There wasn't a lot of time last week for the Cavs to finish their Christmas shopping; the schedule-makers gave them five games in a seven-day span. And the Wine and Gold responded reasonably well, winning four out of the five:
The 4-1 week leaves the Cavs at 21-8 on the season, with an ever-increasing 7.5 lead over Milwaukee in the Central Division "race." Conference-wise, they are technically fourth, behind Boston (1.5 games ahead), Orlando (0.5 game ahead), and Atlanta (percentage points ahead thanks to playing fewer games to this point). Behind those Big Four, the Eastern Conference drops off a cliff, as the 13-12 Miami Heat hold down the fifth spot in the conference.
Frankly, until last night, the operative word for the week was "meh." Yes, the Cavs won their first three games of the week; and yes, those three wins gave them a five-game streak overall. Unofficially, it was the ugliest five-game winning streak in Association history.
And then came last night's game against the Suns. Which provides us a nice transition into this week's bouquets ...
When They're Good, They're Very Very Good: Last week, I gave the Cavs virtually no chance of winning last night's game against Phoenix. Tough opponent, virtually unbeatable on their home floor, second night of a back-to-back road trip ... every reason was there for the Cavs to mail it in and lick their wounds on the flight to Sacramento for the next stop on their roadie.
Instead, the Cavs played perhaps their most complete game of the season.
There was scoring from all corners (five Cavs made it into double digits, paced by LeBron James's 29 points). There was active defense (the Suns came into the game averaging a league-best 109 points; the Cavs held them well below that, including a 38 point collar in the second half). There was LeBron dominating the game, even though the box score shows just another ho-hum Jamesian effort (six rebounds and four assists to go with those 29 points). There was containment of Phoenix's Steve Nash, who did post good numbers as usual (18 points, 10 assists), but didn't kill the Cavs the way he has so many times in the past.
And that points to the number one difference between last year's Cavs and this year's edition. In 2008-09, the Cavs absolutely blew out every doormat and mid-level opponent they faced, but struggled against the better teams in the league. This year, they've swept the Suns, and also beaten Dallas and Orlando (the latter game on the road, against a team that obviously gave the Cavs fits last year). They've also lost to Boston and Dallas ... but a 4-2 record against the league's .600-plus teams? Do that all regular season, and you'll be sitting pretty.
Do that in the spring, and you'll be riding in a victory parade come June.
The Jason Richardson Moment: LeBron is making something of a hobby of toying with the Suns' Richardson. Last season, his chasedown block as Richardson attempted a 360-degree dunk was one of the season's marquee plays. (Okay, so he fouled J-Rich; but it was justified by the bad karma of J-Rich trying to throw down such a showboat-ish dunk.)
More recently, when the two teams met earlier this season, James again gave Richardson a taste of leather with another chasedown block. After that one, J-Rich could have been twitching in the fetal position by the Suns' bench, and I think we would have all understood why.
Last night, James didn't block any of Richardson's shots. However, he did throw a nifty pass between Richardson's legs to Anderson Varejao for an easy basket. (Good news for Richardson: barring a trade or a Cavs-Suns Finals, he won't need to worry about LeBron until next season.)
Play Of The Week: Cavs against the Bucks, leading by three points, final seconds of the game. Milwaukee's talented rookie, Brandon Jennings, launches a three-pointer, a desperate attempt to tie the game. The shot misses everything. The Cavs' Varejao grabs the loose ball, but is falling out of bounds. There are 3.1 seconds remaining in the game.
Pop quiz time. You are Varejao. Do you:
•(a) Call a time out;
•(b) Try to throw the ball at approximately 24,000 MPH off the leg of the nearest Bucks player, hoping it will go out of bounds;
•(c) Throw the ball in the direction of the first teammate you see.
Option (a) is no longer legal; the NBA instituted that rule a couple of seasons back, purely because they were concerned that the head of announcer Jeff Van Gundy (a strong opponent of the practice) would explode otherwise.
Option (b) has some appeal, but carries the risk of throwing it right to a Bucks player, who could then score.
Option (c) also has some appeal, but also carries the risk of the ball winding up in an opponent's hands, giving them one more crack at the tie.
So Varejao picked secret option (d): fire the ball towards the other end of the court, well over the heads of all the players, to nobody in particular. The ball was retrieved by one of the Bucks, but by then, the remaining time had ticked off the clock, and they were not even able to attempt a shot.
I do not know if this play was drilled into Varejao's head by the coaching staff, or if it was simply a heady play by a heady player. (As to the first option, I distinctly remember assistant coach Chris Jent pulling off the exact same play years ago, when he played for Ohio State.) But it was the option that gave the Bucks zero chance to win, and that by definition makes it the best option.
Three Steps Forward, One Step Back: We all know of the struggles that Cavs guard Delonte West has been through the past few months; no need to rehash them yet again. And we have also come to accept that he is going to have good days and bad days.
This week featured more of the good days. After sitting out the game against the Nets, and a ho-hum performance against the Sixers, Delonte put together three consecutive strong games against Milwaukee (12 points), Dallas (18 points and seven rebounds), and Phoenix (12 points, six assists).
This is probably what we can expect from Delonte from here on out: generally good production, punctuated by some bad days where his mental state makes him pretty much useless. It's not the Redz we had last season, but it's better than the alternative.
When Good Experiments Go Bad: A few weeks ago, Coach Mike Brown installed J.J. Hickson in the starting lineup. On the surface, the results seem favorable: the Cavs lead the league in first-quarter scoring, and Hickson strung together a series of double-digit scoring efforts (and is averaging a respectable, if not spectacular, 7.3 points per game, playing just under 20 minutes per night).
Hickson actually has the worst plus-minus ratio of any Cavalier who gets regular minutes. (The Jawad Williams All-Stars, featuring Williams, Coby Karl, and Danny Green, all have worse raw numbers. That is because they play in the final moments of blowouts, when the focus is less on "let's turn the screws on defense and really shut them down," and "hey! We have to be at Morton's in an hour! Let's get this thing over with!") The Cavs are a far, far better team with Hickson on the bench than with him playing.
Why? It's not hard to see. On offense, Hickson brings the ability to slam home dunks, and not much else. He has shown a jumper on occasion, but not often enough for him to be a threat. On defense ... Hickson brings the ability to play more slightly more defense than a lawn chair, and not much else.
This piece is not to dump on Hickson (it's not like he should refuse to go in when his number is called) or on Coach Brown (the move returned Varejao to a reserve role, where he seems to be at his best). Nor does Coach Brown have an obvious better option, at least not yet. (That will change when Leon Powe returns from his knee injury, which will hopefully happen around the mid-point of the season.) But if you think that Hickson in the starting lineup represents a long-term solution ... don't be so sure. He's still young, and still has time to grow, but the needle on the dial is still pointing to "potential" rather than "production."
Speaking Of That Starting Lineup: Anthony Parker scored a grand total of 33 points in this week's five games. Just saying.
Speaking Some More Of That Starting Lineup (Completely Whiny Division): I am not going to complain too much about the Suns game. But Shaquille O'Neal scoring the grand total of three points? With Channing Frye guarding him? Channing $#^*#@$%@ing Frye?
Must ... not ... complain ... about ... impressive ... road ... victories ...
But really. Channing *#&^$#@*($ing Frye?
Yes, This Is Child Abuse: I picked up my kids the other night from their mother's house. My son was wearing a scarf. The scarf bore the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
No, I did not allow him to bring it into my home.
DEAR SANTA: ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS ....
See earlier comments re: J.J. Hickson as to why.
With the Wizards sitting at 8-17 and in the basement of the Southeast Division, and potentially interested in some salary cap relief because of the gazillion or so dollars they are paying to Gilbert Arenas over the next five seasons, it's not out of the question.
WHAT LIES AHEAD:
The Cavs' current road trip continues at Sacramento tomorrow evening and finishes against the Lakers on Christmas Day (over-under on the number of new toys the Official Children of GBS will have broken by then: four). Then it's home to face Houston on Sunday evening. That's two decent teams (Sacramento is actually within a stone's throw of .500, and Houston, who beat the Cavs earlier in the year, is 16-11) sandwiched around one of the league's elite.
INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: The entry page to the Rockets' official web site features four different links to the main site. One is in English. One is in Spanish. And the other two are in Chinese (Simple and Traditional). In retrospect, this fact should not have seemed like as much of a surprise.
Is it too much to suggest that the Lakers game will be the most important game of the regular season thus far, and perhaps the most important game of the entire regular season? If the Cavs make it to the Finals (no, I am not saying that it is a foregone conclusion; that is why the sentence started with the word "If"), the Lakers would be their likely opponent ... and with the Lakers currently sporting a better record than the Cavs, it's very possible that they would have home court advantage, and that the Cavs would need to sneak at least one game at the Staples Center.
After last night's game, that seems much more possible.