Tuesday, March 17

Another quality road trip

In late January, I brought you the tale of the Cleveland Cavaliers posting a 3-1 record on a tough road trip after losing the first game badly..

In late February, I told of the Clevelanders again taking three of four away from home, once again following an opening game drubbing.

The key, it turns out, is this: only take three-game trips, and make sure the one you cut out is that lousy first game. The Cavs took that lesson to heart, sweeping all three games in a West Coast swing through LA (the Clips, not the Lakers, another key), Phoenix, and Sacramento. It wasn't always easy - the Cavs needed furious rallies to edge the bottom-feeding Kings and Clippers - but a tired Cavalier team got it done each night to return home with a sparkling 52-13 mark.

The Cavs kicked off the roadie in the Staples Center, facing the pathetic 15-48 Clippers. Yet despite the weak opposition and them coming off of a strong win vs Miami two days prior, the Cavs came out flat against the Clippers. LA got some easy baskets early, but the Cavalier defense got progressively tighter during the game. The Cavs just couldn't hit any shots. It was brutal. Trailing by 19 in the 4th quarter (to the Clippers!), it looked like they were making their customary start to a road trip. Then, as Hubie Brown once said in a hilarious NBA video, the gong went off. The Cavaliers outscored LA 35-14 in the final frame to claim a 87-83 victory over the hapless Clippers, whose final attempt to tie the game was a 34-foot off-balance airball by Zach Randolph. Go Clippers! LeBron was a man once again, going off for a triple-double line of 32/13/11. Z and Mo Williams were the other leading scorers at 16 and 14 respectively, with Z adding 8 boards and Anderson Varejao contributing 10 boards and his usual frenetic play. The most interesting figures, to me, were Daniel Gibson's +14 rating and Delonte West's -11. Not a good game for Brother Red.

The stat lines for the two teams ended up quite even: same FG%, same FT%, close 3-pt. FG%, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, all pretty well in line. The Cavs just executed a little better down the stretch and escaped with a W.

Two nights later, Cleveland found themselves facing the reeling Phoenix Suns (33-31), in a building where the Cavs hadn't won in 9 years, making it the only NBA arena where LeBron had yet to taste victory. Well, like Homer Simpson seeing Farrah Fawcett naked, The King made sure to cross that off his list, notching his 3rd straight triple double (34/10/13, plus 3 each of blocks and steals) in a 119-110 shootout win over a Suns team with virtually zero interest in playing defense. Mo Williams added 30 for the Cavs, Z had 15, and Sasha Pavlovic came out of hibernation with 16 points on 6-9 shooting and a team-high +/- rating of +16. The Cavs' top three +/- figures all came from guards, including an unusually aggressive offensive night from Wally Szczerbiak (+14) and long-range bombing from Mo Williams (+11).

Though the offensive numbers looked good, the Cavalier defense was not strong, allowing the Suns to shoot nearly 55% with lots of open looks and transition baskets. If Phoenix had any interest at all in trying to prevent Cleveland from scoring points, this one might have gone to the home team. It's been written in other spaces, but the Cavalier interior defense has not been as strong recently as it was earlier in the year. It may be the absence of Ben Wallace, maybe the Cavs are a bit weary, but it's something to be mildly concerned about. I am now complaining about a 5-game win streak from a team playing better than .800 ball - that's how good this team is.

The next night took the Cavs up to northern California to Arco Arena (cue up the Cake song of that name) to take on the crummy (14-50) Kings, a team who entered the game 0-24 against the Eastern Conference. The Cavs extended that particular NBA record for futility, but it wasn't easy, as Cleveland needed an overtime session to prevail 126-123. Again, Cleveland's defense was not good: Kevin Martin (34), Jason Thompson (19), and Bobby Jackson (19) got pretty much whatever they wanted on the offensive end. Not a good sign for the Cavs. Thompson, an impressive young player, ended with a ridiculous +27, offset somewhat by the -20 of teammate Donte Greene. Sacramento hit for 59 points in the first half and ended up shooting over 48% for the game, including 41% from long range. That is not championship-caliber defensive play.

Luckily, the Cavs also have some guys who can put the ball in the hoop. Pundits and announcers always talk about how the Cavs really don't want to get in scoring contests with teams like the Kings and Knicks, but you know what? The Cavs always win those kinds of games too. Yes, they're good defensively, but that doesn't mean they don't prevail by trading baskets with run-n-shoot clubs as well. You don't go 52-13 by being one-dimensional. These guys can score! In particular, LeBron James can score, as he showed to the tune of 51 points (plus 4 boards and 9 assists). Varejao chipped in 18 points on perfect 8-8 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, Szczerbiak came off the bench for 12 more (and a +12), and Boobie added 9 points and a team-high +24 (!) The two lowest-rated Cavs in +/- on the night were Z (-25, ouch) and Mo Williams (-16; these things happen when you shoot 3-14).

As with the Clippers game, the Cavs found themselves in serious trouble near the end of the game, but once again out-executed an inferior opponent, outscoring the Kings 32-18 in the final period to force overtime, where LeBron took control from the beginning and made sure not to let Sacramento off the mat. Tired but happy, the Cavs finally headed home.

The Cavaliers have since celebrated their return by posting a win over the Knicks (can you believe we might play these turkeys in the first round?) and extending their Eastern Conference lead to 3.5 games over Boston and 4.5 over Orlando. The Cavs now have more remaining home games than any club in the NBA, with 12 of their last 16 at the Q. In case you missed it: the Cavs win games at the Q. Granted, they've got some strong opponents aiming to hang a 2nd loss on the Cavs' 29-1 home ledger, including Orlando, Portland, Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, and Boston. But the Cavs benefit by having just one back-to-back in the next 4 weeks, which should allow them go get some much needed rest. 65 wins, the #1 seed, even the NBA's best record - it's all there for the taking. Go CaVs!

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