Thursday, December 18, 2008
For the sizzling Cavaliers, there is no room for complacency
For the sizzling Cavaliers, there is no room for complacency
The Cavaliers have dominated opponents during their terrific start
Cleveland is responding to talk about LeBron's future simply by winning
The Cavs should continue to push themselves in preparation for springtime
The Cavaliers are on such a roll that, if they all got lumps of coal in their stockings on Christmas morning, we'd learn on Dec. 26 that Al Gore and Lamborghini had jointly developed the Bituminous, the world's first carbon-powered exoticar for young NBA millionaires.
All news is good news these days for the Cavs, a team that seems increasingly neglected in the long-established media love (not unlike that emanating from the NBA's Olympic Tower) for the Celtics and the Lakers. First, the Cavs somehow turned the anxiety generated by LeBron James' coy visit to Manhattan on Nov. 25 into a 10-game winning -- wait, make that a 10-game domination -- streak. They have beaten their last 10 opponents by an average of 20.2 points, winning each of the first nine by 10 or more prior to a 101-93 victory at Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Now they get word that guard Daniel Gibson will miss at least two weeks with a toe injury and that center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will be day-to-day, at best, after spraining his left ankle in the fourth quarter against the 76ers. Then there's the realization that their next 10 games won't be against opponents quite as squeezably soft.
Hold up. Good news? Actually, it is, in the way that each and every infernal bugle call in boot camp is good news for a platoon. The more rigorous the prelude, the less threatening the actual engagement, because those who have prepared thoroughly are better equipped to handle the serious conflict. Everything the Cavs have gone through so far, six weeks into the season, has made them stronger and more prepared for the really serious stuff that comes five months out.
Look, a lot of us agreed with Charles Barkley that James would better serve his current employer and co-workers by answering no more questions about July 2010 until, oh, June 2010. I felt a tiny heartstring tug (sportswriters often are accused of having tiny hearts, if any) for the fans in Cleveland, one of the Midwest's many flyover cities that gets snickered at from both coasts. But there is only one way for the Cavs to deal with all the speculation about James' eventual free agency and future: Ignore the distraction and win. Today, tomorrow and right through as long a season as they can manage in 2009-10.
And that starts ... well, it started a few days before the New York trip, actually, when they beat Atlanta by 14 points. It continues, trailing victories of 35 points against Oklahoma City, 36 in a follow-up clash with the Knicks on Dec. 3 and blowouts of Indiana, Charlotte and Toronto by 24, 20 and 20 points, respectively. The final margin at Philadelphia was misleading, with runs of 20-4 in the first half and 15-6 in the third quarter revealing far more about the gaps between the Cavs and the home team with still-unfounded Eastern Conference ambitions.
Granted, the schedule has been cushy. The opponents in Cleveland's 10-game streak (counting New York twice) were a combined 81-133 heading into Thursday's schedule. That's a .379 winning percentage, considerably worse than the .447 clip of its next 10 opponents. This stretch will be more drooling than grueling, too, but at least five of the foes (counting Miami twice) are above .500, compared to just one of the previous 10. But the schedule certainly isn't the Cavs' fault, and it is more of a comment on the league at large, with four teams -- Cleveland, Boston, Orlando and the Lakers -- claiming 72 of the victories so far.
Between now and the All-Star break, nine of the Cavs' 29 games can be classified as real tests based on the opposition, with four coming against those in the little peer group above, along with dates against New Orleans, Portland, Utah, Detroit and Phoenix. It's conceivable, then, that the Cavs' record (19-3) still could boast single-digit losses into mid-February.
That is why it's so vital for the Cavs to find their own tests, to set their own standards and crack down on themselves when they stray. They have done it so far in a wholesale commitment to defense, in the ways they score more easily now when James gets the ball back in a possession rather than initiating everything, and reportedly in their locker-room chemistry. Now they will see their depth being tested during Gibson's absence, and their resourcefulness plumbed in closing ranks, collecting rebounds and defending big men for whatever time Ilgauskas misses now or later.
The more a good team plays down to the competition -- which is becoming a nightly temptation around the league, based on so many out-of-it operations -- the closer it stays to that competition. Better to smite any delusions and glimmers of hope every chance you get, from November right into June.
Z's unlikely staying power
No one would ever suggest that Ilgauskas and baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor were separated at birth. But the two athletes are remarkably similar in one way: Both overcame early fragility to find not only longevity but also durability later in their playing days.
Ilgauskas struggled with foot problems before and after being drafted by Cleveland as the 20th pick in 1996. He had been a frequent traveler from his native Lithuania to the United States even before draft night because he had visited surgeons over here for what the insurance companies call a preexisting condition. The Cavs selected him anyway but paid a heavy price: Ilgauskas missed what would have been his entire rookie season and, over his first five years on the Cleveland payroll, appeared in only 38.9 percent of the team's games (179 of a possible 460).
Molitor, a swift, line-driving-hitting middle infielder who broke in with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978, had a similar start. Hobbled by multiple injuries early, he missed 437 of Milwaukee's 1,563 games in his first 10 seasons, appearing in 70.7 percent. Fans and writers wondered if Molitor ever would stay healthy to justify a team's long-term commitment to him, never mind amassing the statistical totals that loom so large in his sport. But a shift to the relative safety of designated hitter, taking better care of himself and a little luck enabled Molitor to play in 90.6 percent of his three teams' 1,717 games from age 31 to 41, missing only 162. Molitor, an NBA fan in Milwaukee and Minnesota (he had just left Toronto when the Raptors began play), stayed healthy enough to become a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection, finishing ninth in major league history with 3,319 hits and 13th all time with 10,835 at-bats.
Ilgauskas, 33, might not end up enshrined in Springfield, but he has managed to play in 95.5 percent of Cleveland's games the past six-plus seasons. That's 491 of 514, a Hall of Fame batting average in any orthopedic surgeon's book. So when he grabbed six rebounds Tuesday against Toronto, surpassing with the fourth one Brad Daugherty's franchise record of 5,227, it was a testament to the big guy's rehab regimens and his perseverance.
Bad as the Cavs were for most of his time there, 92 games under .500 before James arrived in 2003, it had to be tempting for Ilgauskas to retire and collect his millions from the Cavs' insurance. Instead, he stuck around long enough to become an All-Star in 2003 and 2005 -- and stalked unhappily out of Atlanta's Philips Arena in 2003 after playing only four minutes in a double-overtime game. Deep into a career defined by how much he didn't play, it seemed wrong that Ilgauskas' first All-Star outing went that way, too.