This week’s “Damn, I feel old” moment came from Wednesday’s Cavs/Sixers game. It was when I realized Shaq and Allen Iverson were on the court, and neither was the best player on his own squad. Shaq isn’t even the marquee box-office attraction in Cleveland, while A.I. only holds that distinction in Philly because he’s royalty in the city and because Andre Iguodala isn’t as famous as he is talented.
That aging feeling was compounded soon after tip-off, when it became clear each team intended to take advantage of the defensive deficiencies of Shaq and Iverson — the two old guys on the court.
Iverson began the game guarding Anthony Parker, so on the Cavs’ opening two possessions, they made a point to get AP the ball while he posted Iverson up on the block. The first time, he turned and hit an easy jumper. The next time, A.I. played him tougher and forced Parker to pass out, and when he re-posted, Iverson poked the ball away for a steal. After that, Parker went back to his usual routine of loitering in the corner waiting to catch-and-shoot.
Keeping the 6-6 Parker off the low-block, however, was probably a relief for Iverson, who so far in his comeback has been asked to stay in front of speedsters like Ty Lawson, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks and Monta Ellis, often with negative results.
Last night, Iverson (16 pts) got his first score by running a pick-and-roll with Sam Dalembert aimed at exploiting Shaq’s notoriously lazy D on those kinds of plays. Philly analyst Ed Pinckney said Shaq “likes to contain” on pick-and-rolls, a nice way of saying Diesel rarely steps up to defend on a switch. (And even when he does, it’s less likely that he’ll steal the ball from Devin Harris and more likely that Mike Conley will skate past him for a game-winning layup.)
Basketball, especially in the NBA, is a game of matchups. That’s why we have terms like “Mouse in the House” and “Clear-out” and “Fake-and-Rake.” (I heard that one for the first time a few days ago when a Denver announcer used it to describe one of Carmelo‘s favorite moves.) And that’s why aging vets like Shaq and A.I. see their minutes and shots decline at this stage in their careers. It’s not that they can’t still score — it’s that their defense starts to become a detriment and teams take advantage of those matchups, forcing coaches to take them out of the game.
Watching Tracy McGrady slowly work his way back into the Rockets’ rotation, I’ve been paying more attention to his defense than his offense. As soon as I saw T-Mac stroke one three-pointer and effectively drive to the basket once during his brief debut on Tuesday, I knew he could still get buckets. But if he’s going to get an opportunity to be the “old” T-Mac again, he’ll have to be able to at least contain his defensive assignment. Against Detroit, McGrady had problems staying in front of Jonas Jerebko. Against Denver last night, Mac was getting eaten up by Carmelo. In the seven-plus minutes he was primarily guarded by T-Mac, ‘Melo dropped 11 points.
The difference between Iverson, Shaq and T-Mac is that Shaq was actually hired for his defense. The Cavs aren’t paying $20 million or whatever Shaq makes for the 11 points per game he gives them; Cleveland needed somebody to keep the likes of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan from giving them 30 on the other end. To date, Shaq has only matched up with one of those guys once this season, and he did a solid job taking Dwight out of that game, which Cleveland won.
In the meantime, though, Cavs opponents will continue to go at Shaq with quicker guards on those pick-and-rolls. And if we’re in June and guys like Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker are following the examples of Conley and A.I., Shaq’s defense might be the source of another sad Cleveland sports moment.