The race for the top overall seed isn't over by a long shot. But it is now Cleveland's race to lose. And right now, the word "lose" doesn't exist in this club's vocabulary. Winning is just too much fun.
1.) Cleveland: 60-13: --
Streak: Won 12
Last 10: 10-0
Last Week: 3-0
Last Game: Sunday, Mar. 29: Beat Dallas 102-74
Tuesday, Mar. 31: DetroitThursday, Apr. 2: @ WashingtonFriday, Apr. 3: @ OrlandoSunday, Apr. 5: San Antonio
Cleveland's 102-74 destruction of Dallas on Sunday afternoon was its franchise-record 60th win of the season, its franchise-record 12th in a row, and its third perfect week in a row. (I have no idea if the latter is a record, but it is pretty cool that this team can rip off most of a month's worth of basketball without losing a game.) Like their C-Town spiritual descendents, the 1995 Indians, the Cavaliers muscle opponents in front of packed houses of adoring fans, and have fun doing it. They spent last week toying with their opponents- never more so than on Sunday, when they spotted the Mavericks a 35-20 second-quarter lead and outscored Cuban's crew 82-39 the rest of the way.
The home-field fate of the '95 Tribe had been preordained. They were doomed to start the World Series in Atlanta, 100-44 be damned. This team's fate is not preordained. They can win HCA on the floor, and they're just about there. Cleveland's magic number to clinch the East stands at five over Orlando, with a chance to slice two more off that number in Florida Friday night. The Cavaliers also maintain their lead in another important category: point differential. Three of the last four NBA Champions have won the point-differential title, with the 2006 Heat being the lone exception.
Cleveland now leads the Lake Show by two games in the only race left that matters, that for the number-one overall seed; one game, really, since L.A. is locked into the head-to-head tiebreaker. Continued winning will be required, and that will be a taller order this week than last. Despite having the second worst record in the NBA, the Artists Formerly Known as the Bullets will approach Thursday's game as if it actually means something to them (especially with Gilbert Arenas likely active); Orlando will be formidable like they always are, and the Spurs, with Tim and Manu back in the fold, will be healthier than they were when Cleveland thumped them in Texas back in late February. A 3-1 record would be nice. To expect a fourth consecutive perfect week seems a bit greedy, although one should never sell this club short.
FYI: On this day in 2003, the Cavaliers were 14-59, a cool 46 games behind the pace currently being set by their present incarnation. If Cleveland handles business against the Pistons on Tuesday night, they'll have one fewer win in the month of March (16) than the 2002-03 team had the entire season (17.) Oh, what a difference six years makes.
2.) Los Angeles: 58-15: 2
Streak: Lost 1
Last 10: 8-2
Last Week: 3-1
Last Game: Sunday, Mar. 29: Lost @ Atlanta 86-76
Tuesday, Mar. 31: @ CharlotteWednesday, Apr. 1: @ MilwaukeeFriday, Apr. 3: HoustonSunday, Apr. 5: L.A. Clippers
The Lake Show spent the entirety of last week on the road, and was unable to match Cleveland victory for victory, falling to the Hawks on Sunday afternoon thanks largely to a chilly 35-percent effort from the field. They clinched home-court throughout the West Playoffs with the win in New Jersey- a formality since Thanksgiving or so- and will return to Staples on Friday night after finishing their seven-game East swing. Even with the brawny Rockets coming to town, L.A.'s toughest test of the week may be in Charlotte; the Lakers have lost their last two to the Bobcats, including a double-overtime defeat at Staples in January.
3.) Boston: 56-19: 5
Streak: Won 3
Last 10: 7-3
Last Game: Sunday, Mar. 29: Beat Oklahoma City 103-84
Wednesday, Apr. 1: CharlotteFriday, Apr. 3: Atlanta
Facing a five-game deficit to the Cavaliers with seven to play, Boston's chances of repeating as the East's top seed are just about up the spout. Although the Celtics lead Orlando by a half-game in the race for the second seed, they trail by a game in the loss column. With only two games on the docket, they won't have much of a chance to help themselves this week, although they can take comfort in the tough slate the Magic are facing.
If the past is any kind of a guide, Boston's present place in the standings doesn't bode well for their chances to repeat. The Celtics haven't made the Finals as a second seed or worse since 1969, when they won it all out of the East's fourth slot in Bill Russell's final season. Their last eight appearances in the championship round (1974, '76, '81, '84-87, and '08) have come as the conference's top seed.
4.) Orlando: 54-18: 5.5
Streak: Won 5
Last Game: Friday, Mar. 26: Beat Milwaukee 110-94
Monday, Mar. 30: @ MiamiWednesday, Apr. 1: TorontoFriday, Apr. 3: ClevelandSaturday, Apr. 4: @ Atlanta
The upward-trending Magic face a demanding week, with road tilts at Miami and at Atlanta (on the second night of a back-to-back) and a rubber match at home against the white-hot Cavaliers. With catching Cleveland as much a possibility as Denmark defeating Prussia in the Schleswig-Holstein War, a loss or two might not be the worst thing in the world for Superman and Co- after all, the pot of gold at the end of the second-seeded rainbow might very well be their beta noire from Detroit, the absolute last team anyone in Orlando wants to see come playoff time.
Power Ranking for the Week of Mar. 301.) Cleveland2.) Los Angeles3.) Orlando4.) Boston
Player of the Week- LeBron James, Cleveland: No sense in changing this up, not with the Cavaliers going gangbusters and LBJ averaging 25.5 points, 9.5 assists, and eight rebounds last week. The wunderkind was deadly efficient as well as spectacular, shooting a solid 49 percent and committing just seven turnovers all week, five of which came in Friday night's rout of Minnesota. Best of all, he averaged a shade under 36 minutes per game, a welcome relief from the increased workload that characterized his previous several weeks of action.
Lengthy Lithuanian of the Week- Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland: It was a week of records for Big Z, who topped the 10,000-point mark, became the franchise leader in blocked shots, and averaged a tidy 14.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in his team's four victories. He also picked up a technical foul on Friday night for shoving Jason Collins after the Timberwolves center dropped LeBron to the deck with a foul LBJ characterized as "borderline-dirty." As usual, Big Z was being the ultimate teammate. Other than bringing the ball below his waist too damn much, the man doesn't seem to have a single bad quality.
Not-so-ordinary Joe of the Week- Joe Smith, Cleveland: I hope Mrs. Smith had dinner waiting on the table when Joe got home Sunday evening, because he put in a hard day's work in the afternoon. The former number-one overall pick scored 12 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished out three assists in the win over Dallas, and his stellar early play- including a splay-footed three-pointer at the end of the first quarter- helped the Cavaliers recover from their 15-point second-quarter deficit. It's hard to believe Joe spent most of the season in Oklahoma City; he's fit in so seamlessly with the Cavaliers it's like he never left. By the way, it was a great gesture on the part of the Quicken Loans crowd to give Joe a standing ovation when he left the game on Sunday. He most certainly deserved it.
Cold-Shooting Superstar of the Week (Cont.) Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles: To paraphrase Tim Brando, the iron has been unkind to Kobe recently. In his last eight games, the Mamba is shooting 40 percent from the field, including a combined 12-of-38 in Friday's win at New Jersey and Sunday's loss at Atlanta. He also failed to crack the twenty-point barrier in either game- the first time since late January he has gone back-to-back games without scoring twenty or more. Of Kobe's twelve sub-twenty point outings this season, four have come in the last two weeks.
There's no need to start sniffing out trends just yet. Players have slumps, even the great ones. But it should be pointed out that Kobe is thirty years old- an old thirty in terms of years of NBA service- and he put a good bit of tread on the tires during the middle of the decade, when he was his team's only viable option. He's much more reliant on the jump shot than he used to be, and heavy legs are death on a jumper. Mentally, he's in his prime. Physically, he is not.
I'm not jumping to conclusions about Kobe's stamina and staying power. No one with his skill, competitiveness and pride should ever be underestimated. But it'll be interesting to see if, and when, the shots start falling again for the Son of Jellybean. Because make no mistake- the Lake Show will need those shots to fall this spring. Unlike certain other players, Kobe's ability to dominate a game is severely hampered when he's not hitting from outside.
Historic Duo: Both the Cavaliers and the Lake Show are on a pace to reach the 65-win barrier, something that has never been done by two teams in the same season.
Cue the Escape Club (Or Kool Moe Dee): The Lake Show may have already locked down the West's top seed and the Mavericks seem to be in the driver's seat for the eighth spot, but the rest of the conference playoff picture is as clear as mud and as stable as Latin American politics. A total of two-and-a-half games separate San Antonio, the second seed, from New Orleans, the seventh seed. Games to watch this week: Utah @ Portland on Tuesday night, Utah @ Denver on Thursday, and Utah @ New Orleans and Portland @ Houston on Sunday. The schedule doesn't look too kind for the Jazz, who are just 14-21 away from Salt Lake, the worst road record among the West playoff contenders.
Spoiler of the Upcoming Week- Charlotte: The Baby Bobcats are only two games behind Chicago in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and will host the Lake Show and play in Boston on back-to-back nights this week. If they're going to secure the first postseason berth in franchise history, they'll have to do it the hard way.
Game of the Upcoming Week- Cleveland @ Orlando: If the Magic want to entertain any notion whatsoever of grabbing the top spot in the East, they'll need to beat the Cavaliers. A win would give Orlando the head-to-head tiebreaker over Cleveland. A loss and the Magic will be all but eliminated in the battle for the number-one seed- if they aren't already, that is.