by user

The tune of the Cleveland Cavaliers season is changing and it’s due to Anderson Varejo’s stifling defense, this strong play of this season’s best trade deadline pickup Flip Murray, and, of course, the continued brilliance of LeBron James. Not since Mark Price and Brad Daugherty were healthy and rocking Richfield have I felt so good about a Cavs team. Just a little over one week ago I was seriously considering forsaking the current Cavs as I was unable to love one of the softest teams I had ever seen. Then LeBron survived his second round with Kobe and the Cavs began one of the most exciting weeks of their recent history.

A week that changed them from a team stumbling into the playoffs to a team surging in.

On March 14th the Cavs went into the locker room at Dallas with a 19 point half-time lead. Dirk Nowitzki was having one of his worst nights of the year, shooting 1 for 9 and Zydrunas Ilgauskas was running a big man clinic on Desagana Diop the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Hakeem got revenge on David Robinson for stealing his MVP trophy in the 1995 Western Conference Finals. I should have been elated. However, I had been watching the Cavs all year and I knew this wouldn’t last. A 27-8 third quarter run by the Mavericks confirmed my fears and the Cavs entered the fourth quarter tied. The Mavericks continued their comeback and eventually won 91-87.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

I had stuck with this franchise through Shawn Kemp, Randy Wittman, and Ricky Davis. I am probably one of 200 people who actually watched Smush Parker start his career in Cleveland. I had never turned my back on this team, even when they probably deserved it. But through those lean years, those teams were supposed to stink. This year’s team has talent, including one of the top 5 players in the league. They had a 19 point lead on a potential 60 win team at that team’s arena and then, for the umpteenth time this year, they crumbled showing such softness that the Mavericks were out muscling them with a small lineup (Avery Johnson wisely benched Diop for the second half). I was at the end of my rope. The next game, versus Portland, I didn’t even check the score. I didn’t care if we won, because it didn’t prove anything to me.

Then, the Lakers came to town.

You may recall that earlier this season, the Cavs lost to the Lakers in Los Angeles after LeBron missed some late free throws that would have given the Cavs the lead and then missed a buzzer beater that could’ve won it. You may also recall that Kobe overcame a terrible game to score the Lakers last six points including the eventual game-winner. It was after this game that all of the talk started about LeBron’s lack of a killer instinct and his inability in the clutch. The talk seemed to get to him, as well as the entire team, as that game began the Cavs trend of wilting under the slightest amount of pressure. As more close games were lost and large leads were blown, the team’s confidence in its ability to close games eroded to the point where it looked like Cleveland had completely lost any sign of confidence in their game against Dallas.

When the Cavs entered the fourth quarter down by 11 to Los Angeles it seemed history wouldn’t get a chance to be repeated. Amidst all of the LeBron vs. Kobe talk, however, a new hero emerged, and with him, a new Cavaliers team. While LeBron scored only five fourth quarter points, Flip Murray put the Cavs on his back by scoring 14. Every time Flip touched the ball he drove the lane, constantly attacking a team with a huge void in its center. On his final drive, Flip drew a foul, and made 1-of-2 free throws to break a tie game and put the Cavs up one, setting up a chance for Kobe to again prove his blood is ice cold and knock the final wobbly leg out from under the Cavs’s confidence. But Kobe wouldn’t get that chance, thanks to some of the best inbound pass defense by Anderson Varejo that I’ve ever seen. Kobe got open twice, but inbounder Luke Walton couldn’t see him over the bouncing Brazilian. By the time Walton finally got the ball in Kobe was 30 feet away from the basket and facing the wrong way, forcing him to heave up a prayer that missed. LeBron and the Cavs had survived Black Mamba Part II and had come full circle from the first encounter. The team seemed galvanized, and, even though he was secondary in the comeback, LeBron was vindicated.

In the next game, against Charlotte, the Cavs were torn apart by Raymond Felton and couldn’t put the Bobcats away. Trailing by three with 10 seconds left LeBron hit Flip with an insane cross-court pass from the timeline that Flip parlayed into a game-tying three as the buzzer sounded which set up LeBron’s first game winner at the buzzer in overtime.

Over those two games the Cavs learned how to play in the fourth quarter and LeBron got the “clutch monkey” off of his back. The result has been a team playing loose, relaxed and with confidence that they can win in the fourth quarter.

In their next two games against Boston and Houston, the Cavs entered the fourth quarter trailing but raised their game to pull out the win.

With 12 games remaining the Cavs are riding a 5 game win streak and are one win away from matching last year’s win total. Their magic number is 2 to clinch a playoff birth and it is honestly amazing that they even have a magic number considering where they were coming off that Dallas game.

While figuring out how to close out games it appears the Cavs have also learned how to close out the season.


Thu 03/30/06, 4:51 am EST

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