Commentary

Cavs are back in the mix

Originally Published: December 25, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- It's time for Cleveland's team to be considered elite again, and time for Los Angeles' defending champion team to stop acting so cavalier.

Cleveland was the biggest winner on Christmas Day, as the Cavaliers triumphed over an agitated Lakers team and an unruly Staples Center crowd with a convincing 102-87 victory. It might be that the people they had to convince the most were in their own locker room.

"It was a measuring stick for us to see where we are, at this point, a fourth of the way through the season," said LeBron James, who had 27 points, nine assists and seven turnovers. "It's a good road win for us, the way we played today. Sometimes you wish you could play like this every game. But it's a lot of games, and we understand sometimes you may have lulls. But to go against a team like this in their building and control the tempo for the most part, it's a big test for us. It shows sometimes when you have those games when you're not playing well, you can look back on those games and say 'OK, this is who we should be.' That's the measuring stick; this is how we should play, no matter if we're playing the Lakers or we're playing a team that doesn't have a great record."

LeBron is on to something. Teams need to know what their max is, and usually the championship-caliber teams show it before January. The Cavaliers can bank on victories at Orlando and at the L.A. Lakers, not to mention victories over Dallas and Phoenix. The only gaping hole in their résumé is that opening-night loss to Boston. But that might not be too worrying if this regular season is a true prologue to the playoffs because it doesn't look as if the Celtics will be intact; they're without Paul Pierce right now (knee infection) and watched Kevin Garnett go down hard and sit out the ending of their victory in Orlando on Friday.

The Cavaliers took the Celtics to seven games in the playoffs in 2008. That was without Mo Williams, especially this version of Mo Williams who is showing up in big games. He has averaged 28 points in the victories at Orlando and the Lakers (as in 28 points in each game, making it easy for us mathematically challenged folks) and is a slightly better scorer on the road than at home.

Coach Mike Brown thinks the Cavaliers can still improve. He called the defensive effort, which held the Lakers to 37 percent shooting, their best of the season. They were especially adept at sending secondary defenders at Kobe Bryant, shutting down his angles to the lane and forcing him to take 32 shots to get his 35 points.

Shaquille O'Neal was the main reason Cleveland could go with single coverage on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and Bynum scored only four points and Gasol was an inefficient 4-for-11 with a single assist.

The Cavaliers committed 19 turnovers and got only four points from J.J. Hickson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but those were small issues when the Cleveland reserves outscored their counterparts 31-17.

Cleveland went 3-1 on this western trip and improved to 23-8, second only to Boston (23-5) in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers have a 23-5 record of their own, but it's looking less impressive every day. Sixteen of the victories came at home. Besides the Lakers, there are six teams that have only one digit in the loss column. The Lakers have played four of them. They're 1-3 in those games, losing to Denver, Dallas and now Cleveland and beating Atlanta back on Nov. 1.

No need to panic, but shouldn't there be a little concern at the struggles against the top teams? "We have five losses," Phil Jackson said dismissively. "I'm not going to get into that now, at this time."

This group has its own positive memory bank to draw from, even if those moments did take place last season. Maybe the Lakers can produce a duplicate of their 2001 championship defense, when they waited until April to turn it on and stormed through the playoffs with a 15-1 record.

But they might want to incorporate what Gregg Popovich calls "appropriate fear." They spent the week downplaying the significance of this Christmas game, and when it arrived, they played down. They need a signature road victory. They need to show they can respond to adversity with resolve rather than disintegrating into an array of technical fouls on Bryant, Derek Fisher, the Lakers bench and Lamar Odom (sent back to the locker room with two).

They were frustrated that they couldn't get foul calls in the second half, particularly when Shaq knocked Kobe to the ground on a drive without a tweet from the officials. Their petulant behavior led to the fans' throwing promotional giveaway foam hands onto the court late in the fourth quarter.

"I've never seen an L.A. crowd react like this before," said Jackson said, who wasn't coaching the Lakers when fans threw giveaway seat cushions on the court back at the Forum. "I liked their enthusiasm; I didn't like their demonstrative act. It wasn't a well-refereed game; it wasn't a well-played game. As a result, the crowd was unhappy about it."

Unlike the crowd, the Lakers had a chance to do something about it, rather than just gripe. But it's worth noting that Shaq was allowed to knock down Bryant and Gasol and the Lakers never tried to get physical back at him, only hitting him with the standard send-him-to-the-free-throw-line hacks.

"I didn't think we competed," Jackson said. "We were searching for players to put in we felt could compete."

"We didn't come out right and weren't ready to play," Gasol said. "So they played harder, better and they took the game."

So what are the Lakers going to do about it? We already know the answer for the Cavaliers.

They'll click "save" on this file, then reopen it when it's time to play the next big game.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.

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