Monday, March 1

Ohio Basketball!

If you're a basketball fan and tend to support teams from the great state of Ohio, and if you're reading this you probably are, this is a fine time to be alive. At the professional level, you have the Cleveland Cavailers demolishing the rest of the league and poised to claim their first NBA title. In the college ranks, the Ohio State Buckeyes are ranked #9 in the nation, beat michigan yesterday (8 outta 10), and are vying for a share of the Big Ten title behind National Player of the Year candidate Evan Turner. (FCF Tribe beat writer JHH, a Purdue grad, must be enjoying this season of Big Ten hoops). Cleveland State is down a bit this year at 15-16 after losing Cedric Jackson and J'Nathan Bullock, but still could compete in the Horizon tournament. Xavier finds itself in a three-way tie atop the A-10, while Dayton is closing in on 20 victories. Akron and Kent State are tied at the top of the MAC's Eastern division. We're a powerhouse! And at the high school level, Ohio schools look very likely to capture all of the Ohio state championships.

Let's look at our Cavaliers in a bit more detail. I'm telling you, that $20 I dropped in Vegas on Los Caballeros at 3:1 is looking smarter every day. They can't be any more than 2:1 after the Jamison deal. As Nick wrote a week ago, Antawn (why is this pronounced as if the "a" and "w" were reversed?) indeed looks to be the final piece of the Cavalier 2010 championship puzzle. I still can't believe we didn't give up JJ Hickson to swing that one. It kinda feels like stealing.

As exciting as it is to have a guy of Jamison's caliber alongside an already strong, deep roster, it does create some positional issues that the Cavs didn't face before. Bear in mind that they exchanged a center (Z) for a power forward (Jamison), leaving Shaq as the lone 5 on the club. Yeah, Varejao is 6'11" and can play in the middle, but let's recognize that he is by far the most effective at the 4 position. And now that Shaq is sidelined for a while, we basically have: no centers. The Cavs have proven adept this year at playing smallball (road wins over Phoenix and Boston spring to mind), but sometimes it's useful to have two dudes who are 7'2".

Now, when and if Z returns, and when and if Shaq's thumb gets better, we'll be back to where we want to be center-wise, though I'd expect Ilgauskas to only draw 10-15 minutes or so as the Cavs progress into the playoffs and shorten their rotation. The interesting thing to see is what coach Mike Brown will do about the sudden logjam at power forward. Jamison needs lots of minutes and he needs to start. You don't get a 20/9 guy and play him 10 minutes a game. Likewise, Varejao brings so much to the table defensively and, increasingly offensively, that you have to play him a lot as well. The odd man out looks like Hickson to me. He's made strides this year, but you can't give him serious minutes with Andy and 'Tawn in front of him, unless you're giving Varejao center minutes, which concerns me slightly. On the other hand, having five strong frontcourt players is an enviable problem, no? Holy hooters, I just now realized we have Jamario Moon too!

Good news: we're pretty much set at small forward. Bill Simmons has had a couple of great takes on LBJ's spectacular season, including one fawning column, a tweet deriding this insane pro-Dwight Howard piece as the worst sports column of 2010 (the closing sentence of that article is: "There's an alpha dog out there somewhere whose food bowl is filled with the eyeballs of three blind sports columnists"), and contributing this gem from a recent chat:

Josh (Milwaukee)
You and ESPN pretty much worship the ground LeBron walks on. You gotta admit this guy still has work to do. His free throw percentage is dropping again, he can't hit 3's (yet continues to take them over over in big situations) and his one-on-one defense is overrated. Melo killed him last week. No way LBJ wins a title without another STAR.

Bill Simmons
Read more of Josh's LeBron's take at

BTW, LeBron has a chance to become the first player ever to win "Player of the Month" for all six regular season months. He's averaging 32.3 PPG, 10.7 APG, 6.9 RPG and shooting 50% in February. You think we should be underplaying this?

Yep, we're OK at the three. And 'Melo did not "kill" LeBron, as some stats I post below will illustrate.

I'm happy with the guard play as well; Parker has been knocking down shots, Mo is starting to get his feel for the game back, and Delonte has been solid. Sure, there's some concern about West's upcoming legal tribulations, but don't forget the contributions we've gotten from Boobie Gibson and Jawad Williams when the others have been indisposed. Mo's the only backcourt guy we have who you might call a star, but we're deep there too.

The key, to state the obvious, is to have everyone healthy and clicking come playoff time. These are the seven guys you have to play serious minutes: Bron, Shaq, AP, Mo, Redz, 'Tawn, Andy. The rest of the guys can fight over the remaining time, where you can bring guys like Boobie and Jamario off the bench for energy and quick scoring. Your crunch-time lineup is LBJ, Mo, Delonte, Andy, and Jamison, and I won't hear otherwise.

OK, enough roster dissection. Let's talk about the Cavaliers' play since the All-Star break. The club went into the festivities riding a 13-game win streak, made the much-ballyhooed Jamison trade, and promptly lost three games in a row for the first time in two years. But you know what? The losses didn't worry me one bit. They came against three quality opponents (Denver, Charlotte, Orlando), with a roster still in flux from the trade, and all had easily identifiable and correctable issues that led to defeat.

Care to argue with me that the Nuggets aren't the 3rd-best team in the NBA? That's how I see them at the moment. Solid club, and I'm finally a believer in Carmelo's talents. The Cavs lost a wild OT shootout to Denver, but these things happen. Look at the lines the two stars put up:

'Melo 40 Pts, 6 Reb, 7 Ast, 1 Stl, 2 Blk
Bron: 43 Pts, 13 Reb, 15 Ast, 2 Stl, 4 Blk

Wait, who "killed" whom? Good god is LeBron ever good. Remember how I said these losses had easily-identifiable problems? The Cavs went 23-40 from the line. That's 57.5%. Hit your foul shots at the rate of a decent JV team and you win this one. Let's move along.

The easily-identifiable flaw here is that the Cavs tried to win this one while asleep. Probably their worst showing of the year, lowlighted by Jamison's comically inept 0-12 performance from the field. The real issue: the Bobcats' 55% shooting from the floor. That's not Cavalier defense, and when Antawn gets used to Cleveland's highly-effective team defensive system, you won't see that sort of number anymore. These things take some time.

Have I mentioned that I hate these guys? Because: I do. The correctable flaw here was that both clubs got into a time machine and went back to last May and the Eastern Conference Finals where the Magic always seemed to catch crazy-fire at the end and win. So frustrating. I half-expected to see Hedo Turkoglu take the court. Again: I'm confident that these 51% opponent FG% games will evaporate once the club gets everyone integrated.

Of course, my lack of concern is easy to justify now that the Cavs have posted three straight wins. The first came against a New Orleans team missing Chris Paul but featuring the very-capable Darren Collison and hot-shooting Marcus Thornton. From my vantage point in Section 222, I was really impressed with the way Collison ran the offense, and Thornton was flat-out making it rain, but the Cavs withstood the Hornets' young backcourt and ended their streak as this blogger pocketed a free chalupa.

Two days later, the Cavs ended a painfully-long losing streak in Boston with a 108-88 thrashing of the home Celtics. After falling behind by 12 early, the Cavs absolutely put the clamps down defensively. It was a joy to watch - the team help, the on-the-ball intensity; there's no way you're beating the Cavs if they D up like that. No way. Boston scored 31 points in the first quarter and 32 in the second half, the latter coming on 20% shooting. I couldn't have enjoyed that half more, and I suspect defense-minded Coach Brown slept easy that night.

The next evening, the Cavs pulled out an overtime win over the Chris Bosh-less Riptors in Toronto. They should have won in regulation, but lapsed a bit defensively and needed LBJ and Parker to bail them out in OT. But hey, that's what good teams do: win games even when they don't play their best ball for 48 minutes.

So, the Cavs sit at 46-14, and with 22 games remaining they sport a 1.5-game edge over the Lakers for the NBA's best mark and a 6.5-game margin over Orlando, their nearest competitor in the East. We'll be playing some home games this postseason, and with cupcakes coming up against the Knicks and Nets this week, you may as well book us for 48-14. the rest of this season is getting healthy, maintaining the #1 seed, keeping guys fresh, and locking down that playoff rotation. This is your assignment, Mike Brown, should you choose to accept it. April can't come soon enough.

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