INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – After a loss that shook his title aspirations and $100 million payroll to their respective cores, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was both strident and measured in comments to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. While Gilbert didn’t point fingers at anyone, the importance of his message wasn’t lost on coach Mike Brown.
“Our entire franchise has done everything in its power to put all of our players and its coaching staff in the best possible position to execute when it counts,” Gilbert said. “And to deliver to the highly supportive fans of Cleveland a proud, intense, impassioned all-out drive to achieve a championship.
“The last two home playoff losses and the manner in which we lost these games does not come close to being anywhere near the high expectations all of us have of our organization. Our fans and supporters deserve more.”
Brown, under scrutiny for his use of personnel in the series against the Celtics, had those comments read to him Wednesday by members of the media, along with this one: “Above all, the fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as the entire franchise, deserve and need our players and coaches to dig deep within themselves.”
Brown could find no cause to argue with any of it.
“If what he said wasn’t the truth, I shouldn’t be here,” Brown said. “We’ve got to do better. The coaching staff's got to do better. The players have got to do better. We’ve got to go into Game 6 and win that game and make it a one-game series. I don’t know if what he said was not true or wrong or anything like that. The fans have been great. Ownership has been great. There's nothing that I can say even negative about it. We’ve got to do better.”
Given all that is riding on this season for the Cavs – the financial commitment from Gilbert and LeBron James’ looming free agency – Brown almost certainly would be fired if the Cavs lost in the conference semifinals for the second straight year. As Gilbert pointed out, it’s not just the losing, but the 50-point margin of defeat in the last two home games that is particularly disturbing.
The Celtics have gained a strategic advantage at every turn, exploiting the Cavs’ two weakest defenders, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison. Couple that with the Celtics’ 36-7 advantage in second-chance points in Games 4 and 5, and Brown has been left searching for combinations on his bench that have not only backfired, but left players uncertain of their roles at the most crucial point in the season. Jamison has been lit up by Garnett in the first five games, while Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen have taken turns torching Williams. In Game 5, Paul Pierce had his first impactful game of the series with 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Brown called the criticism of his coaching in this series “part of the business” and “expected.” In fairness, Brown went into the playoffs with Shaquille O’Neal rejoining the starting lineup after a long layoff that didn’t give he and Jamison enough time to get comfortable playing alongside each other. After what Brown termed one of the best film sessions the team has had all season, he said he wasn’t planning any lineup changes for Game 6 Thursday night.
“We've thought about everything,” Brown said. “But right now, there is nothing that has changed.”
Given a chance to speak up on Brown’s behalf Wednesday, James took a pass.
“The coaching staff, they put us in position to win games,” James said. “It’s up to us to go out there and execute that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But you can’t question the effort that we had.”
Asked about assertions – such as this one – that Brown has been getting outcoached, James said, “I’m not going to get involved in that, man. That’s for you guys to write. You guys are at a point right now where you’re trying to divide the coaching staff and the team, the players. I’m not going to get involved in that. As players, we can control what we want to control. And right now, the most important thing is Game 6.”
When Gilbert’s comments were read to LeBron, it became clear that the owner’s opinion was one area where Brown and James can agree.
“It’s an owner who cares about our team and cares about the fans,” James said. “It’s a reaction that I guess he’s supposed to have. I don’t get involved in what owners say. That’s how he feels.”