Monday, February 22, 2010

Anatomy of a slump

If you've gotten through the last three Cavaliers game without suffering a complete loss of composure, I applaud you.

The Cavs' first three-game losing streak since early 2008 was everything that we fear about the future of the season, wrapped up in one neat, four-day package. Three losses against playoff teams --- two against title contenders -- in which you had to wonder, even for a split second, if it had been wise move to send Zydrunas Ilgauskas away for Antawn Jamison in the middle of the season. The last three games looked, in part, like the product of messing with a good thing.

The streak consisted of losses against Denver, Charlotte and Orlando -- three teams the Cavs could face in the postseason. They're virtually guaranteed of facing at least one. The Nuggets' overtime win at The Q was the Cavs' first home loss since just after the new year, and completely a season sweep of the Cavs. Friday, the Bobcats handled the Cavs for a third straight game. They're undefeated against Cleveland since acquiring Stephen Jackson earlier this season.

Sunday, it was deja vu in Orlando. In a re-enactment of last season's Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic won all the fourth-quarter battles, Dwight Howard put all of the Cavs' big men in foul trouble, Mo Williams played terribly and the Cavs lost in central Florida yet again.

So what gives? Why does the pre-all star break juggernaut suddenly look overrated, overinflated and ripe for the taking post-all star break?

As is usually the case when things go awry, it's an onion, and we have to peel back the layers.

1. The trade did mess things up, at least short-term

Whether or not you want to believe that a cloud of bad karma now hangs over the Cavs organization for ending a 14-year relationship with Z, the fact remains that the trade removed a rotation player and replaced him with another rotation player in Jamison, who will likely be starting at some point this week.

Though Jamison brings an inside-outside game to the power forward spot -- something that could be very useful come playoff time -- to get him, the Cavs had to disrupt the delicate balance at the center spot. Shaq and Z worked as a tandem because they took some of the load off of each other's aging legs. With Z gone, Anderson Varejao becomes the full-time backup center. His offensive game most closely resembles that of a center, but his defensive game is more of a power forward's, as he flies around the wings and paint bothering whoever has the ball. He's not always going to stay in the post and defend the rim, in other words.

As the center spot thins out, the power forward spot is about to become very crowded as Leon Powe gets set to return, maybe as early as this week. Jamison, Powe and J.J. Hickson can only play the four-spot in most lineups. Jamison is going to get his minutes, which means Mike Brown has some potientially difficult decisions to make dividing up the remainder of the minutes.

Stepping off the court, the locker room needs time to adjust as well. Though Z and Jamison are both team-first players, the Cavs still lost a locker room mainstay and have replaced him with a guy who is trying to learn the ins and outs of the Cavs' team culture. Every team is a little different, and Jamison is trying to get used to sharing the locker room with dominant personalities like LeBron and Shaq, Delonte West's quirky sense of humor, and so forth.

Ironically, in the extremely short term, Amar'e Stoudemire might have made an easier transition than Jamison. Stoudemire is a freelancer. He takes the ball and scores in isolation. There isn't a lot to negotiate there as long as Stoudemire is allowed to get the ball where he wants it. Jamison, on the other hand, because he's a team-oriented player with a broader skill set, has a lot more adjusting to do when he arrives on a new team.

2. A slump was bound to happen sooner or later

If a winning streak goes on long enough, a team is going to grow a little complacent. It's human nature. If you're not challenged for a while, you tend to go on auto pilot.

The Cavs tied a team record with 13 straight wins heading into the all-star break. You can't entirely accuse them of zoning out, because they did have emotional wins over the Lakers and Magic in that stretch. But after watching the Cavs extensively over the past two years, I've noticed that the longer the Cavs go without a gut-check moment, the harder it's going to hit them when it does come.

Last season, the Cavs went 8-0 through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They won each game against Detroit and Atlanta by double digits. They made it look really, really easy. Too easy.

Then came their second nine-day layoff of the postseason, as they waited while the Celtics and Magic went seven games in the other conference semifinal series. Then came the deflating Game 1 loss against Orlando. The Cavs were reeling and searching for answers from that point forward.

The same thing kind of happened over the past week. A long layoff, plus a major trade, plus a deflating loss to Denver coming off of the all-star break. But at least it's still February and the Cavs still have a sizable lead in the conference. If your gut check comes with 25 games to play in the regular season, you still have time to get back to the drawing board and figure things out. If the gut check comes in late May, you're in trouble.

3. They need practice time

Monday is the first time since the Jamison deal that the Cavs could get into Cleveland Clinic Courts and have a nice, long practice. Long, full-speed practices are where the major sanding and polishing happens. It's where players get to know each other's games and coaches define roles. Then you can bond at the whirlpool/ice tubs afterward.

With a inconveniently-timed road trip that began 24 hours after the all-star break, the Cavs have been surviving on light practice and shootarounds since the trade. Shootarounds are maintenance. Full-speed practices are constructive and cathartic after a rough stretch.

4. Admittedly, the Cavs have simply played some tough teams

The Cavs might have been on a three-game losing streak even without the disruption of the all-star break or the trade.

Denver, Charlotte and Orlando are all tough tests for the Cavs. The Nuggets have two killer scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, enough size to bang with the Cavs down low and some good shooters on the wings.

The Bobcats are a riddle. They have some size and athleticism, but they don't possess any vexing matchup problems for a team like Cleveland. It doesn't really seem like they should give the Cavs so many problems, but Jackson, Gerald Wallace and Ray Felton seem to feast every time the see wine and gold.

The Bobcats do have some advantages against Cleveland: Jackson is one of the few players in the league capable of checking LeBron (maybe the best LBJ defender in the league at this point) and with new acquisitions Theo Ratliff and Tyrus Thomas added to a big man corps that already included Nazr Mohammed and Tyson Chandler, the Bobcats can defend Shaq with volume if not skill.

But when it comes down to watching Charlotte push themselves over the top thanks to the shooting of Felton and D.J. Augustin, it's mind-numbingly frustrating.

Orlando is a known quantity. As much as ESPN's John Hollinger might like to debate over whether anything has really changed between the Cavs and Magic from last year to this year, we still generally know where things stand.

Shaq will always play Howard tough as long as his body allows. Jamison has an extensive history of playing well against the Magic, and playing good defense on Rashard Lewis. Switches won't find Delonte on Hedo Turkoglu anymore. Vince Carter still has a career's worth of evidence that says he will seldom outplay LeBron James in the fourth quarter of a head-to-head matchup -- as happened on Sunday.

It would be wise to assume that Mo will continue to not play well against Orlando, for whatever reason. His shots just don't seem to fall when he sees the Magic. Which makes Jamison's ability to replace Mo's usual 17 to 18 points per game all the more important.

That is perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of the Jamison trade, even if it means struggling in the short term.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Right move, right time

Antawn Jamison isn't Amare Stoudemire. He's not a prime-of-career superstar who could team up with LeBron James to rule the NBA for the next seven years.

Jamison is 33. He's under contract until the age of 36. By then, even a guy who has aged as gracefully as Jamison will likely start to show wear on his treads.

He's on the back nine of his career, his contract isn't the most flexible, he doesn't possess mind-blowing athleticism, and at 6'-8" he's a little undersized for an NBA power forward.

That's pretty much everything negative you can say about Jamison, wrapped up in three short paragraphs.

Perhaps that's the most amazing thing about the Cavs' deadline prize, acquired late Wednesday in a three team trade with the Wizards and Clippers. The Cavs acquired Jamison and Sebastian Telfair in a deal that cost them Zydrunas Ilgauskas, sent to Washington, and their 2010 first-round draft pick, sent to the Clippers.

If there is no such thing as a perfect trade, Danny Ferry just came darn close in acquiring Jamison. It's the right trade at the right time for the Cavs and for Jamison.

A Stoudemire trade would have been filled with intrigue, a couple large forkfuls of risk and a whole lot of water cooler debate over whether Stoudemire could fit with the Cavs, or whether he would sign an extension this summer, or whether he could be re-molded into at least a competent defender.

Whereas the prospect of a Stoudemire trade was spicy salsa to Cavs fans, the Jamison deal is comparative steak and potatoes. Tried and true sustenance from one of the league's rock-solid players.

And if you're the Cavs and talking NBA title this June, that's exactly what you need. A Stoudemire trade might have passed with flying colors, but more likely in the longer term as Stoudemire spent the next how-many-ever months getting deprogrammed of his offense addiction by Mike Brown and his staff, and re-programmed with a mentality that values defense and setting up teammates.

There probably would have been some friction and bumps in the road, at the very least.

With Jamison, there is no rolling of the dice from a basketball standpoint. As an outside-shooting power forward, he is just what the Cavs need to open up operating space for Shaq and LeBron inside. As a wide, muscular post player, he can get his shot off with his back to the hoop, box out with authority and defend bigger forwards. As a locker-room leader who is widely regarded by coaches, players and media members as one of the true class acts of the league, he brings none of the selfishness and maturity issues that might have been present wth Amare.

And what does Jamison get out of the deal? His best shot at a ring. Jamison has shown an ability to self-motivate and seize the moment in years past.

Keep in mind that Jamison was the guy who played purely on pride against the Cavs in the 2007 playoffs. With Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler on the shelf with injuries, it was Jamison who kept fighting over the course of a four-game Cleveland sweep, which must have seeemed like a hopeless proposition at times. But Jamison still showed up to work with his hardhat on, averaging 32 points and nearly 10 rebounds in the four games.

Jamison brings the Cavs their most talented presence at the big forward spot since Carlos Boozer spent his first two NBA years here before taking the back door out of Cleveland. It's a hole the Cavs have struggled to fill with everyone from Drew Gooden to Donyell Marshall to Anderson Varejao to J.J. Hickson. The latter two will now back Jamison up.

Oh yeah, did I mention that the Cavs didn't have to part with Hickson in the deal? Over the past week, there has been much hand-wringing by fans on message boards over the wisdom of giving up Hickson, who has started to show promise over the past month. Both Phoenix and Washington originally demanded Hickson from the Cavs. But Wednesday, Washington backed off their Hickson demands, and the Cavs managed to make a deal without involving their best youngster.

Even though the Cavs dodged having to part with Hickson, the trade did come with a price. The Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst reported late Wednesday that the mood around team headquarters was rather bittersweet. The Cavs finally landed a player they had been coveting for quite some time, but in the process, had to ship away the longest-tenured Cav in Ilgauskas.

Ilgauskas could -- and likely will -- request a buyout of the remainder of his expiring contract from the Wizards. It's hard to imagine that he'll finish the season anywhere but Cleveland, but it's now out of the Cavs' hands. Z and his agent have to negotiate a buyout, and begin entertaining offers. He can return to the Cavs 30 days after completing the buyout, but in the interim, he's a free agent, and if for some reason he sees fit to sign elsewhere, the Cavs can't stop him.

But sentimentality can't rule trade talks. The Cavs felt they needed the upgrade that Jamison provides, and Z -- now little more than a backup center -- was worth the price.

Hopefully Z comes back. But in the event he doesn't, the price was still right. So many times, teams hit the trade market trying to find the right match, scrambling to make the pieces fit, mixing together odd-tasting three-team concoctions in the quest to find the right pieces to the puzzle.

In the Cavs' case, there was no guesswork when the team decided to focus squarely on Jamison. He is a hand-glove fit for what the Cavs are trying to accomplish, and it just so happened that the Cavs had the large expiring contract that the soon-to-be rebuilding Wizards wanted in return.

It's the third time in as many years that Ferry found the right match for his expiring contracts. He acquired Mo Williams in much the same way in the summer of 2008, and Shaq last summer.

If the Jamison deal works out like those deals, the Cavs have to be considered the favorites to win their first NBA title in franchise history this June.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

To Amar'e, or not to Amar'e?

In the past, whenever I've written an analysis column about a developing situation, the situation invariably reaches an outcome shortly thereafter, rendering the column stale.

So if by the time you read this, Amar'e Stoudemire is a Cav, you're welcome. If by the time you read this, Stoudemire is a Sixer or making his way to South Beach to join the Heat, my apologies. But chances are, something is going to happen soon, climactic or anticlimactic.

Here's what we know as of Sunday evening: The Cavs have a strong interest in Stoudemire. Danny Ferry has been in hot pursuit of the Suns forward since Friday. On Saturday, a deal looked to be imminent, per multiple media sources. On Sunday, things cooled a bit. The Cavs are still very much in the thick of the Stoudemire discussions, but it looks like Philadelphia is among the other teams that could make a play for Stoudemire. Miami is also on the radar, but might not have the ammo to get a deal done without involving a third team, which is often a difficult trick to pull off.

The Cavs' interest in Stoudemire appears to be legitimate, but the highly-publicized flirting might also have something to do with forcing the Wizards' collective hand on the Antawn Jamison front. Washington completed a seven-player trade with the Mavericks on Saturday, shipping off the large contract of Caron Butler in the process. In jettisoning Butler, the Wizards might have created enough salary relief to retain Jamison, or they might have run the white flag up the pole in preparation for a complete implosion or rebuild. That's for the Wizards to know and for us to maybe find out at some point.

What we do know is that while the Wizards sport a poker face, the Suns are addressing all suitors for Stoudemire. And because of that, the likelihood of a Stoudemire trade is growing while the likelihood of a Jamison trade stagnates.

The Suns are kind of past the point of no return with Stoudemire. Whether by design or not, they've negotiated his departure from Phoenix in public for the past several days. It sends Stoudemire's camp a powerful message that Suns management is convinced that they can't re-sign the five-time all-star, and that they're determined to get something of value for him before he can opt out of his contract this summer and potentially leave as a free agent.

Once you've gone down that road as a team, it's very difficult to pull back and mend fences. The Suns are putting themselves in a position where they're almost forced to deal Stoudemire by Thursday's deadline.

That works in favor of the Cavs and other teams in pursuit of Stoudemire. As opposed to having no pressure to deal Stoudemire, the Suns appear to find themselves under a great deal of pressure to make a deal happen. The Suns have essentially gone from seller to buyer.

What are the Cavs selling? Reportedly, J.J. Hickson and the expiring contract of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There is reason to believe that other teams, particularly the Sixers, might be able to put together a more attractive offer from a talent standpoint, but the Cavs' offer might represent the tastiest bait for the Suns for two reasons:

First, Z's contract would offer Phoenix the chance to get under the luxury tax threshold -- a savings of around $10 million, according to The Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst. The Suns could --- and probably would -- buy Z out, getting that money off the books sooner rather than later.

Second, if you were in the Suns' shoes and looking for a younger, cheaper Stoudemire to groom for the future, Hickson would fit the bill. At about 6'-9" Hickson isn't nearly as tall as Stoudemire, and his ceiling isn't as high, but they play largely the same game around the basket. And Hickson's midrange jumper has tons of room to improve in the coming years, much like Stoudemire's has. In the Suns' uptempo offense, the offensively-talented Hickson could grow into a key piece of Phoenix's future.

If Ferry can turn this trade from a hot rumor into reality, it would represent his BlackBerry magnum opus. Bigger than the lopsided Mo Williams and Shaquille O'Neal trades. Bigger than the six-players-out, four-players-in face lift of the February before last. Because this would be the long-sought, prime-of-career superstar brought on board specifically to give LeBron James a superstar-caliber running mate and, by extension, a reason to commit to the Cavs long term this summer.

Of course, Stoudemire would have to agree to an extension himself in order to make the grand plan truly take root. But the Cavs would hold Stoudemire's Larry Bird rights and, as a result, be able to offer Stoudemire the max contract he seeks, above what any other team can offer. The same rules that apply to the Cavs with LeBron.

Odds are very good that bringing Stoudemire into the fold would increase the Cavs' competitive standing both during the season and the offseason in the coming years. That's important, but you can argue that's not the most important issue at hand right this minute.

The most important issue is the spring of 2010, and whether the Cavs can win the NBA title. At the all-star break, the Cavs sit atop the NBA wth a 43-11 record and a franchise record-tying 13 game winning streak. They're a combined 4-0 against the Lakers and Magic -- the two teams that tormented them a year ago.

It's hard to imagine things going much better for the Cavs than they are right now. It would be anywhere between reckless and crazy to mess with the team's mojo.

Yet, adding Stoudemire could do just that. On one hand, Stoudemire is a more talented and athletic version of Hickson, so it's not like Mike Brown would have to completely retrofit the offense to accommodate Stoudemire. He'd be catching the ball while move toward the basket, taking quick dishes from LeBron for dunks and, in general, having his job made a whole lot easier surrounded by Shaq and LeBron -- two of the best passers in the game at their positions.

That's in theory. And the theory assumes that Stoudemire is content with living off of whatever the other four guys on the court give him. For a superstar used to receiving a lot of touches and scoring 20 points per game -- and playing for a contract to boot -- the theory might run into some problems when put into practice.

If Stoudemire is content with a drop in shot volume for the remainder of the season, if he's willing to be a team player and sacrifice some of his face time for a shot at a ring, the Cavs could become a historic juggernaut, armed with one of the greatest frontcourts in the history of the NBA. They could level the rest of the league like an atom bomb, burn through the playoffs like a time-release napalm canister and make those of us at the victory parade wonder why it took 46 years to win a title.

If Stoudemire is more concerned with his stat line and how many zeroes he can expect on his next contract, he could just as easily become a selfish, destructive, ball-hogging, shot-forcing dissenter who could make you pine for the days of Hickson starting at power forward.

It's the definition of high-risk, high-reward. The Cavs want to deliver the bold brushstroke that makes a compelling closing argument to LeBron. But at the same time, no argument could be more compelling than holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy aloft on Public Square this June. That's the cinch-lock case for not making any move that could potentially hinder the Cavs' chances of winning a title this year.

No player, no coach and no executive can guarantee a championship outright. Everyone plays a hand, but in most cases, the talent, coaching and front office brains are raw materials. Championships are won by circumstances. Players stay healthy and accept their roles, coaches adapt and lead effectively, and maybe there are some more fortuitous bounces along the way.

The dominance the Cavs are demonstrating right now can't be guaranteed year to year. Doing anything to harm this team's ability to win a championship this year is downright criminal. But leaving a legitimate superstar like Stoudemire on the table because you fear a negative outcome is reckless, crazy and criminal, too.

This is why Danny Ferry makes the big bucks. To lose sleep over this very conundrum. I'm glad he's the one making the call, and I'm glad I'm not in his shoes right now.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Shaq Comes Alive

Shaquille O'Neal's first two months in a Cavaliers uniform required a big-picture definition of success.

If you were to believe that the soon-to-be 38 year old man-mountain was going to help the Cavs win a title, you had to believe in what he could give the team in the long run. Because on a night to night basis, he looked like a fading star whose time had come and gone.

You had to pin your hopes on his ability to rise to the occasion against marquee opponents, such as the work he did in battling Dwight Howard to a draw in the Cavs' cathartic November victory in Orlando. Or his 11 point, 7 rebound showing in the Cavs' Christmas Day drubbing of the Lakers in Los Angeles.

You had to try and remind yourself that the ultimate measuring stick of Danny Ferry's decision to trade for Shaq last June will be in Shaq's effectiveness against the likes of the Lakers, Celtics and Magic. And that verdict won't be rendered until late spring.

How he plays against the Memphis Grizzlies in December? That's pretty much irrelevant, you had to convince yourself. Shaq only has so much gas left in the tank, and he needs to save it for when it really matters. If he coasts through some of the less-competitive parts of the schedule, it is still worth it if he's neutralizing the frontcourts of other contenders in late May and June.

That line of thinking is entirely rooted in logic. Ferry didn't trade for Shaq to beat the Grizzlies, Knicks or Bulls. The Cavs prior to Shaq's arrival could do that just fine. They needed Shaq to neutralize the matchup disadvantages that caused them to go a combined 3-8 against the Magic and Lakers last season, including playoffs.

As the mediocre Shaq showings piled on top of each other, you had to cling to that ideal. It's not about minutes, points or rebounds -- Shaq is on pace for career lows in all three categories -- it's about stuffing Howard in the lane, about not letting Pau Gasol receive the ball wherever he wants it. It's about doing the things that don't necessarily show up in Shaq's stat line, but will definitely show up in the stat lines of opposing big men, in the form of smaller numbers.

And yet, even if you succeeded in maintaining that big-picture line of thinking, there was this persistent, bugging thought gnawing at the base of your brain as the 2009 portion of the schedule progressed.

Shaq really didn't look good out there. He looked out of sync. He looked uncomfortable in his role as a defensive enforcer first, rebounder second and low post scorer third.

He looked a little out of condition, like his summer reality series, "Shaq Vs.," really wasn't the new spin on offseason conditioning that he thought it would be. He was playing 21 minutes a night, and looked as if stretching to 26 minutes would require the postgame use of an oxygen mask and wheelchair.

Even with a reduced offensive role, Shaq still needed some touches in the post, and every time the ball went inside to Shaq, it turned the Cavs offense on its ear. The Cavs won 66 games last season by using smaller lineups and playing to LeBron's strengths -- incredible speed and power. The Cavs were at their best when they could play fast, penetrate to the basket and create open looks for jump shooters.

Accommodating Shaq means slowing all of that down, and giving him a chance to dig his toes in on the left block. Mike Brown was sort of stuck in limbo, not wanting to abandon the high-velocity approach that made the Cavs an unstoppable juggernaut against 27 of 29 teams last year. But he also knew that in order to make the Shaq experiment work, he needed to get the big guy involved.

The net result was Shaq received some touches in his low-post comfort zone, but not a lot of them. To his credit and in a reversal of his attitude at other career stops, Shaq never once uttered a word of public complaint. His steadfast motto was "Witness Protection." Whatever he needed to do to enable LeBron to win games, that's what he said he wanted to do.

But it harmed his game. His shots fell flat. He jumped like he was bolted to the ground. Younger, quicker opponents routinely smacked the ball out of his hands. Missing games early in the season with a shoulder injury didn't help matters.

His season reached its nadir in back-to-back losses at Memphis and Houston in early December. Against Memphis, he was abused by Ohio State product Mike Conley on a pick and roll that led to the Grizzlies' game-winning basket in overtime. The next night, Chuck Hayes, a 6'-6" center-in-name-only, outplayed Shaq the whole time the two shared the floor.

The red flags were up. Knowledgeable basketball people e-mailed Brian Windhorst, Cavs beat reporter for The Plain Dealer, declaring the death of Shaq's career. It was hard to argue the evidence, even if you were dead-set on evaluating Shaq based solely on how he played against other contenders.

Luckily, the regular season lasts five and a half months, not two months.

Looking back, his effort against the Lakers on Christmas Day was something of a turning point. It's happened gradually, but Shaq is back to being Shaq. A late-30s Shaq, but definitely Shaq.

In the game following the Christmas beatdown of the Lakers, Shaq atoned for his performance in Houston by registering his fourth Cavs double-double in the rematch with the Rockets at The Q. That in and of itself wasn't noteworthy, but it was back-to-back productive games. It was a start.

The production was still kind of sporadic, but he managed a 17-point effort against Washington in early January. Four days later, in Portland, he compiled his best all-around effort: 11 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists and a big lip-smacker on actor Daniel Baldwin, who was sitting behind the basket when Shaq came tumbling his way.

The good games were becoming more frequent for Shaq. As important, he looked like he was beginning to enjoy his role and fit into the Cavs' scheme.

But Shaq didn't truly become a load-bearing wall for the Cavs until January 19. Since then, he's really flourished.

Jan. 19 is when Mo Williams sprained his shoulder against the Raptors. Along with the gut-check knowledge that the Cavs' second-best scorer could be on the shelf until March, Brown was also faced with the question of how to replace Mo's offense.

In past years, Mo's production would have been replaced piecemeal-style. LeBron would take more shots, Delonte West would take more shots, and the bench would need to step up and assume more minutes and shots.

This season, the safety net weighs a conservatively-estimated 325 pounds. Which is good, because Delonte went to the sideline with a broken finger in the very next game, removing even more scoring from the floor.

Though Brown certainly didn't consider it an ideal situation to ramp up Shaq's touches and minutes so suddenly, and with two and a half months of regular season still left to play, his hand was forced. Shaq would get the ball on the block and take more shots.

The 15-time all-star, four-time NBA champion and future hall of famer responded like you'd expect a 15-time all-star, four-time NBA champion and future hall of famer to respond: he stopped fooling around, focused on the task at hand and has been getting the job done.

Over the past week, Shaq has been playing his best ball as a Cav. He scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting against Indiana, and followed that with 16 points and 12 boards against the Clippers, and 13 points and a season-high 13 boards in the rematch against the Grizzlies, a runaway Cavs win.

This is how Shaq, and the Cavs, will need to play in the later playoff rounds if they're to have a realistic shot at the franchise's first NBA title. Even though Shaq is playing more than Ferry or Brown would prefer, it's comforting to know that Shaq Diesel was still in the garage and functional while Shaq Lemon was rattling and clunking through the early stages of the season.

And it's relieving to know that the Cavs are learning how to play, dominate and win with Shaq as a focal point of both the offense and defense.

Maybe how Shaq plays against the Grizzlies in the dead of winter does count for something after all.