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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cavs Beat Bucks 109-96, Clinch Second Seed in East

LeBron James had 24 points, nine assists and five rebounds as the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 109-96 at Quicken Loans Arena. Earl Boykins led Milwaukee with 28 points and seven assists. Cleveland's win, coupled with New Jersey beating Chicago 106-97 and Washington edging Indiana 98-95, moved the Cavs up to the second seed in the East and dropped Chicago from second to fifth. Cleveland will play Washington in the first round, a rematch of last year's first round--but the depleted Wizards will be without the services of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. Chicago could have earned that seemingly easy matchup simply by winning in New Jersey; now the Bulls will have to face the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round, though the Bulls will have homecourt advantage. If the Bulls survive that test then they will most likely meet top seed Detroit in the second round. Reversal of fortune does not begin to describe this turn of events.

Cleveland jumped on Milwaukee from the opening tip, building a 26-11 lead less than six minutes into the game. It seemed like the Cavaliers would cruise to victory against a team that, as Kenny Smith would put it, had one foot on the basketball court and one foot in Acapulco. Instead, Ruben Patterson scored 10 first quarter points on 4-5 field goal shooting and the Bucks pulled to within 31-22 by the end of the period. It was Boykins' turn to shine in the second quarter and the 5-5 guard who briefly played for Cleveland several years ago shot 5-6 from the field and scored 10 points as the Bucks rallied to take a 47-46 lead before the Cavaliers closed the half with an 8-4 run--three James baskets plus an Anderson Varejao dunk off of an assist by James.

Throughout the game, most of the assembled media literally kept one eye on the court and one eye on TV screens that displayed the New Jersey-Chicago game (broadcast by ESPN). I kept a running tally in my notebook of the scores of both games at various stoppages of play. New Jersey led 31-22 after the first quarter but a Cavaliers loss would clinch the second seed for Chicago based on tiebreaks, so when Milwaukee took that brief lead the Cleveland fans were understandably restless.

Cleveland only outscored Milwaukee 25-21 in the third quarter and the Cavs had a 79-71 lead going into the fourth quarter (New Jersey led Chicago 52-40 at halftime). James scored seven points in the final period but the unlikely hero for the Cavaliers was Donyell Marshall, who scored 12 points on 5-6 shooting and added four rebounds. Cleveland led by as many as 17 and never let the Bucks get within 10 after pushing the margin to double digits with 10:56 remaining. The undermanned Bucks played without All-Star Michael Redd, Dan Gadzuric and Brian Skinner and lost starting center Jared Reiner early in the game after he injured his knee. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Bucks 53-30 but Milwaukee's small lineup countered by shooting 12-29 from three point range. Marshall's three point play with 3:57 left put the game out of reach at 101-85 and, by pushing the Cavaliers' total over 100, earned a free chalupa for every fan in attendance (New Jersey led 64-55 midway through the third quarter at this point).

In his postgame standup, Ckeveland Coach Mike Brown praised his team's defensive effort both in this game and during the course of the season: "We took care of business. They're a tough team because they have so many shooters and guys who can can score. They just spread you out and keep driving and kicking...On the year, we had a good, solid year. We improved defensively; we started talking the language. We moved up 11 spots in both opponent's field goal percentage and opponent's points per game. That's big...We have to be able to defend to win ball games in the playoffs. Our guys did a nice job of it throughout most of the year. We were more consistent. We still have room to grow on that side of the ball."

After the game, James expressed pride about posting a second consecutive 50 win season: "It's a big accomplishment. Not a lot of teams get an opportunity to do that. We had 46 wins with four games left and we did it...No matter who we were put up against, we honestly just destroyed teams and played well offensively and defensively."


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Notes From Courtside:

The Cavaliers gave away more than $500,000 worth of prizes in honor of Fan Appreciation Night. Their generosity extended to the media as well; the team provided free massages and a large cake for the writers and photographers.

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LeBron James has averaged at least 27 points, six assists and six rebounds for three straight seasons; Oscar Robertson is the only other player who accomplished this.

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Cleveland joins Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio and Detroit as the only teams to win at least 50 games in each of the past two seasons.

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After the game, Cavaliers players, team officials and many members of the media watched most of the conclusion of the New Jersey-Chicago game on the big screen TV in the locker room before the Cavs' P.R. Department closed the locker room to all non-team personnel. The game could still be seen on the massive screen on the basketball court--the Cavaliers allowed ticketholders to stay until the Nets-Bulls game concluded--and on the TVs in the media room; I actually expected the locker room to be closed sooner than it was, because all of the writers had finished doing their interviews and were basically just standing around watching the TV. As he closely watched the game, LeBron James voiced his great delight when Bostjan Nachbar made some big three pointers and he shook his head in dismay when the Nets let Ben Wallace score a layup without fouling the notoriously poor free throw shooter. Despite any cliches that are uttered from time to time about seedings and matchups not mattering it was pretty clear that the Cavaliers preferred being the second seed to being the fifth seed, which is of course a perfectly logical way to feel.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:05 AM

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