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Tuesday, October 15, 2002
Updated: October 19, 5:12 PM ET
More than meets the eye in exhibitions

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

To even die-hard NBA partisans, preseason games are perceived as being too much ado about nothing much. In truth, however, the early preseason contests contain a microcosm of the problems faced by each and every team, and help provide a blueprint of a way out ... at least, on some occasions. Here is NBA action in its crudest form, the raw material that will become the stuff of everlasting nightmares or springtime dreams come true.

ALBANY, NY -- A quick pregame glance at the playboard inside the Cleveland Cavaliers' dressing room proves that the game on tap isn't for real. Instead of the dozens of diagrams delineating the offensive strategies of their opponents, there are only five -- the New Jersey Nets' fast break and early offense, plus some high-post and spread variations, all based on last season's scouting reports. Just enough info, in other words, to give Cleveland's young players a sense of mindfulness.

Not that the Cavs' own game plan is any more extensive. Both teams have just graduated from their respective training camps, and for their inaugural preseason game, the two coaching staffs have each implemented barely 10 percent of their "stuff." Also, since the Nets and the Cavs are essentially finesse teams, timing is crucial and slow to develop. That's why what the local promoters have billed as "The NBA Classic" promises to be crude and sloppy, a tank-town dress rehearsal for the regular season that is still three weeks away.

In truth, there is nothing "big league" about the venue. The Pepsi (nee Knickerbocker) Arena has a capacity of only 8,000, yet the vacant upper balconies are hidden behind huge black drapes. The banners hanging from the rafters hail past divisional and regional championships won by the River Rats, a minor-league hockey team, as well as the Conquest, an Arena2 football team. What with the baseball playoffs on TV, and game tickets ($20-$50) very pricey for such an economically depressed area, the end zone seats are empty and the 2,500 fans on hand fit loosely into the sideline grandstands.

The Continental Arena is only 175 miles due south of Albany, so the Nets are the home-away-from-home team. Yet the fans are too self-conscious of their meager numbers to ardently cheer anything but the fanciest passes and the most emphatic dunks.

Jason Collins, Vonteego Cummings, Tamar Slay
No matter what promoters say, no preseason game is ever an "NBA Classic."
Fortunately, most of the participants do have their chops up. Especially the rookies, whose limited understanding of NBA action is only a slight drag on their enthusiasm. They brush their 'do's and slick their pates; they lace and relace their sneakers; they tuck their jerseys so that not a wrinkle shows -- dressing as meticulously as debutantes preparing for a coming-out ball.

The coaches, too, are eager for the first unfolding of the new season. The rosters of both teams have undergone dramatic changes in the offseason, and turning on the lights always brings some surprises.

Only the veterans' passions for the game are subdued. Sure, they're happy for a chance to beat on strangers after a strenuous week of two-a-days and increasingly mean-spirited intrasquad scrimmages. But winning is not their primary concern, nor is playing well. In preseason games, the entrenched veterans are mostly interested in avoiding injury. "I'm going to play my 20 to 25 minutes on cruise control," says one wily vet, "and, above all, I'm going to stay away from all those wild-eyed rookies."

Seated along press row are a handful of advance scouts from other NBA teams, whose interest in the game at hand is surprisingly intense. Will the Nets and/or the Cavs run the same offensive and defensive patterns they did last year? Are their calls the same? Since the Nets are the defending Eastern Conference champs, the scouts are anxious to discover how coach Byron Scott will utilize his new big man, Dikembe Mutombo. The advance scouts (who will each witness upwards of 150 NBA games in the coming season) are also obligated to evaluate those players who might be cut and those who might eventually become trade bait.

Too bad the one marquee player whom many spectators have come to see is suffering from "lower abdominal cramps." In his absence, herein is the Cavs' in-house scouting report on Dajuan Wagner, 6-foot-1, 193 pounds, the sixth overall pick in the recent draft:

Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin, Jason Kidd, Dikembe Mutombo, Richard Jefferson
Dikembe Mutombo, second from right, won't easily fit into the Nets family on the court.
Before the teams begin their official warmups, the assistant coaches run them through drills left over from training camp. The Nets spend several minutes refining one of their bread-and-butter plays -- a high-post set in which the center dribbles away from the corner of the foul line (the "elbow") at a 45-degree angle to initiate a dribble-weave. This is a play designed for Jason Kidd to come off a double-pick and receive the ball with the middle open. The departed Todd MacCulloch, with his wide body (a double-pick unto himself) and his good hands, was the catalyst that made this play go. As the Nets rehearse this sequence five-on-none, the ringside scouts and the Cavs coaches watch intently as Mutombo's naked and shaky dribblings destroy the timing.

This is something to track as the season gets under way -- without their high-post dribble-weave option, will the Nets' vaunted offensive fluidity dry up?

Starting lineups
New Jersey -- Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin, Mutombo, Richard Jefferson.
Cleveland -- Bimbo Coles, Darius Miles, Ricky Davis, Tyrone Hill, Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

On the game's first possession, the leansome 6-9 Miles celebrates his 21st birthday by hoisting up (and missing) a hasty jumper. Next, the Cavs run an iso for Miles and, quicker than a wish, he beats Kerry Kittles for an easy basket.

A third-year player drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Clippers, Miles came to Cleveland in exchange for Andre Miller. He's a long-limbed and wildly talented young man who sports one of the league's liveliest bodies. Jumping, bouncing, madly dashing and cavorting headlong all over the court. Snatching and dunking an offensive rebound. Missing a flipper in the shadow of the basket. Patting the front of his blue headband in self-congratulation after executing an impressive dunk. Aside from Kidd, Miles' on-court presence is the most profound.

Darius Miles, Clifford Robinson
The Cavs are trying hard to rein in wildly talented newcomer Darius Miles.
To this end, assistant coach Keith Smart has been appointed Miles' personal mentor. During timeouts, Smart puts an arm around Miles' shoulder, gently correcting, informing, supporting the youngster. But Miles continues to play with headstrong abandon.

Meanwhile, the Nets' motion offense is stuck in traffic and the biggest roadblock is Mutombo, double-parked in the low-post. Although he's officially listed as being 36, rumors abound that Mutombo is actually on the long side of 40. And he certainly moves like a senior citizen -- slow off the ground as the high-flying Miles beats him to a rebound, reacting to a change-of-direction move by Ilgauskas as though he had a flat tire.

At the end of the first quarter, Nets lead 20-19.

The game is not being telecast. Instead, a local TV camera is set up to scan the crowd for the benefit of a large screen on the main scoreboard. The fans save their most rousing cheer for a crowd shot -- two elderly nuns, who, once they realize the camera has framed them, reach behind them and produce a net full of basketballs!

The Cavs are a schizophrenic ballclub, and their split-personality centers on Ilgauskas. Watch him work over Mutombo -- a drop step finds a layup, a turn-around-jumper plops through the net, count a righty hooker and charge the foul to the Nets center.

With Ilgauskas on the court, the Cavs have a focus for their offense and can play effective inside-out basketball. Without him, they have to trap, run, scramble and isolate Miles, Davis and Wagner. Too bad the big fellow has a lame left foot that numerous surgeries, seven internal screws and one metal plate are barely holding together.

Except for Miles, all of both team's starters are bench-bound as the second quarter rushes to a close. The play is slipshod and reckless, exactly the kind of tempo that Miles loves. With him leading the way, the Cavs take a 49-43 lead at halftime.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Aaron Williams
If he can stay healthy, Zydrunas Ilgauskas gives Cleveland an effective inside-out game.
During the intermission, several NBA insiders compare notes: The consensus is that the Nets miss MacCulloch's massive picks at the foul line. Coles' wheels have fallen off, and the Cavs need a point guard. Career backup Anthony Johnson -- solid, quick and savvy -- might be ready to take over. Jefferson has so many All-Star tools that the Nets' trading away Keith Van Horn is addition by subtraction. The only good restaurant in town is Jack's, a seafood joint on State Street.

Play resumes with the starters back on the floor. John Lucas and Byron Scott are sideline stalkers, but unlike regular season games, the pace of their pacing is much less frenzied tonight. Scott stands with his hands in his pants pockets, amiably chatting with the referees in passing. Lucas impassively watches the game with his hands folded across his chest. Yet he wriggles in a spasm of anger when Kidd gets to the basket as the shot clock is about to expire.

The starters have had their third quarter exercise and are retired to the bench for the duration. Cavs' rookie Carlos Boozer isn't quite sure of the protocol for checking into the game, and during a dead ball, he remains crouched near the official scorers table. Boozer doesn't make a move, even when referee Joe Forte waves him onto the court. Finally, Forte says, "C'mon, Booz. You need all the minutes you can get."

After three quarters, the Cavs still lead, 71-69.

Suddenly, Rodney Rogers finds the range. He bags a pair of 3s, makes a steal, throws a nifty pass to a cutting Aaron Williams, hits a lefty jump hook. And the Nets surge into the lead.

As the game winds down and the Nets are gaining control, Lucas inserts Davis back into the fray in an attempt to win. For the last four minutes, the Cavs' offense is a series of isos for Davis and Miles. Trouble is, there's no misdirection involved, no initiating a play on one side, then swinging the ball to the other, no attempt to manipulate the defense -- just a simple, direct pass into either Miles or Davis. The Nets have no trouble siccing a double team on the ball, and the Cavs shoot blanks. On the other end, New Jersey capitalizes on every Cavs mistake, converting turnovers into easy scores.

The game belongs to the Nets, 93-87.

After the coaches speak to their teams in the locker room, they retreat into the coaches' room to deliver their private post-mortems and scour the stat sheet. In preseason games, a most significant number is minutes played: 38 for Miles (as Lucas attempts to give his prodigy maximum time for growth), 30 for Davis, 29 for Ilgy Plop, 30 for Kittles, 29 for Harris. Also worth noting: 26 turnovers for Cleveland and 17 for New Jersey. Both high numbers, but acceptable for the first preseason game. What else? Richard Jefferson's quietly spectacular line -- 5-6 from the field, 7-8 from the line, six rebounds, 17 total points in 23 minutes.

In the preseason, nothing is more meaningless than winning or losing. Phil Jackson's championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles were notorious for having poor preseason records. What is important is how a ballclub develops as the money games draw nigh.

For New Jersey, Scott must find a way to integrate the clanky and rapidly fading talents of Mutombo into his team's perpetual-motion offense. The solution may be to drastically limit the big man's playing time.

For Cleveland, Lucas' tasks require much more than the three weeks allotted for exhibition games. Will the Miles-Davis combo make Lucas smile in April, or leave him kind of blue? In addition to keeping Ilgauskas healthy, Lucas also has to integrate his team's dual personalities into one functional game plan. The only resolution seems to be playing two separate units, one to slug it out halfcourt, the other to trap, press and run freely. More importantly, Lucas must convince his young players that uncontrolled freelancing leads only to chaos. And that there is abundant room for creativity and self-expression within a closed system.

Outside the arena the yellow leaves are twirling, flying, already dead. Slowly the cooling earth is turning to stone. And for both teams, playoff time is a long, wishful dream away.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."