Tuesday, March 3

Road sweet road

For the second time in less than 50 days, the Cavaliers embarked on a four-game road trip, and just like the first time, they emerged with an excellent 3-1 record after being drubbed in the first game of the roadie. Here's a recap of the road trip that was for the Cavs, who are hopefully back in Northeast Ohio tired but satisfied.

To say that the trip didn't start off well is an understatement, as the Cavs were manhandled by the tough defense of the streaking 36-21 Houston Rockets in a 93-74 loss. The Cavs mustered just 11 points in the first quarter and 10 in the third in their most frustrating offensive showing of the campaign. From time to time, they'd sneak back in the game, but Houston always had an answer and the Cavs never sustained their momentum. Yes, we got outplayed by the Rockets, but by the same token it was just not the Cavs' night, as normally reliable shots were drawing iron and the Rockets had all the bounces going their way. When Ron Artest is hitting deep fall-away jumpers, well, maybe it's not your night.

The numbers from this one are as ugly as the game was, particularly on the offensive end: outshot by Houston 49% - 34% and notching just 10 assists to Houston's 25. The loss wasn't due to a lack of effort from Los Caballeros - they outboarded Houston 41-39 and had more steals, more blocks, fewer turnovers, and fewer fouls committed. This game simply came down to the Cavs' inability to get open shots and convert the few good looks they did get. Losing Ben Wallace to a fractured fibia didn't help matters wither, nor did Scorcher's' management senselessly telling me to take my Cavs hat off during the game. Ugh, what a mess.

But, to use two wildly overplayed NBA cliches, you have to have a short memory and you have to take it one game at a time. (Digression: can we please stop saying this? Let's just assume as a default that every team takes every game one at a time, and if a team if taking them two or three at a time, then just let us know.) The Cavs came out the next night against 39-17 San Antonio on a mission (no pun intended), and handled the shorthanded Spurs from the get-go in a 97-86 win. The Cavs established a 27-13 lead after one period and used a strong third quarter surge to put away the Spurs.

Perhaps realizing that he'll have to "play bigger" with Wallace out of the lineup (at least until Joe Smith's arrival), LeBron had a man's game of 30 points (on roughly 15 dunks, it seemed) and 14 rebounds, leading the Cavs to an impressive victory. The +/- numbers are staggering, and show plainly how this game was won by the starting five. The total +/- for LeBron, Z, Andy, Delonte, and Mo was a whopping 118; the remainder of the team posted a -63. Not much contribution from the bench, but with LeBron's heroics, plus 10 points and 10 boards from the big Lithuanian and a sparkling 17/7/5 line from Brother Redz, they didn't need it.

Now, it's easy to downplay the significance of beating the Spurs in their own building because stars Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan were out, but this is still a strong, defensive-minded, experienced team, playing at home in a tough building to take a victory out of, and the Cavs handled them on the second night of a road back-to-back. Injuries or no, I'm not going to shed any crocodile tears for San Antonio, except maybe Matt Bonner after posting a +/- of -31 for the game. Wow.

After a day of rest, the Cavs shifted their focus from Texas to the Southeast, where the 33-25 Atlanta Hawks lurked. The Cavaliers played a solid first half en route to a 53-43 halftime lead, gave it all back and more in the third and fourth, and needed a late rally and dramatic finish to secure an 88-87 win.

Tied at 87, LeBron was fouled by Al Horford on a drive to the basket, yet only converted 1 of 2 free throws. With just a couple of seconds on the clock, Atlanta's Joe Johnson got a reasonable look at the basket after the inbounds pass (thanks to a teammate holding LeBron) but misfired, and the Cavs escaped Philips Arena with a win. LeBron led the Cavs with a 26/6/11 performance, despite some errant shooting from the field and at the charity stripe, while Ilgauskas sharpshot his way to another double-double with 17/11 and Mo Williams added 20. Once again, the starters carried the club, as only three reserves saw action (Wally, Boobie, JJ), and none were effective.

My favorite part of this game was Josh Smith throwing down a huge dunk, Fred McLeod suggesting to AC that he could maybe say "throw the hammer down" to describe an opponent, and AC finding himself physically unable to do so. That's Mr. Cavalier to you.

The final game of the trip took the sleep-deprived Cavs to one of the league's American Airlines Arenas, specifically the one in Miami, to take on the 31-27 Heat. Given the mileage they'd already piled up and their recent performances in South Beach (1 win in their past 10 visits), one could be excused for thinking the Cavs might just end this trip at 2-2. When they trailed 91-80 in the fourth quarter, such an outcome seemed highly likely, but Cleveland rode an 18-2 run behind Mo and LeBron to a stirring 107-100 victory in a wildly entertaining basketball game.

It became apparent early on that this would be a duel between LeBron and D-Wade, and never disappointed in that respect. LeBron ended with an efficient 42/8/4 (including 6-7 from long range), while Wade countered with 41/7/9 (plus 7 steals). Both players seemed to constantly be dunking, with LeBron saving his last slam for a great individual drive to the basket late in the 4th that basically sealed the game for the Cavs.

Once again, poor production from the bench brigade (+71 from the starters, -36 from the reserves) was offset by a strong performance from the starting five, including LeBron's explosion, 30 points from Mo Williams, and a 12/15 double-double for Big Z. It seems that the second unit's effectiveness is hurt significantly by Varejao having joined the starting lineup. He was all over the place last night with 6 points, 4 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, and 5799 loose balls collected. The Cavs won this one by outworking the Heat, shooting the lights out on three-point (11-17) and one-point (22-25) shots, and FINALLY deciding to double-team Wade late in the game. Facing the doubles, Wade was forced into turnovers or to pass to his teammates, who consistently found themselves stifled by the twin towers of Ilgauskas and Varejao down low.

An excellent win, and one of the more fun games of the year - the exciting comeback, the duel between LeBron and Wade, and those wild times during the second half where the game turned into a crazy pickup game. Awesome way to end a road trip.

As a Cavs fan, you should be pleased with the club posting a 3-1 record on this odyssey. Think about it: four games in five nights, all on the road, all against playoff teams? You'd take three wins every time, and for the Cavs to rally back after that horrible opening loss to the Rockets and to overcome significant deficits in the final two vicories speaks to how this team continues to show its mettle as a true championship contender.

The Cavs still are looking at some tough sledding ahead, though not quite the gauntlet they just ran. After a winnable home game against Milwaukee tomorrow, they have the showdown in Boston against the increasingly unlikeable Celtics on Friday, a home rematch with the Heat, and then a three-game swing out West to face the conference's two worst teams (the Clippers and Kings) sandwiched around a visit to Shaq and company in the desert. Go CaVs!

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