Wednesday, March 31

Vols Abruptly End Ohio St Season

There is one negative about being a national powerhouse year in and year out with lofty expectations: if you don't win a National Championship, your season ends in disappointment. We've seen this for decades with Ohio St's football program, and now with Thad Matta on the sidelines we're starting to see it on the court too. Don't get me wrong, I would obviously much rather be successful and enjoy a top team each year then be continuously mediocre, but it's just tough to have each season end so bitterly. That was what happened last weekend when Tennessee outlasted the Buckeyes in a see-saw Sweet 16 battle, 76-73.

Game Recap

The first half was back and forth, and thanks to a couple of Jeremie Simmons threes off the bench, OSU led 42-39. Each team traded baskets to begin the second half, and Evan Turner's three gave Ohio St a six-point lead, their largest of the game. Again the two teams matched each other's possessions, and the game stayed OSU up by 2-5 points for about ten minutes, until a Tennessee run put them up 64-63 with under six minutes to go. Now it was the Vols' turn to led by a slim margin for awhile, until ET drained a three-pointer with 0:44 to play to put the Buckeyes up by one. You just knew that shot was going in, and I was so confident they had it won at that point.

Then things fell apart. Tennessee hit a jumper to regain the led, then Turner had a nice drive but missed a layup. Kyle Madsen had the offensive rebound in his hands, and I still have no idea what happened but it somehow squirted out and went out of bounds, UT ball. OSU had to foul and Tennessee hit both free throws, so it was a three-point game with 13 ticks to go. You knew Turner was going to take it, but so did the Vols, as they hounded him all the way up court. He got a decent shot off with a few seconds left but missed. He somehow got his own rebound and was able to get another shot off, but J.P. Prince made the best tournament block I've ever seen, maybe save for Hakim Warrick's block in '01 when Hak gave Syracuse the title over Kansas. I was screaming for a foul at the time, but on replay you could see it was an incredible defensive play. Tennessee prevails by three, and another season ends in another crushing defeat.

Game Notes

One-Man Team
Yes, Evan Turner is the best player in college basketball. But as we saw in this game, he cannot beat a tremendous defensive team with a great game plan by himself (although he was damn close). The biggest disappointment from his supporting cast was the 1-for-8 shooting from Jon Diebler, 1-7 from beyond the arc. The biggest game in the career of the greatest shooter in Ohio St history and he throws up the ultimate choke job. He just couldn't hit anything. David Lighty could also only manage 9 points, with William Buford the only other scorer in double-digits. The frustrating thing about this is that these players have been so good all year and have complemented Turner so well.

Wait 'Till Next Year...Again

Being a Cleveland fan, I am so painfully used to this phrase. However, the difference in saying it here is that there's actually a bright future to look to, whereas with the Browns you can see another dismal season (unless you're Nick, who probably already has his 2010 Super Bowl Champs t-shirts printed). It seems to be a no-brainer that The Villain is headed to the pros, although he did say after the game he does not want it to end like this.

Even assuming that he goes, Ohio St still has a great nucleus of Lighty, Diebler, Bufford, and Lauderdale. They will also welcome one of the top recruits in the nation, Jarred Sullinger. His brother J.J. played for the Bucks a few years ago. So you would have the same team as this year, with Sullinger replacing Turner. Obviously, swapping the player of the year for an unproven freshman is a big downgrade, but hopefully the others will improve and step up and assume leadership roles. If ET decides he really doesn't want it to end this way, however, Ohio St is suddenly the heavy favorites to win it all next year.


Sunday, March 28

Cavs Dethrone Kings, Z Makes Home Debut

Z’s baaaaaack
The home debut of former (I’m not sure what to call him, officially) Cavalier Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the big story at The Q, as fans were given plenty of Z paraphernalia and delivered several rousing ovations for the recently traded/released/re-signed center. It was really nice to see. When Ilgauskas was acknowledged after the starting five was introduced, it was tough not to get a little choked up.

The return of Z ties up some loose ends for the organization, and I’m sure it means a lot to Ilgauskas, too. If this team ultimately does win a title, not having Z wouldn’t have subtracted anything from the glory, but having Z would definitely make things sweeter. Plus, it’s not like Z is just here for sentimental reasons; he will give the Cavs some quality minutes in the playoffs, and his size mixed with Shaq’s will really help the Cavs match up with the Magic and (hopefully) the Lakers.

Catch the 8:15 Into the City
I was treated to a little BTO on the way to the gym today, which was appropriate because it was another “Takin’ Care of Business” game for the Cavs. I talked about the Cavs “playing down” to their opponents last week, and the fact that it’s simply the nature of the NBA that you can’t blow out every lousy team. The NBA schedule is definitely too long, especially if a team makes a deep run into the playoffs, and that makes it tough to be “on” every night.

Relate what these guys to do any job, whether that’s heading to an office, factory, classroom, or wherever. Anything that you are obligated to do on a daily basis can get a little monotonous – it’s just human nature - and you’re going to have good days and bad days. Yes, playing basketball is a game, and is pretty fun (and these guys make a little more money than you and I), but if it were all that I did, every day for seven to nine months a year, once in a while I might “only” beat the Kings by seven, too.

The game was never really in doubt, anyway. From about midway through the second quarter, it was clear that the Kings were going to hang around, but you expected the Cavs to put their collective foot on the gas in the third or fourth quarter and put them away. That’s exactly what happened, as the Cavs clamped down defensively in the fourth quarter and finished off Sacramento. Sure, they played down to their level, but consider that as recently as two seasons ago the Cavs blew games like this one on a regular basis. As a team they’ve come a long way, and now they understand how to pace themselves through a grueling season and also win the games that they absolutely should win.

No Tyreke
I haven’t been able to see much of the Kings this year, so purely from the perspective of a basketball fan, I was a little disappointed to see the prohibitive favorite for the Rookie of the Year Award, Tyreke Evans, on the shelf and still suffering from the effects of a concussion. In addition to the concussion, apparently Evans suffered lacerated gums and some chipped teeth. I’m not entirely sure what lacerated gums entail, nor do I have any desire to find out.

At any rate, Evans has made quite an impression during his rookie campaign, averaging 20.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. Those numbers are eerily similar to another King, who posted 20.9-5.5-5.9 as a rookie. Consider that King James of Akron only shot 41.7% in his first season, while Evans has shot 46.1%, and you can see what a great debut season this has been for the former Memphis Tiger. Evans is a little smaller than James and doesn’t quite have his physical gifts (then again, who does?), but it’s easy to see why his emergence made the Kings so comfortable with unloading Kevin Martin at the deadline. Count me among those watching Evans’ next couple of seasons with great interest.

Varejao still sidelined
Some of the Cavs’ collective sluggishness might be chalked up to Anderson Varejao’s absence. Varejao tweaked his left hamstring against the Spurs on Friday night, and with very little chance of the Cavs losing their leads over the Lakers and Magic, Mike Brown has the luxury of giving players extra rest if necessary.

The Cavs definitely look a little different without Varejao’s energy on the floor, which tends to rub off on his teammates. Plus/minus is one of those stats that doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but when it comes to Varejao, his high +/- rating is probably more reflective of his value to the team than his traditional statistics. As opposed to simple points and rebounds, Varejao’s +/- rating does a better job capturing all of the different ways that his various hustle plays create extra possessions for the Cavs.

As the rotation turns…
Although Mike Brown won the Coach of the Year Award last year, there are still some media members who have been very critical of him (read: Simmons, William). And yes, COTY tends to reward those who coach good teams, but how many teams have won 60-plus games in consecutive seasons with awful coaches? This discussion can devolve in a “chicken or the egg” debate pretty quickly, but count me among those who think that Brown probably doesn’t get enough credit.

Consider all of the different rosters that Mike Brown has had to deal with as the result of free agent pickups, trades, Delonte’s off-the-court issues, and injuries. When healthy, the Cavs are pretty loaded, and while that depth has helped them survive various injuries, it shouldn’t subtract from the job that Brown has done this year. Coach Brown’s Cavs are about to win 60 games for the second straight season, and in the next couple of weeks they should clinch the league’s best record. That’s nothing to thumb your nose at, and although Brown definitely has his shortcomings, he’s doing a lot more right than wrong.

But getting back to the rotation - Varejao’s injury, although it doesn’t seem to be serious or long-term, has forced Brown to give more minutes to Leon Powe and J.J. Hickson. It seems that Brown is trying to reign in the rotation and get it down to eight or nine guys playing heavy minutes every night, which makes sense. Only eight Cavs played this afternoon against the Kings: the starting five (Mo, Parker, LBJ, Jamison, and Hickson), plus Ilgauskas, Powe, and Delonte West.

With Delonte West apparently 100%, we’ve seen Brown use him as the lone guard off the bench. That probably makes sense considering how much LeBron James handles the ball. The odd man out has been Daniel Gibson, who really helped the Cavs through the stretch when Mo and Delonte were hurt.

We should see a similar scenario play out when Varejao and Shaq return for the playoffs. It seems like Mike Brown is content to bring Zydrunas Ilgauskas off the bench, which makes sense considering that he’ll be coming off the bench when Shaq returns in the near future. A healthy front court will probably mean that Hickson and Powe will both see their minutes cut, and one will probably hardly see any floor time. The odd man out will likely be Hickson, because if Powe continues to progress, he’s the more consistent player and has already proven himself in the playoffs. But if Hickson continues to perform at a high level, it’s going to make Mike Brown’s choice much more difficult.

Regarding Hickson
Don’t look now, but J.J. Hickson has played four excellent games in a row. In the previous three, Hickson scored 13, 20, and 20, respectively, along with 10 points and 5 boards against the Kings on 5-of-8 shooting. He has also averaged 7.5 rebounds during that 4-game stretch.

Much of Hickson’s improvement has come from his increased court awareness and ability to move without the ball. When it comes to moving without the ball, Hickson can learn from Varejao, who is one of the best in the league. We have also seen his mid-range jumper start to improve, which would be a huge addition to Hickson’s game if he could hit it consistently.

The big thing I’ll look for next season, in addition to just an all-around defensive improvement, is for Hickson to get better with his back to the basket. If he can develop some consistent post moves instead of just relying on his freakish athleticism to score, he has the potential to be (gulp) an All-Star forward a few years down the road. The fact that Danny Ferry didn’t have to give him up in the Jamison deal is downright criminal.

The Natural
There are some people that you can envision doing one thing, and one thing only. Delonte West is one such person. The guy was simply born to play basketball, and he has terrific instincts for the game and an incredibly high basketball IQ. West had two great plays that won’t show up in the box score, as he fouled two Kings to prevent open dunks and put them on the line. Two very sound, smart decisions that we don’t see enough of in the league these days, and two great examples of what makes Delonte such a valuable player. In many ways, he’s the Anderson Varejao of the Cavs’ guards. Delonte is going to be an important part of the playoff rotation, and he seems to have his personal issues sorted out. Here’s hoping he can keep it up.

DiGiorno Pizza® Austin Carr Quote of the Game
“He (Donte Greene) was like a bull in a China closet.”
The mixed metaphors, the hyperbole, the nicknames, the ridiculous made up stats – in the words of Jerry Seinfeld’s mom, “How can anyone not like him?”

Up next: 3/31, Milwaukee Bucks, 7:00, FSN Ohio

Saturday, March 27

Crazy Milton

There's a lot to like in this story about volatile MLB player Milton Bradley, who is now comparing himself to Kanye West and Ron Artest in an effort to align himself with as many public figures that I don't like as possible. Are you like Ben Stein at all, Milton?

The defensive tone Bradley strikes here is almost comical, acting like he's some misunderstood guy and defiantly claiming that people need a villain, blah blah blah, all the while accepting absolutely no repsonsibility for the way he's alienated teammates and managers, let his temper repeatedly get out of hand on the field, and worn out his welcome with now seven Major League Organizations. I remember when Cleveland got rid of him - he was our best player and we just flat-out cut him in Spring Training because he was such a jerk. That should tell you something.

Bradley himself says, "I'm that guy. You need people like me, so you can point your finger and go, 'There goes the bad guy.'"
But you kinda are a bad guy, Milton. There's some objectivity to this finger-pointing. Wouldn't it be easier just to be a good guy? I take issue with his suggestion that we "need" people like him. We totally don't need Milton Bradley.

The writer of the piece takes subtle jabs at Bradley throughout, listing all of the teams he's played for to prove a point, and writing "Here's that 'bad guy,' ejected twice in three Mariners spring games last week." That's pretty amazing, getting booted out of two games in Spring Training in a week. Or a career, for that matter. You know those games don't count, right?

What makes Bradley's situation better is the fact that he isn't really all that great anymore, mostly because he gets hurt every year. It's a glorious combination of not producing and not being likable either. Look at his games played:

2005: 75
2006: 96
2007: 61
2008: 126
2009: 124

He's put up strong numbers when healthy, but you gotta be on the field - how else are you going to get kicked out of games? Last year he only posted a 99 OPS+, hinting that his skills might be in decline too. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

The rest of the piece is about how well Bradley is fitting in with the Mariners, how he feels good and everyone's happy, which is a story we've heard before. How long until he wears out his welcome there? Two months?

Nameless AP writer foreshadows such an event with the final two paragraphs:

The physical part may have changed [Bradley is, apparently, healthy] but Bradley says the fiery, controversial persona won't.

"I had a teammate last year who said if I ever change, he'd kick my ass. So I'm not changing. Everybody is not going to love you, no matter how you treat other people, no matter what you say. [I] never say anything bad about anybody. Somebody is always going to have something bad to say about you."

I like the "everybody is not going to love you" and "somebody is always going to have something bad to say about you" parts. The attitude is basically, well, I can't be liked by everyone, so let's try to be liked by no one. It's true that not everybody will like a particular person, but a lot more people like, say, anyone else in Major League Baseball than they do Milton Bradley. For example, I'm not writing this article about David Ortiz or Derek Jeter. I guess he thinks this profound statement absolves him of all responsibility for his behavior.

Yeah, this is going to end well.

Wednesday, March 24

Just Too Sweeeeeet!

Yes, that was an nWo Wolfpack shoutout. It also refers to the Ohio St hoops team making their way to the Sweet 16. Some solid play by the Bucks and some incredible luck sets up this weekend, which is OSU's Final Four ticket to lose.

Let's step back a bit, and see what events led up to this suddenly Buckeye-friendly bracket. It starts out with the Big Ten tournament, and a first-round date with that damn school up north. Evan Turner and company got tired of just beating those morons' brains out repeatedly, so they decided to have some fun and rip out the hearts of the wolverine faithful in new and creative ways. Sleepwalking through the first 39 minutes and 40 seconds of the game, OSU was tied with michigan at 66. They proceeded to let Manny Harris hit an apparent game-winning jumper with under ten seconds to play. I could just see Thad Matta on the sidelines trying to hold back his smirk, as he knew what was coming next. The ball was inbounded to ET, who took it to half court then launched up a shot that was dead on to send michigan packing once and for all, 69-68. Clearly, Matta and Turner had this planned the entire game, and executed it perfectly.

Things didn't get much easier in the semi-final game against Illinois. The Illini, thinking they had to win this game to get into the tourney (which they in fact did), had much more to play for, and it showed. Illinois led by six at the half, and looked like they had this won until Evan "turn"ed it on (I couldn't resist) and sent the game into OT. The Illini jumped out to a quick lead and again appeared to be tournament-bound, but again ET would not be denied and tied the game. Just as in regulation, Illinois had the chance to take the last shot, but failed to even get an attempt. The Buckeyes grew tired of this game, and rolled in double OT to win by seven. Turner led the way with 31 points.

The Big Ten final was much less exciting, as Ohio St just pounded Minnesota, 90-61. The Villain (if you don't know why I called him that, you didn't take my advice and still haven't read Club Trillion ) dropped another 31, along with 11 boards and 6 dimes.

The conference tourney championship propelled the Buckeyes to a #2 seed in the Big Dance, but somehow landed them in the Midwest, or the "bracket of death." The Midwest featured the tournament's overall #1 in Kansas, a hot Georgetown team at the 3, and tourney coaching legends Gary Williams and Tom Izzo holding down the 4 and 5 spots. Ouch.

Ohio St took care of their business, cruising to a first round victory over the Gauchos of University of California Santa Barbara, 68-51. The second round game with 10th seeded Georgia Tech was very close for the first half, but eventually Ohio St started to pull away. GT made a few late runs to make me a little nervous, but ultimately the Buckeyes had it under control, and went on to win 75-66. Turner had an average line of 24-9-9.

Ohio St advancing to the Sweet 16 was to be expected. What happened in the rest of the Midwest was anything but, mainly thanks to the man, the myth, the Farok. Northern Iowa won the 8-9 game in the first round over UNLV on a deep buzzer-beating three by Ali Farokhmanesh. Last week you would have thought I made that name up, but now he's a household name. UNI also has guys named Kwadzo Ahelegbe, Jordan Eglseder, who looks like he's 40 and too out of shape and uncoordinated to play in a church league, and Lucas O'Rear, who has curly hair, a shamrock tattoo, and mutton chops that would make Abe Lincoln jealous. How can you not love this team? Anyway, they went out in the next round and beat Kansas, in what could be one of the biggest upsets in tourney history, when Farokmanesh buried an open 3 pointer on a fast break instead of trying to run clock and get fouled. With balls that big, Ali needed a wheelbarrow to carry them out of the stadium.

Elsewhere, Georgetown got pummeled by 14th seed Ohio in the first round, and Michigan St star Kalin Lucas was injured in a game where they would go on to beat Maryland anyway, and is out for the remainder of the tournament. So that leaves us with this: #9 Northern Iowa vs. #5 Michigan St and #6 Tennessee vs. #2 Ohio St in the region's semi-final games. Suddenly things are looking much easier for the Fighting Brutuses. While the teams left in OSU's Final 4 path are nothing to sneeze at, the Buckeyes are certainly now the odds-on favorite to come out of the Midwest. I'll be back next week with another update, hopefully with as good of news as this one.


Friday, March 12

In praise of Penn State

I'm an Ohio sports fan, and I feel good today.

There are those who think that maybe those two sentiments are mutually exclusive - after all, we haven't won a title since 1964, we've had too many memorably heartbreaking moments to count, the Browns are a mess, the Indians' payroll is low, and so on. The national perspective is: these people haven't seen a winner since the LBJ administration, plus Forbes recently named Cleveland the Most Miserable City in America, so there's no way people there could possibly be happy about anything, let alone sports. Clevelanders must just walk around with our heads down so we can't see the gray skies and sadness that engulfs us.

Well, sorry to disappoint. It's 55 degrees outside on a lovely early March morning. The Cavs have the best record in the NBA. Baseball is starting up soon - Major League Baseball! - and it's only a 10-minute walk from my apartment. My hockey team is gearing up to defend its Stanley Cup title. And the Ohio State Buckeyes haven't lost to the michigan wolverines in football in like 2300 days. There's a lot to be happy about, title drought or no, and I'm making it a point to appreciate these things. I remember when OSU couldn't beat michigan. I remember when the Cavs went 17-65. I had season tickets to the Pens one year when they finished last in the entire NHL. No matter what these clubs' postseason fates may be in the near future, there's still lots to enjoy, and I appreciate it.

I was thinking about that last stat, the fun michigan one, as I took a trip to The Pennsylvania State University this past week. Now, michigan is and will always be our biggest rival, and that's all there is to it. But in recent years, the game that's meant the most in terms of Big Ten positioning and championship determination has been PSU-OSU, and there have been some really good games in the series. I was fortunate enough to attend the 2002 and 2004 editions. In terms of talent right now, it's the Lions and Buckeyes at the top and everyone else a cut below.

But there's something different about this rivalry, something almost unique among the clubs I support: I respect Penn State. Consider our natural rivals in other sports. The Browns have the Steelers and Ravens. Do I respect those teams? Absolutely not, no way, OMG do I not respect those teams. Wow, no. The Cavs have the Celtics, Pistons, Wizards, Lakers, Magic, no, no, no, no, no. The Indians have the Twins, Tigers, White Socks, Red Socks, Yankees; of those, I can really only appreciate the Twinks, especially post-Torii Hunter. And back to the Bucks, do I respect michigan? I'm not even going to answer that.

But Penn State, now that's a major rival who I can respect at the end of the day. There are a number of factors here. For one, I know a lot of Penn Staters - probably more than Ohio Staters. My last two bosses were Penn State grads! Granted, OSU has PSU beat in the My Dad department, 1-0, but on balance I know way more Nittany Lions. And I generally like these people. My esteemed FCF colleague Nick attends Penn State. So there's that.

Also, I like the tradition and class of the program. The plain yet bold uniforms and those clean white helmets. The huge crowds. The tent city. (Basically everything but the moronic "We Are! Penn State!" cheer) And, of course, Penn State's institution of a coach, the legendary Joe Paterno. During my recent visit, I took a run around the campus, including a couple of loops around the monolithic Beaver Stadium. There's a monument to JoePa on the far side of the stadium and, if you're not moved by that thing, you might not be human and you should maybe see a doctor. The placard reads "Joseph Vincent Paterno: Educator, Coach, Humanitarian," and elsewhere features this quote from Papa Joe: "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach." That's terrific.

So, just thought I'd put a few kind words out there about a worthy adversary on the occasion of my first visit there. That having been said, I hope the Buckeyes crush Penn State in football again this season :)

Sunday, March 7

Cavs Fall in Milwaukee as LeBron Sits

No LeBron
Mike Brown decided to sit LeBron James last night, and although Brown stated that it had nothing to do with the apparent ankle injury LeBron suffered in Friday night’s game against the Pistons, that was probably the main reason behind resting the superstar. Resting LeBron probably cost the Cavs the game, but even with the loss they remain 2.5 games ahead of the Lakers (the Cavs own the head to head tiebreaker), and 5.5 games ahead of the Magic. With 19 games left on the schedule, the Cavs have the luxury of giving LeBron a night or two off as a precaution.

The tough thing about sitting LeBron – besides the obvious problem caused by losing the game’s best player - is that the Cavs’ entire offense (and to some degree, their defense) is totally altered. LeBron is such a big part of what the Cavs do offensively that keeping him on the bench doesn’t just reduce the team’s total firepower, but it severely changes the way their plays flow and throws off everyone’s timing. The Cavs were essentially starting from square one last night, and frankly, it showed.

Hot Sauce in My Bag
It was nice to see Delonte West take advantage of an opportunity and fill the scoring void with LeBron and Shaq on the bench. West was really the only Cavalier who did any damage off the dribble, and he poured in 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting.

The Cavs obviously don’t need that kind of scoring from West every night, but he’s starting to become just as dependable as Anderson Varejao off the bench. That’s something that can’t be discounted as Mike Brown tries to sift through all of the talent Danny Ferry has assembled to come up with a consistent eight or nine man rotation. Right now if everyone’s healthy, you’d think that rotation would include the starting five, plus Varejao, West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas when he returns, and probably Jawad Williams.

Mike Brown is going to have to find a reliable rotation while still keeping key role players like Daniel Gibson and J.J. Hickson motivated, as an injury or just a particular matchup could press one of those guys into action.

Settling in Nicely
Remember when we were all grumbling about Antawn Jamison’s 0-for-12 shooting debut? Jamison is doing just fine now, and he’s become the automatic 15 to 20 points per game that we all thought he would. Last night in Milwaukee, Jamo was the high-scorer with 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting, just like Delonte West, with whom Jamison showed some nice pick-n-roll chemistry.

In fact, last night’s game was reminiscent of the first round of the 2007 playoffs, when Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas were injured and Antawn Jamison was the Wizards’ only scoring threat. The shoe was on the other foot last night.

One thing I never fully appreciated about Jamison was his veteran craftiness; he scores a few easy buckets every night with some finesse post moves. Jamison’s additional scoring firepower will come in really handy with Shaq sidelined until the playoffs.

No Supporting Cast
While Antawn Jamison and Delonte West combined to shoot 22-for-36 and score 57 points, the rest of the Cavaliers shot just 12-for-41, including an abysmal 3-for-17 night from Mo Williams. Williams actually apologized to fans after the game on Twitter.

Daniel Gibson could have been very useful to the depleted Cavaliers last night, but he missed his third straight game tending to his newborn son. Some guys just need to get their priorities straight, right?

The Cavs actually managed to stay in the game for over three quarters, but the lack of support for Delonte and Jamo finally caused the Cavs to atrophy in the fourth quarter. What was frustrating about this short-handed loss wasn’t the loss itself, it was the fact that the Cavs had a legitimate chance to win this game in the fourth quarter, but they simply didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. The Cavs are still in a great position to have the best record in the East and in the NBA overall, but they let one slip away last night.

Andrew the Aussie
You know that Cavs are thin up front when Darnell Jackson isn’t wearing a suit on the bench. Sans Shaq and Z, the Cavs have been playing the very undersized combination of J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao in the pivot, making them very vulnerable to prototypical centers. At 7 feet tall and 260 pounds, Andrew Bogut is one such center.

In spite of the huge size mismatch – especially with Hickson – Bogut attempted only nine shots. That’s just bad coaching. Scott Skiles could have made his job much easier if he would have just kept feeding his seven-footer.

And while we’re talking Bogut…

I’d be Remiss if I Didn’t Mention “Squad 6”
“Squad 6” is a group of 100 fans in the lower bowl at the Bradley Center who attend Bucks games on Andrew Bogut’s dime. These fans had to audition for the privilege and basically, the rowdier you were, the better chance you had of making the cut. Bogut estimates that he’ll spend $100,000 this year for all of the tickets.

This is incredibly cool. You can definitely hear the Squad 6 fans on television, and as someone who prefers the NBA game but loves the atmosphere in college arenas, anything you can do to ramp up fan excitement in the NBA is definitely a positive.

Anyone who’s been to an NBA game can probably attest to the fact that some of the fans definitely aren’t that into the experience – especially the fans closest to the floor. Just look around during a telecast; the closer fans are to the floor, the less likely they are to be sporting the home team’s gear or for that matter, paying attention. One of the tough truths about modern pro sports is that the hardcore fan has been priced out, by and large. This move by Bogut makes me wonder why more players don’t do things like that for the fans. It’s really not that expensive in the context of what these players make every season, they would truly be giving something back to their fans, and they would be canonized in the media. It’s a total win-win.

Climbing the Eastern Conference Ladder
Don’t look now, but the Bucks have won 15 of their last 19, ascended to 6th in the East, and look poised to pass Toronto for that 5th spot. I don’t think that the Bucks have enough weapons to beat out teams like the Celtics or the Hawks, but if they keep playing like this, they could be a very tough out in round one. One thing is for sure: with Bogut and Jennings, the Bucks have two solid young pieces to build around. Their next step is to find a physical wing scorer to complement Jennings.

Up next: 3/8, San Antonio Spurs, The Q, 7:00

Saturday, March 6

Cribbs Gets Paid and the Browns Rundown

The Browns have finally renegotiated with special teamer extraordinaire Josh Cribbs. Cribbs’ new deal is for three years (through 2012), will pay him $7.5 million guaranteed, and could be worth as much as $20 million if he hits all of his incentives.

The specifics of Cribbs’ incentives have not been made public at this time, but in Mary Kay Cabot’s Plain Dealer report, Cribbs’ agent described the incentives as, "really attainable numbers. If he performs at 2009 levels, he's likely to receive the maximum value of the contract." If Cribbs performs at 2009 levels, then the Browns will be more than happy to pay him, too.

Cribbs’ new contract will essentially overwrite his existing deal, which also had him signed up through 2012. What’s the difference? Cribbs was only pulling down about $1 million annually under the terms of that old contract.

This is something of a non-story, as the fact that Cribbs had three years left on his contract and appeared to love playing in Cleveland made it extremely unlikely that he would be on a train out of town.

It actually makes sense that the Browns didn’t pay Cribbs until now. Cribbs signed his original long-term contract when he was very young, had recently gone undrafted, and was pleased to have some financial security and peace of mind. If Cribbs thought he was going to explode on the league like he did, he shouldn’t/wouldn’t have signed a six-year contract. The multiple regime changes which have taken place during Cribbs’ tenure in Cleveland also meant that Cribbs has largely been trying to renegotiate with management personnel who had made no promises to him and owed him nothing.

In fact, it was a little surprising that Cribbs was paid as much as he was considering that his agent didn’t have much leverage in the negotiations. Although it’s something that I don’t usually endorse, to some degree the Browns are probably rewarding Cribbs for past performance. Considering how grossly underpaid Cribbs was over the last two seasons, I guess that’s acceptable.

Although Cribbs was under contract for three more years, the Browns were smart to get this done. Cribbs is a big part of the team and is probably the most popular player with the fans. This deal sets a good precedent, showing players that if you produce at high level, then the Cleveland Browns will gladly reward you. It also might help offset some "nobody wants to play for Eric Mangini" press, whether players really feel that way or not.

Corey Williams traded to that state up north
On the first day of the 2008 free agency period, the Browns traded a second round pick to the Packers for Corey Williams and paid him more money than God. Two years later, the Browns shipped Williams and a seventh round pick to Detroit in exchange for a fifth rounder. That gives you an idea of how poor a fit Williams was for the Crennel/Mangini 3-4 system.

Williams’ cap number was just under $8.9 million last season and he was signed up through 2013, so unloading him should save the Browns some serious cash. This brings me to one of the benefits that having (hopefully just) one uncapped year will have for NFL management teams: they can get rid of bad contracts without suffering the cap ramifications.

We all know that NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed like NBA or MLB contracts, and that’s why guaranteed signing bonuses have become paramount. That bonus money is prorated over the length of the contract (e.g. a 5-year contract with $10 million up front counts $2 million against your cap each year plus the yearly salary). When a team cuts or trades a player with years remaining on his contract, the remaining bonus money is accelerated and counts against the cap that season. For example, trading Williams will accelerate what’s left of his $16.3 million signing bonus onto the Browns’ cap figure for 2010.

Having one uncapped year basically gives teams a Get Out of Jail Free card for any lousy contracts that they didn’t want to absorb all at once. That could make for a very active trade market. It also could mean that some quality players who were simply overpaid could be released, which could in turn create an interesting secondary market.

Boldin dealt to Ratbirds
Former Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin became the newest member of the Baltimore Ravens on Friday afternoon. The Cards sent Boldin and a fifth round pick to Baltimore in exchange for the Ravens’ third and fourth rounders. As part of the deal, the Ravens gave Boldin a three-year contract extension that included a $10 million bonus. Boldin is now signed through 2013, and is due $28 million over that time frame.

As a Browns fan, this trade makes me sick. A second round pick seems like a fair price for Boldin, and this deal seems like a real coup for the Ravens. Boldin is 29, so he should be in his prime right now, and the former Seminole has cracked 1,000 yards in five of his seven seasons. The only silver lining for Browns fans is that Boldin has only played in all 16 games twice in his career.

On Haden’s slow 40 time
The NFL Scouting Combine recently took place in Indianapolis, and it’s certainly an interesting event. The degree of scrutiny players experience at the Combine is borderline laughable, and the process itself is somewhat polarizing. It seems like there are two camps: those who anxiously await combine results and watch the sessions on NFL Network, and those who think that the very concept of the Combine is a joke, considering that we’ve seen most of these players on the field for two to four years.

I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. While you can’t discount anything that’s done on the field, I appreciate that the Combine provides an objective measure of a player’s physical dimensions (height/weight/40 times disseminated by colleges are often anything but accurate), as well as things like speed and strength. The Combine is the one time that you don’t have to evaluate players within the context the competition that they’re playing against – everyone’s actually on the same field together. For certain positions, something like a bad 40-yard dash time can be a major red flag.

On the other hand, you have to be wary of guys who drastically shoot up or plummet down draft boards based strictly on their Combine performance. The Combine is still basically a gym workout, and it doesn’t tell you how guys will play between the lines or how well they might fit into your system.

Basically, the Combine is another evaluation tool. It is a tool that shouldn’t be ignored, but it also shouldn’t be over-emphasized, either.

Heading into the Combine, Joe Haden was the consensus pick for the Browns at number seven overall. Haden was expected to run a 40 time in the low to mid 4.40s. Instead, Haden ran in the high 4.50s (4.58 as recorded by Scott Wright at, and probably cost himself (tens of) millions of dollars. Such is life as an elite NFL prospect.

Haden should still be a quality player, but that 40 time is worrisome enough that it might knock him from the top 10 to the early 20s, and the Browns shouldn’t be considering him anymore with the 7th pick.

With Haden out of the picture, it’s unclear who the Browns will be looking at. The team has so many needs that almost any top prospect is going to be an instant and dramatic upgrade (that includes Haden, by the way).

Personally, I think that if Eric Berry slips to number seven, that’s a layup. I also would have no problem with ‘Bama product Rolando McClain. The Browns definitely have the most immediate need in the defensive back seven, but Heckert/Holmgren could sell me on tackle like Brian Bulaga or Anthony Davis to pair with Joe Thomas. Wideout Dez Bryant is extremely talented, but I think a receiver would be a little bit of a stretch given the club’s needs on defense.

Other than defensive line, the one position I do not want to see addressed in round one is quarterback. Both Jimmy Clausen and Sam Bradford have way too many question marks for the Browns to roll the dice on either of them. This pick needs to be a sure thing, not a gamble.

Slow start
The Browns have typically been big spenders in free agency, and when we’re talking about the Browns’ history in free agency, Phil Savage’s first epic free agency weekend definitely comes to mind.

In stark contrast to that historical precedent, the first day of the inaugural Walrus-run free agent period was quiet, with exception of scheduling a Saturday visit with Saints free agent linebacker Scott Fujita. That’s fine by me. The fact that you almost always overpay for free agent talent has turned free agency into a supplement – a way to put a team over the top, or add one or two crucial pieces – not an effective way to build a team.

Tony Grossi reports that the Browns are burning up the phone lines attempting to make one or more trades, and supposedly they’re trying to add one or more (!) quarterbacks. That makes sense. Derek Anderson will almost certainly be released before his $2 million roster bonus is due on March 19th. Anderson has run his course in Cleveland (and then some).

The rub for Holmgren is that this is a tough off-season to find a long-term solution at quarterback. In the draft, neither Bradford nor Clausen excite me, and there aren’t any viable options in free agency except (and this might be a stretch) Jason Campbell, who the Redskins might not let go, and who would cost the Browns their first round pick if he were allowed to walk.

If the Browns are really trying that hard to swing a deal for a passer, then Mike Holmgren must not be particularly enamored with Brady Quinn. Can you blame him? He didn’t draft Quinn, and the apparent incumbent has done nothing to make us believe that he can be a consistent, accurate pro. Holmgren is probably open to moving Quinn, but Quinn has top-notch intangibles and a club-friendly contract, so don’t be surprised if he sticks around as a backup.

We’ve heard plenty about Eagles’ passers Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb, and without any knowledge of what the Eagles would want in return, my preference is definitely Kolb. I wouldn’t be opposed to McNabb, either. McNabb is definitely on the back nine of his career, but he can probably give you consistent quarterback play for the next two to four seasons, and we haven’t seen that kind of stability at the position since the Kosar era.

Seahawks backup Seneca Wallace has also been mentioned as a possible trade target. Wallace is a guy who was developed by Holmgren in Seattle and would probably have a lower price tag than Kolb or McNabb. Unfortunately, Wallace isn’t a long-term solution, and I don’t see him as a significant upgrade to Brady Quinn. Rather than signing Wallace, I’d prefer to add a veteran backup and just give Quinn the 2010 season. If Quinn pans out, then you’ve got your man. If he doesn’t, then you’re back where you started in what will probably be a better off-season to find a quarterback.

Wednesday, March 3

Indians Off Season

With spring training almost in full swing, I suspect I should start paying attention to the Indians again. While it's not a good excuse for shutting down the part of my brain that cares about baseball, when the big winter talk is about where Jamey Carroll will land, I was pretty sure this would be a slow winter for the Indians. That's not to say this offseason has been without changes that will affect the Indians for a long time.

- Manny Acta was hired as manager

Acta is a good choice despite the obvious fact he was fired as coach of the worst team in baseball. In his defense, I'm sure he learned a few things and I bet any manager would have a hard time motivating that thing the Nationals call a team.

- Mark Shapiro was announced as the future President, while Chris Antonetti becomes GM after this season

No real surprise here. Antonetti was one of the most sought-after front-office guys in the majors and the Indians had to do something. I would love to know which, if any, of the decisions over the last five seasons that Antonetti and Shapiro disagreed on.

- The Indians sign Russell Branyan . . . again

The Indians have now acquired Branyan in every conceivable way: draft, sign to minor league deal, trade, and signed to major league deal. Cry Me a Cuyahoga River points out that maybe Branyan was signed to help out a little only to then trade at the deadline for prospects. Sounds good to me.

- Grady took naked pictures of himself

Seriously, you're a really good athlete and not 17 - for what reason are you trying so hard with women? Last time I'll ever want to talk about this.

- Choo hired Scott Boras as his agent

Which scenario do you like better: He leaves us for greener pastures a) earlier or b) later? Your choice.

- Early computer projections show the Indians finishing as high as second in the AL Central

I don't know about all that but the 2010 Indians are going to be downright better and more fun to watch than the 2009 ever were or could hope to be. 2010 is all sunshine and warm breezes if you ask me.

Well if you excuse me I have to go edit Renee Russo out of Major League so I can watch that movie in peace.

Go Tribe!

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Buckeyes Finish Strong, Look Ahead to the Madness

It's been a while since I've last talked about Ohio St basketball, so I thought I'd update their recent success, recap the regular season, and preview their chances in the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA tourneys.

Where I last left off with Ohio St hoops, Evan Turner had just returned four weeks sooner than expected from a back injury where he broke three vertebrae to lead the Bucks past a Purdue team currently ranked 6th in the nation. At the time, we knew that that comeback was super-exciting and a huge win for OSU, but little did we know that it would become the turning point in the season. Since that game, Ohio St has closed out the season 13-2 (13-1 in Big Ten play). Their two losses came at the hands of the aforementioned Purdue in a rematch and at West Virginia, two teams that now rank 6th and 8th, respectively. During that stretch, OSU toppled #12 Michigan St (in East Lansing) and #17 Wisconsin, issued two beat-downs against Illinois, and claimed revenge victories over Minnesota and michigan.

For some unknown reason, Ohio St ended their season Tuesday night against Illinois, whereas everyone else still plays this weekend. Good news for us though, as that 16-point victory against the Illini wrapped up at least a share of the Big Ten title, Thad Matta's third in his six-year tenure. Winning on tie breakers against Michigan St and Purdue, the Buckeyes will also claim the #1 seed in the conference tournament. So OSU wraps up the season with an impressive 24-7 (14-4 in Big Ten) record.

If everyone else in the Big Ten were done now as well, Ohio St would be looking at the michigan-Iowa winner in their first Big Ten tourney game. Might was well just give us two byes. Getting past the semifinals would be much tougher, as OSU would face the Wisconsin-Illinois winner. Then again, the Bucks crushed Illinois by a combined 35 points this year, so hopefully we'll play them. If Ohio St reaches the finals, they would almost certainly play whoever survives the Purdue-MSU battle.

Right now Matta's boys are looking at most likely a #2 seed in the Big Dance, but an early exit in the conference tourney could drop them to a #3, while an impressive Big Ten tourney title could possibly propel them to a #1, if other cards fall their way. Say they beat the Badgers in the semis then either MSU or Purdue in the finals, adding two more quality wins and a conference tournament title. It might be tough to leave them out of the top four teams. Either way, when Turner went down in early December and the Buckeyes were 1-3 in Big Ten play, I don't think anyone was thinking a top-three seed, maybe not even top seven or eight.

Speaking of ET, he is the collegiate Player of the Year (Which I'll refer to as POY for the rest of this article, due to being lazy. Why do we include the "of" but not the "the?"). It's not even a question in my mind. Determining POY's and MVP's in any sport is pretty difficult, mostly because people cast their vote for different reasons. There are many attributes that people consider, but most base their vote solely on one of these attributes. When two different people cast a ballot for two different reasons, things can get complicated. Here are some of the different things that people consider, but for each one I still come up with the same answer: Evan Turner. Especially when you tie all of these categories together, I don't see how you can vote differently. Here's how I break it down...

Category #1: Overall Talent
Here's a way to look at this category: If you were playing a pickup game and had first pick out of anyone in collegiate basketball, who do you take? (Remember, this is for one game THIS season, you are not starting a franchise.) That's right, you're picking Evan Turner. Some people may take Kentucky's John Wall here, others may opt for Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, or Kansas' Sherron Collins. All decent choices, but I don't see any of these guys possessing the all-around game that Turner has.

The first full-length OSU game that my brother watched this year was the 20-point pounding they gave Illinois in mid-February. He accurately described Turner as the LeBron James of college ball. Clearly he didn't mean that ET possesses the talent that LeBron has, but in a sense where watching LBJ is like watching a grown man play with college kids, just as watching Turner is like watching a college guy play with high schoolers. He is bigger and stronger than any other guard, quicker than any other forward, can pull down rebounds like he's 7 feet tall, and run the fast break like he's Chris Paul. It's incredible. Most talented? Check.

Category #2: Team Success
I'm not as much of a fan of basing MVP votes on team success in football and baseball, because one great player simply can't carry a team. In basketball on the other hand, one guy can completely take over a game and carry the team on his back (See: Carmelo Anthony and 2002 Syracuse). This still can't be your only reason to pick someone, but it plays a factor. Let's take a look at Ohio St this year: 25-7, 14-3 and regular season champs in Big Ten, currently ranked #7, looking at a 1 or 2 NCAA seed. Team success? Check.

Category #3: Statistics
I'm certainly not a stat freak like some people, but you can't expect me to back a 12-8 guy. Here's a look at the numbers from Turner compared to five other POY candidates (Wall, Harangody, Collins, Reynolds, and Syracuse's Wesley Johnson).
PPG: Harangody - 24.1, Turner - 19.5, Reynolds - 18.9, Wall - 16.8, Johnson - 15.6, Collins - 15.3
RPG: Harangody - 10.0, Turner - 9.4, Johnson - 8.6, Wall - 4.2, Reynolds - 2.6, Collins - 2.0
APG: Wall - 6.2, Turner - 5.8, Collins - 4.3, Reynolds - 3.4, Johnson - 2.5, Harangody - 1.8
Turner also tops all those guys with 1.8 steals per game AND 0.9 blocks per game. Stats? Check.

Category #4: Valuable to Team
This is obviously coming right from the pro's term of Most Valuable Player. Bill Simmons described this perfectly by saying, if you take this guy off of their team, and replaced him with a mediocre player, what would be the effect on the team? Well, fortunately for Evan Turner's case, we don't even have to play the what if game here, we already saw this happen. When Turner was injured in early December and out for a month, he was replaced by the Jermaine Simmons/P.J. Hill combo, and Ohio St went 4-4. Yup, .500 ball. With Turner, the Buckeyes are a staggering 18 games above the .500 mark. OSU is full of great role players, but we saw the results when ET isn't running the show. Valuable? Check.

This is one I just added to my list, taking it directly from Simmons
Category 5: "If you're explaining your MVP pick to someone who has a favorite player in the race - a player you didn't pick - will he at least say something like, 'Yeah, I don't like it, but I can see how you arrived at that choice.'"
This is basically a rule to eliminate homer picks. I'm an Ohio St fan. So am I saying Turner should be POY because of that, or because I really think he deserves it? Well, let's use Simmons' idea. Would anyone, Kentucky fans, Kansas fans, even the shorter bus-riding people from michigan, ANYONE have a problem with my supporting ET? The answer to that is clearly "no." Just as I would have no complaints about an Irish fan backing Harangody or a Wildcat fan in favor of Wall. I would, however, tell you that you're an idiot if you're a Duke fan pushing Jon Scheyer, an Illinois fan for Demetri McCamey, or a North Carolina fan in favor of Marcus Ginyard (ha, it's funny when UNC blows). Simmons philosophy? Check.

NCAA Player of the Year? Soon to be, Check.


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.