Sunday, December 27

It's gotten so bad, even Sylvester Stallone has left

Thus said Cavs radio man Joe Tait near the Cavaliers' Xmas day destruction of the LA Lakers in the Staples Center, where the Clevelanders shocked the high-flying home club and their ridiculous fans to conclude a mettle-testing 3-1 road swing that left them 23-8 and holding a 57-game lead in the AFC North.

Things didn't start off well for our boys in Dallas. Coming off of two uninspiring wins (when did Cavs victories become uninspiring to me? Wow, I'm spoiled) against lousy teams (10 points over the woeful Devils, 7 over the hapless Phillies), they were roundly criticized for a lack of effort in a 102-95 road loss to a Maverick team playing without star Dirk Nowitzki. The box score is fairly silent on this one; the Cavs committed a few turnovers and somehow allowed Tim Thomas to score 22 points, but the general perception that the Cavs were sleepwalking through this one seems reasonable to me.

The Cavs found themselves at a bit of a crossroads at this point; I've never seen a 20-8 club take so much flak before. Sure, they're on pace for 59 wins, but what have you done for me lately? Even the Japanese groundskeepers said, "they're shitty." Worse yet, they were headed to the desert the very next day to take on the Suns, a Phoenix-based team whose name at least has some connection to their geography, unlike the Cardinals, who have to be regarded as the Utah Jazz of the NFL, name-wise. Phoenix was 18-9 and hadn't lost a home game this season - their last defeat in the desert was last March, at the hands of Los Caballeros. So, even though the Cavs mauled them in Cleveland earlier this year, expectations ran low for the Cavs' game against the Gorillas.

And for the first of three consecutive nights, the Cavs responded well to an adverse situation by crushing the Suns, Montgomery Burns-like, 109-91. Cleveland led by six at half, seven after three, and EIGHTEEN by game's end. Most impressively, Cleveland held Phoenix to a paltry 91 points. The Suns are the NBA's top-scoring club at better than 108 per; they've now put up 90 and 91 against the Cavaliers' D. Not bad at all. The keys for me, watching Cleveland's defense, were Delonte West and Anderson Varejao. West controlled Suns PG Steve Nash, while Varejao locked down and frustrated Amar'e Stoudemire. While I'm here, Stoudemire is the worst good player in the NBA. He doesn't play smart, he doesn't hustle, and has no sense of what team basketball is about.

And oh my, that fourth quarter. Bill Simmons called the Cavs' play down the stretch "poop in your pants good" and said he hasn't seen a better NBA quarter this year. They were simply awesome. Perfect execution, unselfish offensive basketball, outstanding team defense. You can't play the game better than the Cavs did as they ripped off fifteen straight points to turn a 92-86 advantage into a 107-86 laugher. It was scary good.

The ringleader, other than the defensive stalwarts I noted earlier, was none other than LeBron James, who directed the Cavs' offense exquisitely during this stretch, scoring seven points and notching two assists. LBJ finished the game with 29/6/4 and a game-best +26. The Cavs also got big contributions from Varejao (13 points and a +21) and their starting backcourt of Mo Williams (17 points, 5 assists, +17) and Anthony Parker (7/5/3 and a +19). I'm looking forward to the instructional video the Cavs release, using solely footage from that 4th quarter.

The Cavaliers traveled to the SAC on Wednesday to take on the Kings, who aren't necessarily good (13-15), but certainly suck much less than last year, largely thanks to Rookie of the Year frontrunner Tyreke Evans. The Cavs battled the Kings to a surprising 104-104 tie at the end of regulation, and a Cavalier skeptic would be forgiven for questioning the club's focus in a winnable game. So how did the Cavs deal with this particular element of diversity?

By whitewashing the Kings 13-0 in overtime. Does that even really happen? It doesn't happen. It's preposterous. The star of the overtime was, of course, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who drained three three-pointers to put this one away for the Clevelanders. But hey, we're nothing special - most teams have a 7'3" three-point specialist, right?

The King had another huge game - he scored a bucket and assisted on two of Z's triples in OT, part of a ridiculous 34/16/10 line that netted him a second-straight game-high +26. Too good. I hope I don't start taking him for granted, like I'm starting to with that guy who returns kicks for the Browns, Grubbs or something. He seems good, but anyone can take back eight career kickoffs.

Cavalier scoring was unbalanced tonight, but sometimes you gotta ride your horses to road wins. Bron's 34 was complemented by 27 from Mo and 25 from Z - that's 74% of your club's scoring right there. Hey, a win's a win.

And thus we return to where we started; the Cavaliers celebrating the ahistorical birth of baby Jesus more fervently than Ricky Bobby by just absolutely beating the shit out of the Lakers. They played better offense, they played better defense, they tried harder, and, unlike Laker fans, they stayed to the end and didn't throw foam fingers on the court. Maybe LA can hire Carmen Policy as a PR consultant for a few days. Cleveland got up big in the second, lost some of it, got it back in the third (up as many as 20), and cruised to a solid statement win over the West-leading Lakers. Don't forget about us, NBA.

Explain to me, if you would, how Kobe is better than LBJ. I'm listening.

The numbers from this game are staggering. Cleveland shot 54% from the field, compared to just 37 for LA. Cavs notched 24 assists vs just 16 for LA. The Lakers managed to tie the Cavs in rebounding, but that was mostly because they missed way more shots and collected a few extra offensive rebounds. They may as well sign Ricky Davis to a 10-day and have him shoot at his own basket.

LeBron finished off an outstanding stretch of basketball with a 26/4/9 (+8), while Shaq got in the act against his old mates with 11/7 (+9), Mo Williams was outstanding with 28 points, 7 assists, and a +13, best among Cleveland starters.

Those numbers notwithstanding, Cleveland's bench got this game for the Cavs. They built the huge second-quarter lead that put the Cavs in command for good, and demonstrated how deep the Cavs roll. Ilgauskas only scored two points, but collected 9 boards and posted a +21, mostly because the Lakers had no answer for the twin tower defense of him and Shaq. Varejao had a typical 9 point-9-board line to go along with a team-best +21; no one plays as fluidly with LBJ as Andy does, and I mean that as a compliment. Jamario Moon had a big game off the bench too, netting 13 points on 6-7 shooting. Can we get this guy in the slam dunk contest?

And you know what? I liked watching the Lakers lose their shit at the end. I haven't seen a meltdown like that since Game 6 of the 2007 East Finals, and the Lakers don't even have Rasheed Wallace. OK, they do have Ron Artest, but still. Just an absolute embarrassment. I've heard much of this season that the Cavs wouldn't stand a chance
against LA in a Finals matchup. The hell they wouldn't.

Have you ever seen that video where you count the number of passes a bunch of people make with a basketball, and a gorilla walks through, and no one notices because they were watching all the other people play, and then afterwards they tell you about the gorilla, and you're like "wow, a gorilla was there"? JJ Hickson is that gorilla. I cannot believe he actually was in the game today, despite what the box score tells me.

So, Cleveland heads home at 23-8, sitting 2nd in the never-ending playoff-jockeying race in the East but feeling good about their ability to beat good teams on the road. Yeah, they're going to have concentration lapses at time, but this club can PLAY. Winning enough games to get a top-half seed and staying healthy are the key things now, not whether they beat a crummy team by 10 or by 15. Let's see how they respond to tough tests this week: a visit from Houston, who absolutely owns them, and a home-and-away set with the surprising Hawks. Go Cavs!

1 comment:

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