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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Cavs Rout Sluggish Heat, 103-79

LeBron James delivered his best performance in more than a week as the Cleveland Cavaliers blew out the Miami Heat 103-79 on Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena. James had 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He has been hampered recently by a toe injury that forced him to miss one game and limited him to fewer than 20 points in three of his last four contests. Larry Hughes chipped in 16 points on 7-12 field goal shooting and Sasha Pavlovic provided a huge lift off of the bench with 15 points, five rebounds and a career-high six assists. Dwyane Wade overcame a slow start to finish with 27 points and seven assists but he also had seven turnovers. Shaquille O'Neal hammered home several rim rattling dunks that seemed to threaten to bring down the entire basket support but he only ended up with 14 points and seven rebounds.

In the first half, both teams acted like they were slogging through quicksand while wearing 50 pound backpacks. After more than seven minutes of play in the first quarter the score was tied at 10 and the teams had combined to shoot 9-28 from the field. Pavlovic had an immediate impact when he entered the game at the 4:51 mark, assisting on a Drew Gooden jump hook and making his first three shots, including a three pointer. The Cavs led 23-17 at the end of the period.

The Cavaliers tried to buy some time to rest starting center Zyrdunas Ilgauskas by inserting the seldom used Scot Pollard to guard O'Neal early in the second quarter. How tough is it to handle O'Neal even in his declining years? Pollard committed three fouls in 2:34 of action--and was unable to return to the game due to back spasms. You know that a guy is a tough cover when you give him three hard fouls and throw out your own back (actually, I think Pollard's back issue preceded his brief appearance, because he had some kind of wrap around his lower back before he entered the game). Cleveland held Wade to one point in the second quarter and led 44-33 at halftime.

An 11 point cushion might seem comfortable in such a low scoring game, but the last time these two teams played (February 1 in Miami) Wade scored 24 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter as Miami rallied from a 12 point deficit to win 92-89. Wade tried to duplicate those heroics, scoring seven points in the first 3:20 of the third quarter as the Heat trimmed the Cavs' lead to 49-43. Miami would get no closer, though, as Cleveland closed the period with a 20-14 run, capped off by James completely posterizing Alonzo Mourning. That dunk may have taken the wind out of the Heat's sails, because it gave the Cavs their biggest lead of the game (69-57). Miami offered little resistance in the fourth quarter and Cleveland's lead steadily grew. Near the end of the game, the only question was whether or not the Cavs would reach triple digits, which entitles each fan to a free chalupa. On Friday, chalupa was spelled M-A-R-S-H-A-L-L, as Donyell Marshall's three pointer with 1:13 left made the score 101-79.

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Notes From Courtside:

At halftime, several members of the media discussed their observations of the first 24 minutes and when someone asked me what I thought I replied that the Heat looked "sluggish." It turns out that Miami Coach Ron Rothstein would agree with that assessment. In his postgame standup, he said simply, "They outworked us period...We came out and I thought we played very sluggishly with our offense and I don't have an explanation for it."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown like what he saw from his team. There has been some controversy regarding whether the Cavs' recent struggles are a result of their play on offense or defense; Brown has repeatedly insisted that the problems originated on defense and in his postgame standup he made a point of mentioning how well Cleveland played at that end of the court during this victory: "This is a great team effort for 48 minutes versus a very good basketball team...I thought we won the right way. We hold this team to 42% (field goal shooting) and we outrebounded them 49-37...It was a good night. It started on the defensive end of the floor."

James, who would like for Cleveland to play at a faster pace on offense, offered a slightly different explanation for the win, agreeing with a questioner who suggested that Cleveland's uptempo offense in this contest fueled the defense: "Of course. Any time you get some easy buckets, it helps you a lot on the defensive end and we took advantage of that." James would prefer that the Cavs push the ball up the court: "Any time we get an opportunity to get out early, it benefits Larry (Hughes), it benefits Sasha (Pavlovic), it benefits myself. We get the ball up the court and we can take some jump shots, we can take some drives early in the shot clock. It doesn't put as much pressure on us than when it's late in the shot clock."

James dismissed the idea that he derived any motivation from the fact that prior to this game he had played poorly in some nationally televised games: "No, that's not me. I don't care about that. There's a stat about us being 0-5 in nationally televised games and LeBron is not the same player (in those games). I don't read into that. My teammates know what I'm capable of doing and I showed it tonight." Of course, the fact that James is perfectly aware of that stat kind of suggests that it did indeed bother him.

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After the postgame media availability concluded, I participated in an online chat at Sports.Sina.com, a Chinese website. Renjun Bao made all of the arrangements and did an excellent job of translating the questions from Chinese to English and then translating my answers from English to Chinese. He told me that Sports.Sina.com expected about 500,000 people to log on for this event. I enjoyed this opportunity to interact with some very enthusiastic basketball fans. I tape recorded Bao's rendering of the questions and my answers and plan to post a transcript of the chat here within the next couple days.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:31 AM

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