Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cavs post-mortem

Let's set one record straight before I delve into the circumstances that ended the Cavaliers season on Saturday night: The Cavs did not choke, at least according to how I define choking in sports.

I define a choke in one of two ways: Either a team gains control of a series and suddenly falls apart, or a team simply tanks and falls to team to which it had no business losing.

The Cavs' fate at the hands of the Magic falls under neither heading. They certainly did not have control of this series at any point, and based on the overall trend of the past six games, I'd say the Cavs very much had business losing to Orlando.

So what happened? Why is this Cavs team the latest on an extremely short list of NBA teams to cross the 65-win threshold and not even make it to the NBA Finals? Before you knee-jerk "Because it's Cleveland" out of your mouth, let's take a look at things a little more rationally.

1. Teamwork augments talent, it doesn't compensate for it

All season long, the Cavs were celebrated both locally and nationally for their tight locker room. In an era of millionaire athletes, millionaire egos and ESPN face time, the Cavs behaved more like a small-college team than a filthy-rich NBA squad piloted by one of the most famous people on the planet. They hung out with each other on their free time. They made fake TV commercials together. They all showed up in Akron for LeBron's MVP press conference.

All season long, we banked on the idea that the Cavs' tremendous team chemistry would carry them past more-talented, but perhaps less-unified, teams like the Lakers and Celtics (and as it turns out, the Magic).

The trouble with that theory is the more-talented teams have to perform below their potential for the less-talented team to catch up. The more-talented teams have to be marred by infighting and selfish play in order for the less-talented team to make up the ground with their teamwork.

Against Orlando, the Cavs ran into a more-talented, taller and more athletic roster performing at an optimum level. When the approach that had worked all year started to not work for the Cavs, they panicked, and the entire offense regressed to LeBron-on-five.

2. The problem with those 66 wins

No team can really boast that it has the roster of a 66-win team. It is a rare enough feat to reach 66 regular season wins that, with any team that does so, some amount of overachieving is involved.

But if you take off the wine-colored glasses, you might see that how this Cavs team arrived at 66 wins involves a tremendous amount of overachieving. Namely, two factors that you simply cannot count on from year to year.

First, the Cavs defended their home court with just one honest slip-up in February against the Lakers. A full-strength effort in the season finale against Philadelphia ensures a record-tying 40-1 home record. As it stands, they finished 39-2.

Second, and perhaps even more glaringly, the Cavs absolutely owned the Western Conference this season. They finished 26-4 against the opposite conference, with only three road losses at the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets. They went on two West Coast jaunts, and though they had close calls against the Clippers, Warriors and Kings, they still managed to emerge with just that lonely loss against L.A.'s varsity team.

That is a fluke, plain and simple. Jet lag and general road weariness get to even the best NBA teams on long road trips. This season, it didn't. Next season, the Cavs will almost certainly lose more road games against the West. If they do, combined with a few extra home losses, that's the difference between 66 wins and 57 or 58 wins, which is probably more in line with the current roster's talent level. And if that happens, we're not looking at a playoff loss to a 59-win Magic team in the same way we are right now.

The Cavs were exceptionally good at beating up on the lesser 90 percent of the league this year. They had very few slip-ups against lesser competition, which helped cushion the blows landed by the Lakers, Magic and Celtics (combined 3-6 record). But in the end, what the Cavs' record says is that they were really good at winning the games they should have won. But against teams that had a legitimate chance of beating them? Different story.

3. The Cavs might have peaked early in the season

It's tough to really say that about a team that racked up wins from start to finish, but the Cavs most resembled a juggernaut early in the season, when they piled winning streak on top of winning streak. LeBron first emerged as an MVP-level force, Mo Williams and Delonte West looked like an elite backcourt, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was stroking shots out to three-point range and even Ben Wallace had a spring in his step.

But Z hurt his ankle in December and his already-limited mobility suffered even further. Daniel Gibson's string of injuries slowly led us to the conclusion that he was bound for a down year. West broke his wrist, and even though it was his non-shooting wrist, his jumper was inconsistent for the rest of the season. Ben Wallace broke his leg, was replaced by Anderson Varejao in the starting lineup, and has now officially reached has-been status.

Though the wins kept coming, the potency of the Cavs roster as a whole really slid downhill as the season progressed. It didn't prevent them from sweeping the Pistons and Hawks out of the playoffs, but when they faced a top-shelf team, the sagging spots on the roster were exposed and exploited.

4. Too short, too old

When first presented with the idea of running with a starting backcourt of Williams and West, Mike Brown was reportedly slow to warm. It took some convincing from Danny Ferry before Brown would put the 6'-1" Williams and 6'-3" West in the same backcourt. Brown apparently felt that with the lack of height, the Cavs would be at a matchup disadvantage on too many nights.

In the frontcourt, Z, Wallace and Joe Smith continued to succumb to Father Time while Andy's offensive skills and defensive girth remained limited. These are problems that no amount of coaching and strategizing can overcome.

It took seven months, but eventually the chickens came home to roost. The tall, athletic Magic roster posed the Cavs with a number of large matchup problems for which they had no real answer. The Lakers would have posed many of the same challenges.

There is no real way around it: The Cavs' backcourt is very small by NBA standards, and their big men are extremely limited in terms of skill and athleticism.

Based on their performances over most of the season, Williams and West are a worthy starting backcourt for an NBA contender, even with a lack of size. But an undersized starting backcourt creates a need for size and skill in other areas of the roster.

The Cavs can get away with an undersized backcourt if they would have an all-star caliber power forward or center who could have effectively guarded Dwight Howard one-on-one, or posted up Rashard Lewis, Orlando's rail-thin sniper of a power forward.

The Cavs can get away with a small starting backcourt if they could go to a skilled 6'-6" or 6'-7" swingman off the bench, much like Orlando has in Mickael Pietrus. Aging Wally Szczerbiak and perpetual project player Sasha Pavlovic don't cut it.

Williams and West should be the kind of players who can hurt another team when flying under the radar, when the opponent is more concerned with stopping the frontline players on the roster. Instead, Williams and West are LeBron's primary wingmen. the second and third-best players on the roster. As much as I like what Williams and West bring to the table, they're miscast as top lieutenants on a championship-level team.

5. Mike Brown needs to look in the mirror

Brown deserves the NBA Coach of the Year Award he received. He did a great job with this team for most of the year. But he fell back into some bad habits against the Magic, habits that didn't exactly make him a rock in stormy seas.

Once again, Brown started to shuffle his rotations like a blackjack dealer. He needed to find a lineup that worked, but flip-flopping among Gibson, Pavlovic and Szczerbiak coming off the bench, stapling Joe Smith to the bench while playing Wallace more minutes, none of it had a settling effect on a Cavs team that was already skittish after blowing huge leads in the first two games.

Brown accepted mismatches, like West on 6'-10" Hedo Turkoglu, for way too long. He let Varejao guard the bigger and faster Dwight Howard at the outset of overtime in Game 4, surrendering three critical buckets in the process. Brown also seemed to encourage LeBron to play one-on-five late in games. Yes, you want the ball in the hands of your superstar at critical moments. But you also have to run plays and get open shots.

Telling LeBron "Take us home, big guy" for an entire quarter isn't an offensive strategy. It's crossing your fingers. LeBron is an amazing player, capable of singlehandedly winning games, but Brown still has to do more coaching than that.

Stan Van Gundy, for all the cracks he receives about his weight and resemblance to Ron Jeremy, coached circles around Brown for large stretches of this series.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A shot at redemption

It was, quite literally, a cry of anguish.

Hedo Turkoglu, Orlando's starting small forward and the best clutch shooter Turkey has ever produced, had just finished off a possession that summed up Orlando's entire Game 2. He stalked the Cavs. He worked the perimeter. He probed, he prodded, he toyed with Sasha Pavlovic. The seconds slid off the clock with all the speed of cold tar.

Finally, Turkoglu made his move. He put a step on Pavlovic, drove to his left, into the lane, and when the thicket of white Cleveland jerseys became too dense, he pulled up, stretched out his 6'-10" frame and fired a 12-footer at the rim.

Bingo. As if there was any doubt. 95-93, Magic, with one second left.

Myself and fellow writer John Hnat had been holding a two-man watch party at Buffalo Wild Wings in Rocky River, one of many we have have held this season. We've seen a lot of wins, a few losses, but nothing quite like this.

OK, actually we did. It was Game 1 Wednesday night, at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Strongsville. Rashard Lewis was the villain that night. In the final seconds of that game, everyone in the house felt the cold steel of Lewis' last-second dagger, and the cold reality of two missed chances to win afterward. But the popular mood following that game was one of clenched teeth, not despair.

Friday night, it was different. An 0-2 hole meant the death of dreams. It meant "I probably won't tune in to watch Game 3, start to finish." It meant pinning all your hopes on the miniscule chance that the Cavs could shake off back-to-back home losses and somehow win two in Orlando, where they've only won one time in three years.
That's why, when Turkoglu's shot slipped smoothly through the net with "1.0" showing on the clock, people let out a collective shriek. Not a groan, not a yelp, a shriek of actual pain. The shriek of a desperate fan base that had passionately clung to the idea that this was the team that would finally give us the experience of winning a world championship, now smarting and trying every bit as desperately to pull back, to pack up their emotional belongings and get out of Loudville.

People started filing out of the restaurant with something like catatonic smirks plastered on their faces. On the TV screens, the Cavs huddled during their final timeout. You couldn't think that there was a ton to discuss in that huddle. There is one second left. There is no time for a play to develop. The ball is going to LeBron. Option one, get it to him cutting to basket and go for the tie. Option two, get it to him up top and hope he clears enough space to squeeze off a high, arching prayer.

John, who frequently texts during breaks in the action, received a message on his phone from frequent TCF forum poster Tom Oktavec (who some of you might know by the screen name "Hi Oktane"). Chalk it up to a hunch or sheer bravado, but Babe Ruth never pointed to the outfield fence with more defiance.

"LeBron is winning this game right now. Book it."

Restaurant patrons continued to gravitate toward the exit as the Cavs took their inbound formation. Mo Williams to trigger on the sideline. LeBron straddling the free throw line. Turkoglu charged with preventing a back-door cut and an alley-oop.

Mo took the ball from the ref, the whistle blew, and the five-second inbounds clock started. It took about a millisecond to realize that the Magic were wary of the alley-oop to tie, and weren't going to let LeBron get to the hoop and airborne without encountering three-to-five blue jerseys along the way.

That's when LeBron, as all great players do at some point, made a great play that led to a greater play.

Instantly recognizing that the Magic were going to defend the inside shot, LeBron stutter-stepped a few times, then made a hard fake to the basket. Turkoglu didn't really bite on it, but he hesitated long enough for LeBron to use his unprecedented quickness to scoot out beyond the arc and take the inbounds pass from Williams.

One second was all the clock had to give. LeBron didn't even need that much time. In the span of four-tenths of a second, he squared his shoulders, got himself in the air and launched the shot before Turkoglu or any other Orlando defender could put a hand in his face.

Williams said the ball hung in the air long enough for him to say a prayer. For those of us watching on TV, we probably could have said the entire Rosary. One Hail Mary for Red Right 88, one Hail Mary for The Drive, one for The Fumble, one for The Shot and one for Game 7 of the '97 World Series.

The red lights illuminated the backboard frame. The clock showed "0.0" The ball came down, deflected off the inside of the rim, caromed off the other side and settled through the net.

Bedlam. Salvation. Strangers high-fiving one another. A wall of sound that would drown out any wails of anguish. LeBron made it so, with the biggest shot of his career to date.

LeBron didn't win the series yet. But he won the series back. He won us back. He stopped the people who were filing out of restaurants around the Cleveland area, the fans who were trudging to the exits at The Q, and made them turn around. In the span of one second, he made us believe again. If nothing else, he made us once again believe that, as long as he is on the floor, a happy ending is always possible. For a fan base as cynical as Cleveland's, sometimes maintaining belief is more than half the battle.

Postgame, TNT's broadcast crew immediately began making comparisons between LeBron's shot, and Michael Jordan's shot that slayed the Cavs 20 years ago. But more than Jordan's shot, LeBron's winner reminded me of Christian Laettner's miracle over Kentucky in 1992. Mo Williams overcome with emotion like Thomas Hill, LeBron sprinting back up the floor like Laettner, the fans celebrating deep into the night like Cameron Crazies. The raw exuberance of the celebration both on and off the court was every bit March Madness as it was NBA Playoffs.

And just like the NCAA Tournament, we get to do it all again two days later.

By the way, on the off chance that Tom is riding a Vegas hot streak, John asked him for his lucky lottery numbers:

His answer: "23, 23, 23, 23, 23 and 23."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lessons from Game 1

We are 48 minutes into the Eastern Conference Finals, and so far, the Orlando Magic are as advertised.

In storming back to steal a 107-106 Game 1 win, Orlando lived up to its billing as a team capable of scoring in lethal waves, both inside and outside. In Game 1, the Magic looked every bit like the team that has given the Cavs matchup fits for several years running.

The good news from the Cleveland perspective is that they solidly outplayed Orlando for a entire half, and only once they got away from closing on Orlando's perimeter shooters did Orlando start to creep back into the game. In other words, the potential to beat Orlando is there. But the Cavs have to bring high defensive intensity for 48 minutes, every game, otherwise Orlando might binge-score them into submission.

On deck is Game 2, Friday night. It really is a must-win situation for the Cavs -- perhaps the first real must-win they've faced all year. They can't head to Florida down 0-2 and expect to have a realistic chance to take this series. As it is, they're now going to need to win one game in Orlando in this series.

Despite the fact that the Cavs have only won once in Orlando in three years, it's not outlandish to ask the Cavs to win once on the Magic's home floor. But to lose both games at home to start the series, forcing the need for two road wins just to tie the series, is really getting up close and personal with the 8-ball. It can be done, but in this matchup, I wouldn't count on it.

With all of that in mind, here are some lessons the Cavs should have learned from Game 1, and how they can use them to win Game 2 on Friday.

1. One nine-day layoff = good. Two nine-day layoffs in 25 days = bad.

It's a shame the Cavs were penalized for their efficient dismantling of the Hawks in the previous round. But that's exactly what happened on Wednesday, mostly notably to LeBron James, who was severely cramping due to dehydration after the game. Hopefully that's the only time you'll see LeBron that spent after a 48-minute regulation game.

It's apparent that the Cavs' conditioning lapsed a bit during this most recent layoff. The Magic, being about 20 times better than the Hawks, were able to exploit Cleveland's fatigue factor in the second half by making them work hard at both ends of the floor.

This is the rust factor that was probably unavoidable. Unfortunately, it was a contributing factor in why the Cavs now find themselves in a 1-0 hole. The Cavs ran some full-speed practices during their nine-day sabbatical, but for a veteran team that has been playing since October, rest was likely the priority over conditioning maintenance.

Now that the Cavs are back on a regular playing schedule, they should be able to shake off the rust and close the conditioning gap. But, man, the price they paid for that second nine-day layoff sure looks steep at the moment.

2. Dwight Howard can singlehandedly turn games into a jump-shooting contest.

Dwight Howard is the kind of player who makes you think. Especially if you're a perimeter player looking to put the ball on the floor.

For the Cavs, a team that relies on dribble-penetration as a key offensive element, Howard's penchant for stuffing ballhandlers at the rim is more than a little problematic. Already, it seems like Mo Williams and Delonte West would just as soon stop and pop, or even camp out on the wings for catch-and-shoot threes, than drive down low and risk Howard's wrath. When the Cavs' speedy guard duo settles for lower-percentage shots and not getting to the free-throw line, it decreases the Cavs' offensive effectiveness exponentially.

LeBron bucked that trend. He took it inside numerous times en route to his career playoff high 49 points, and predictably was met with stiff resistance when Howard was in the game. But it needed to be done. The Cavs need to take the ball at Howard. Sometimes he'll win, sometimes the Cavs will win. But to stay out of the paint is counterproductive.

Certainly, it's going to be embarrassing when Howard swats your shot away. It's going to be painful when you come into contact with his airplane wing of an arm, or crash into his 6'-11" body. But that's the only way to get Howard into foul trouble, and foul trouble is the only way the Cavs, with their not-all-that-athletic frontcourt, can really neutralize Howard.

3. Save something for the encore, LeBron.

Everyone in Cleveland loves a LeBron midair swat-job. He had one of those Wednesday night. Everyone loves one of his elbow-above-the-rim dunks. He had one of those, too. But in this meat grinder called the NBA playoffs, it might be time for LeBron to rein in the showmanship and concentrate on more basic blocking and tackling. He'll burn up enough energy chasing Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis around the perimeter. He'll encounter enough resistance trying to plow through Howard on his drives to the hoop.

Not even King James has a bottomless reservoir of energy, and it helps no one but the Magic if he is bouncing around like a pogo stick in the first half, only to be left limping and cramping in the fourth quarter.

Pace yourself, LeBron.

4. Do NOT let Orlando beat you three points at a time.

Mike Brown and his staff game-planned things right in the first half. This Orlando team is one of the best three-point shooting teams of all time. They are so good, they can use the three-point shot as a substantial part of their offensive attack because they can literally use it to shoot their way back into games.

The only antidote is to close out their shooters when they have the ball, and stay in their shirts when they don't have the ball. That requires energy and quick defensive rotations, something the Cavs mastered in the first half, when they built a 14-point lead going into halftime.

But then came the second half, and the Cavs inexplicably got away from the solid perimeter D that had build the first-half cushion. Part of it might have been fatigue, but part of it was a sudden urge to start double-teaming Howard in the post. Howard had a monster first half by most accounts, and it still didn't prevent Orlando from heading to the locker room down by double digits.

It was only when Turkoglu, Lewis, Mickael Pietrus and Rafer Alston got going from the perimeter that Orlando started to chip away at Cleveland's lead.

The moral of the story? If forced to make a choice, let Howard get his points, and stop the mad bombers from shooting the Magic to a win.

Orlando takes common basketball logic and turns it on its ear. Most of the time, a defense wants to take away the other team's highest-percentage shots, nearest to the basket. But Orlando is such a great three-point shooting team, it's usually better to let Howard and the bigs do their thing down low, since they can only hurt you two points at a time, and save the majority of your defensive scheming to stop the guys who can hurt you three points at a time.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why the Cavs can beat Orlando

There is a first time for everything. And here in the city that Charles Barkley loves to hate, Cavaliers fans are definitely breaking new ground.

We might be the first fans of an 8-0 playoff team to reach a meltdown-crisis point before the conference finals even tip off.

Maybe that's stretching it a bit. But there definitely are some fans among us who think the Cavs are a mighty ocean liner steaming toward an iceberg named the Orlando Magic.

The soil is fertile for naysayers who are looking for reasons to be pessimistic. The Cavs so thoroughly dusted the Pistons and Hawks in the first two playoff rounds, it looks like they were hardly challenged. And if you think the Cavs were hardly challenged through their first eight playoff games, it would follow that you would start wringing your hands over what might happen if they were to face a stiff challenge from an opponent capable of defeating them.

The Magic have defeated the Cavs this season. They won in convincing fashion twice in Florida, besting the Cavs 99-88 on Jan. 29 and administering a 116-87 butt-whupping on Apr. 3, Cleveland's worst loss of the season. The lone contest in Cleveland went to the Cavs, 97-93, on St. Patrick's Day, but was a closely-contested game until the end.

While the Cavs have spent nine days cooling their heels -- and maybe gathering some inevitable rust -- between each playoff round, the Magic have been hard at work. They've played 13 playoff games to the Cavs' eight. In the final two games against the Celtics, they rallied from a 3-2 series deficit, won a Game 7 in Boston, and may have grown a playoff spine right before our very eyes.

A number of the matchups would seem to favor Orlando in a series against Cleveland. The Magic play tall on the perimeter with 6'-10" sharpshooters Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, and 6'-6" Mickael Pietrus. The Cavs play small with 6'-1" Mo Williams and 6'-3" Delonte West starting in the backcourt, and 6'-2" Daniel Gibson coming off the bench. No one in the Cavs' big man corps would seem to be able to match the skill and athleticism of Dwight Howard. Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston are far from an elite starting backcourt, but they are pesky enough to neutralize Williams and West to a great degree.

With all the damning evidence, why bother even tuning in, then? The Cavs' season surely ended the instant Orlando walked off the floor in with a series win in Boston, right?

Before you get set to euthanize and eulogize the Cavs' season before Game 1, let me erase the blackboard of your mind. If you count yourself among the doubting Thomases, let me set the record straight: The Cavs can -- and should -- beat the Magic over the span of seven games. Let me give you some reasons why.

1. Shouldn't it be obvious? LeBron James

If I were to be allowed only one witness to make my case as to why the Cavs should win this series, I wouldn't hesitate in calling No. 23 to the stand.

In last year's playoffs, LeBron tried to save the Cavs' season by getting into a scoring duel with Paul Pierce. The Cavs lost Game 7 in Boston, and the seed was planted for the prime-of-career, league-MVP force that emerged this season.

It's going to be extremely difficult for any team to deny LeBron what he wants. And what he wants right now is a championship. Orlando probably doesn't have the ammo to stop a truly-motivated LeBron over the span of seven games. Howard might be able to bother him at the rim, but that might mean foul trouble, early and often.

Beyond Howard, it's hard to see who is going to hold LeBron in check. Turkoglu doesn't possess the quickness or the girth. Lewis has the height, but also lacks girth. What it probably means is a lot of help defense and double teams on LeBron, and a lot of open looks for the Cavs' shooters.

2. Zydrunas Ilgauskas can open up the paint

Z plays a slow, plodding brand of basketball, brought on by his height, advancing age and multiple pieces of metal in both feet. But if he's swishing his tiptoe 20-foot jumpers, it will look like poetry in motion against Orlando.

If Z keeps making his shots, sooner or later Howard, or Marcin Gortat, or whoever is playing center for the Magic, will have to venture out of the paint to contest Z's shots. When that happens, lanes can open up for the Cavs' ultra-quick trio of penetrators -- LeBron, Williams and West -- to scoot inside for shots or to draw fouls. When those three are getting to the rim, the Cavs' offense is purring like a finely-tuned engine.

3. Delonte West can play taller than his height

It might seem like a stretch to ask a 6'-3" guard to take a turn checking a 6'-10" forward like Turkoglu or Lewis. But how about a 6'-8" guard?

West is listed at 6'-3", but with long arms that allow him to guard and contest the shots of taller players. West is a legitimate option to slow Turkoglu or Lewis on the perimeter. He won't block any shots against a 6'-10" player, but if he can stay close to his man and put a hand in his face during every shot, that might be defense enough.

4. Howard can rebound. The rest of the Magic ... not so much

Howard can be a one-man wrecking crew in the low post. But when he's on the bench, the Magic's lack of quality big man depth can be exploited. Gortat and Tony Battie are Orlando's two primary bench bigs, and though Gortat did an admirable job filling in for Howard during his one-game, first-round suspension, he's probably not going to outplay any starting-caliber opponent for long stretches.

Gortat averaged 4.5 rebounds per game during the regular season, in 12.6 minutes per game. That still made Gortat the Magic's fourth-leading rebounder after Howard (13.8), Lewis (5.7) and Turkoglu (5.3). In the playoffs, the disparity has become even greater, as Howard has jumped to 16.6 boards per game, with Lewis at 6.2 and Turkoglu at 3.7, a half-rebound better than Gortat's 3.2. Gortat is playing an average of 11.7 minutes per game in the playoffs, while Lewis is averaging over 40 minutes and Turkoglu over 37.

Compare that with the Cavs, who have LeBron at 9.8 rebounds per game in the postseason, along with Anderson Varejao at 7.3, Zydrunas Ilgauskas at 6.6 and Joe Smith at 5.1. The Cavs might not have a Howard to dominate inside, but their rebounding workload is spread much more evenly across the frontcourt.

5. Live by the three, die by the three

The Magic have been the best road team in the league over the past two years. To a team that has tried to protect their home court the way the Cavs have, it would seem like Orlando would pose a direct threat to their comfort zone.

But a big reason why the Magic have been able to take their game on the road is because they rely heavily on perimeter shooting, which tends to travel well because the size of the ball and the rim never change.

The other side to that sword, however, is that the three-ball is a fickle mistress, capable of stalling out your offense as easily as it can propel you to wins.

In the NBA, a 40-percent three-point shooter is considered very good. That means if you miss six three-pointers of every 10 you take, you are among the best in the league. It's the definition of a low-percentage shot. For a team like the Magic that lacks many other ways to put the ball in the hoop, it's a high-risk, high-reward proposition. And the percentages say Orlando won't stay hot from downtown over the entire course of a seven-game series -- certainly against a team like Cleveland that emphasizes perimeter ball pressure on defense.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Carpe diem

How much credit are you willing to give the Cavaliers?

They're 6-0 in the playoffs. But the '07 team started 6-0 in the playoffs, too, and that team trotted out a starting backcourt of Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic. They've won every game by double digits, but they've done their damage against a demoralized Pistons team and an injury-riddled Hawks team.

It's true that the Cavs haven't really had an opportunity to pick on someone their own size thus far in the postseason. Detroit had been an underachieving lot all year. The Hawks needed seven games to dispatch a rebuilding Miami team, and suffered injuries to two starters for their trouble.

With that in mind, you might say that if the Cavs manage to reach the conference finals without disturbing the loss column, no one is going to give them a medal of valor. It's the outcome we're expecting. A team that won 66 regular season games should be vanquishing their early-round opponents like this, after all.

To that, I say: It's amazing what a few months of success can do to one's sense of entitlement. If you feel that way, it's a good thing the Cavs players don't.

No matter how much you might want to believe that these early series were over before they even started, that's simply not the case. Much like a duck's placid glide across a pond belies webbed feet furiously kicking below the surface, there is a whole lot of work and a whole lot of determination that goes into what the Cavs have accomplished thus far in the playoffs.

The Cavs are dominating teams because they are preparing to dominate teams. They are working to impose their collective will on every game. They are out-hustling, out-defending and out-executing their opponents. That doesn't just happen because one team is better than the other.

The Washington Wizards gave us all a reminder of what can happen when an elite team doesn't take a lesser team seriously enough. Washington beat the Cavs twice this year, and nearly beat them a third time.

What the Cavs have done during the regular season and in the postseason so far is the mark of a special team. The Cavs have had their mental lapses this year, as all teams do occasionally, but they have been isolated incidents. With few exceptions, this team's resolve has been steeled, their unity galvanized and their commitment to improvement unwavering.

That's how you loot and pillage your way through six playoff games. A lesser team might still have started the postseason 6-0, but it's a virtual guarantee that they wouldn't have netted six comfortable wins. The Cavs have gone nearly three weeks into the 2009 playoffs, and so far, a fourth quarter hiccup in Game 2 against the Pistons -- a Detroit comeback that didn't venture any closer than eight points -- is what counts for a tense moment in this Cavs playoff run.

What you are seeing is the result of a team with rare chemistry, a team of veteran millionaires willing to let their superstar leader lead, and a superstar leader who is willing to let his coach do the coaching.

It's not something that just happens, putting 15 millionaires in a locker room and having them emerge with impeccable chemistry and well-defined roles. It takes a lot of work. It takes a bunch ego-driven professional athletes putting their personal agendas aside, allowing LeBron soak up the spotlight and grab the lion's share of the accolades without letting jealousy seep into the locker room culture, and above all, adhering to Mike Brown's defense-first principles.

This is a special team storming through a special season. The same cast of characters might return next year and, for varying reasons, the performance and chemistry might not totally be the same.

The Cavs are doing what a 66-win one-seed is supposed to do -- get through the early rounds of the playoffs with little-to-no drama. But this is also a team that is having a rare run of dominance. It won't always be like this, so savor it.

It takes a lot of work to make beating the Pistons and Hawks look this easy. And, for that, the Cavs players and coaches should receive credit from the fans and media.