CAVS LOSS TO UTAH IS A GOOD SIGN...REALLY, I MEAN IT.
You're probably perplexed by this headline, wondering how I can spin a 103-101 loss last night -- which resulted from a defensive breakdown so great it's usually seen by only Britney Spears' therapist -- into a positive. Who am I, the optimist?
To the contrary, I'm just a skeptical about the Cleveland Cavaliers having a "successful" (definition unknown...winning a championship, perhaps?) 2007-08 as all of you are. But I think the wine and gold have been "on blast" from the national media (what else is new?) since their beatdown suffered at Dallas' hands and even though they stand at 2-3, this team looks like maybe, just maybe, they can be a contender in April and May.
Let's start with last night. The Cavs are on the second end of a back-to-back, and they needed all their gusto to earn a 108-104 win over Golden State Wednesday. With probably some tired legs (you don't play back-to-backs in the preseason), they landed in Salt Lake to take on the Jazz at home, who some have penciled in to be right up their with the Spurs and Suns in the West this year.
The Jazz showed us why from the opening tip. Their offense was crisp, their passes were clean and most of their shots were falling. For most of the game, the Cavs and LeBron James were playing keep up, as Utah would build the lead up to but not exceeding nine points when Boobie Gibson would nail a three or James would grab a steal, leading to a fast break. Other than atrocious free throw shooting, the Cavaliers were playing better than one might expect on the road at Utah, and at halftime, I was bracing myself to watch the wheels come off in the second half as the Jazz would pull away.
It never happened. In fact, the Cavs got especially stingy on 'D' and took whatever the Jazz zone would give them. Similar to the first half, Utah made their runs (Brewer and Boozer absolutely killed the Cavs in the second half), but LeBron James, as he often does, put the team on his back and brought them back. His playmaking (assists to Ilgauskas and Gooden, tough rebounds in traffic, blocks) led to his 13th career triple-double, and the Cavs kept it close.
Facing a five-point deficit in the closing moments, the Cavs weathered a little clock mismanagement from Mike Brown, and managed to keep the heat on Utah. Down three, LeBron drove to the basket for an easy hoop. After Brewer's two makes, LeBron came down the floor and canned the biggest bucket of the night, a three from the top of the key that tied the game at 101 and made overtime seem likely.
Then, as the highlights will remind you today, Deron Williams (one of the quickest ballhandlers in the league, by the way) went coast-to-coast without so much as a bump from the Cavaliers to finger-roll in the winning shot. On behalf of the defense, five seconds is an eternity in basketball, perhaps even an awkward eternity. As a player, you don't want to foul with a tie game because one free throw ends it. Likewise, you have to put up enough resistance to keep from what happened last night from...well...happening.
Sure, it was a close one that got away. It was more proof that the Cavs rely so heavily on James that when he has off-nights, the Cavs will lose (gee, what a discovery! Don't 90 percent of NBA teams rely on a star? Look how well the Heat are doing in the early-going.) It was proof that even when he has all-around "on" nights like last night, the Cavs still can lose.
But it showed that the Cavaliers can play in the West against the good teams and almost win. They had Phoenix on the ropes before letting them back into the game. The road trip record so far is 2-2, and I don't think we can complain too much about that. Last night's game showed that the Cavs can and will battle back when they're all but counted out. Even though they gave up 103, at times that Mike Brown defensive tenacity reared its head, and the Cavs were forcing turnovers. If you really want to know what lost the game, it was the ugly free throw shooting, not the defensive collapse at the end.
If/when the Cavs get the Anderson Varejao situation solved (either sign him, trade him, or sign-and-trade him), they finally, FINALLY will be a cohesive unit. (Speaking of Varejao, check out how many ex-Cavs are on this list.) Once Pavlovic remembers how to play basketball and starts hitting big shots, the guard play will be a force. It's obvious to me that 'Z' is poised in the early going, and I think Drew Gooden is going to have a good season, too.
Honestly, Detroit is getting old and Chicago may not be as great as everyone says, so the Central Division is wide open for the taking. I know it's early and LeBron James is being asked to bear more of the team's weight than he has since his rookie year, I expect the Cavs to win their patented 50 games this year and maybe even win the division.
Don't worry too much, Cavs fans. The window of championship opportunity may be hard to open, but when LBJ suits up for you, it doesn't close easily, either.