Ferry was hired to replace Jim Paxson in 2005.