SPORTS

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May 22, 2009

In the Game: Cavs–Lakers Finals a big “If”

Last Sunday afternoon’s heavily anticipated Lakers–Rockets second-round finale was about as dramatic as it was likely that there’d even be a Game 7 at the outset of the series, with L.A. cruising 89–70 to reach the conference finals.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, on the other hand, looking like the cream of the Eastern crop, had wrapped up their own second-round bout with an easy 84–74 win to sweep the Atlanta Hawks, nearly a week in advance of their eventual conference finals opponent, the Magic.

L.A. and Cleveland entered the NBA Playoffs in mid-April as overwhelming favorites to emerge from their respective conferences and reach the Finals in June.

At first glance, the similarities are striking. The Lakers sat atop the Western Conference standings from start to finish, rolling over opponents at a record pace, amassing the second-best record in the league at 65–17, while the Cavaliers dispatched opponents in similar fashion, posting a team-best 66–16 mark.

Both L.A. and Cleveland ranked at or near the top of most of the league’s statistical rankings, with each boasting one of the top two basketball players in the world, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Couple that with injuries to an aging Tim Duncan on a tired Spurs squad, a fiery Kevin Garnett on a burnt out Celtics club—they started the year at a ridiculous 27–2—and an emerging Jameer Nelson on an inexperienced Magic machine, and you have two lone basketball superpowers sitting atop the NBA totem pole.

That’s not to say that neither faced adversity in the regular season: In January, L.A. lost Andrew Bynum until April, while Cleveland played without Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, and Ben Wallace for different stretches of their campaign.

Yet what separated both clubs from the pack was their ability to deal with the injuries and lineup changes and whatever else threatened to throw their season off-course.

The playoffs, however, have proven to differentiate the two teams in ways the regular season could not.

The Lakers strolled into the NBA playoffs preaching a serious demeanor and a renewed focus that they hadn’t exhibited with any consistency for most of the 2008–09 regular season. Having lost to the aforementioned Celtics in humiliating fashion last June, dropping the championship series 4–2, L.A. eyed the 2009 Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy not just for the lasting glory it affords as the prize that rests at the summit of the NBA mountain, but for its unquestionable redemptive properties.

Having secured home-court for the entire postseason, especially significant because they not only posted the second-best home record in league history (39–2) but because they too fell to the Celtics the previous year in a tightly contested Game 7 held in Boston, the Cavaliers burst into the playoffs confident that home dominance would deliver a title.

While both teams find themselves in the conference finals a few wins shy of a championship banner, their heavily forecasted June meeting appears to have lost its former inevitability.

The Lakers continue to enter pivotal games with a lackadaisical approach and talent-induced arrogance unlike that of a championship club, lacking the necessary toughness and killer-instinct that their best player, Bryant, has struggled to instill in his teammates.

And L.A. continues to neglect the defensive end of the court, allowing nearly 94 points per game through two rounds of postseason play, to a Utah Jazz team with a gimpy two-star combo and a Houston Rocket group whose most pertinent names sat on the bench but still extended that series to seven games.

The Lakers can’t afford to get into multiple track meets and expect to win the series against a surging Denver Nuggets team that has learned how to play defense while still scoring points in bunches.

On the surface, the Cavaliers seem to have absolutely no issues, dominating two playoff rounds by sweeping both their opponents in double-digit routs, while maintaining characteristically relaxed team chemistry off the court.

However, Cleveland’s problems lie not in what they’ve done; rather, their most pressing issues revolve around what they’ve yet to accomplish and who they’ve yet to face.

Through two rounds, they’ve allowed 78 points per game, far better than their Western Conference counterparts. Despite that, their offensive output is clearly not where it should be, with the team averaging a hair under a modest 95 points per contest, nearly seven points under the Lakers’ offensive barrage.

On a team with two All-Stars, a group of versatile big men headlined by Ilgauskas, and a dependable bench spearheaded by sharp-shooting Daniel Gibson, Cleveland should be scoring more.

While Cleveland’s earlier opponents—the Pistons and Hawks—were barely good enough to make the top-heavy Eastern Conference playoffs, had they been competing in the West, their postseason existence would have been in serious doubt. And that strikes right at the heart of their problem: until last night’s stunning 107–106 home loss to the Magic, the Cavaliers faced no playoff adversity.

Against the Lakers, Celtics, and Magic, the Cavaliers posted a 2–6 mark, suffering one of their two home losses to an L.A. team that played with a sick Bryant and without Bynum.

Their Game 1 loss to the Magic raises questions about the team’s ability to finish off elite opponents, a facet that extends to James’ oft-criticized late-game heroics. James opted to pass out to a shooter in the waning seconds instead of taking the final shot or drawing a foul. And, while Bryant’s predictable fourth-quarter takeover in Tuesday’s game against Denver, in which he scored 40 points and guarded Carmelo Anthony for the final period, earned his team a victory, he’ll need much more help to sidestep the Nuggets and reach the Finals.

The road to the NBA crown is never predictable. The struggling Lakers need not delve too far into history to find inspiration: The 2008 Celtics went the distance in their first two series of the playoffs, with critics questioning the credibility of their star-studded cast and their coach. The Cavaliers, whose early ease of dominance may seem alarming, need not worry too much: The 2001 Lakers breezed through their conference and into the Finals, needing only one loss to the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers to fuel their record-setting 15–1 championship run to completion.