Updated: March 15, 2006, 3:05 AM ET

Cavs' troubling fade pattern

DALLAS -- The LeBrons are a lucky bunch.

They can amass a big lead in Miami, blow it all on national television and then gag themselves with a virtual replay in Big D some 48 hours later . . . all without real consequence.

All because they have the good fortune to reside in a not-so-new Eastern Conference.

Rail at the NBA's marketing machine, if you wish, for elevating a 21-year-old from Cleveland to a King James pedestal without waiting to see him in a playoff game. Much more of a rip-off, to me, is the fact that LeBron James and his Cavaliers feel no sense of urgency.

That resuscitated East we were promised this season is the real myth here.

Want to know the real difference between these Cavs and the last two Cavs teams that faded out of playoff view in the final 30-odd games? This time, no one beneath Cleveland in the standings looks interested in trying to pass them.

Since returning from the All-Star break, Cleveland has endured a five-game losing streak, needed game-winners at the buzzer from Flip Murray and Damon Jones to avoid two more deflating defeats and find themselves mired in another three-game skid that began with a 29-point humbling at rebuilding Orlando before these fall-from-way-ahead road defeats to the Heat and Mavs. The Cavs, though, remain safely ensconced in fourth place in the East, with little evidence to suggest that Indiana or Washington or anyone else can bump them out of home-court advantage in the first round.

No wonder James, before Tuesday's tip, disclosed that "the feeling I had around this time last year is totally different than what I'm feeling now."

The feeling then?

"Like we were slipping off the deep end," James said.


Asked if he fears that Cleveland is susceptible to another stretch-run collapse, James said: "It's already prevented."

Yet just because he's right doesn't mean we're not entitled to expect more. From these Cavs, in this East, I don't think it's too much to ask. That's even though they don't have Larry Hughes and privately remind themselves that there's a good chance he's not coming back for the post-season.

I'd still say it's reasonable, in this East, to expect Cleveland to win a playoff series. Yes, without Hughes.

At least it did seem reasonable until catching this double-dose of how these Cavs deal with pressure.

"Obviously not well," Zydrunas Ilgauskas conceded.

James, as ever, was sufficiently spectacular in this 91-87 defeat to make you feel privileged to be in the building, with 18 points in each half and a bonus 12 boards and five assists. Of course, after Cleveland got bullied out of a 15-point halftime lead Sunday on South Beach by the Heat's vets, you might have expected them to show that they learned something from that experience.

Nope. The Cavs rolled to a 19-point halftime lead against a Dallas team playing without four key members of its rotation -- Josh Howard, Devin Harris, Keith Van Horn and Adrian Griffin -- then promptly melted in the third quarter when the Mavericks retaliated with the inevitable trapping, pressing and double-teaming.

The most apt descriptions for what happened came from a seething Mike Brown. "Panicked" and "rattled" were two of the first-year coach's choice words for how the Cavs looked in an eight-point third quarter and eventual surrender in the fourth.

"Two games in a row, we played a playoff team in their building," Brown said. "We got up, they stepped it up and we didn't know how to respond. Bottom line."

No question it would be easier to respond with Hughes at James' side. With a second playmaker on the floor, as general manager Danny Ferry envisioned when he assembled this team, Cleveland's offense probably wouldn't stagnate -- and certainly couldn't look as skittish -- like it did after the last two halftimes.

Then again . . .

If the team with the third-best record in the East is good enough to build double-digit leads at Miami and Dallas sans Hughes, you'd like to think they'd be able to hold at least one of them.

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: March 3 | 4-5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-12 | 13 | 14

Stretch Drive

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Paul Pierce was all smiles before facing Memphis. Then Grizz forwards Shane Battier and Eddie Jones helped hold him to 15 points. Pierce had scored 30 or more in 14 of his last 16 games.

Rank Comments

Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:

Bryan (Denver): It's good to see that you're finally on the Kings' bandwagon. NO ONE wants to play them in the playoffs. I see them getting up to the sixth spot and beating the Nuggets in the first round.

Nora Gilbertson (Minneapolis): The latest indignity for KG is having to hear reporters like you who don't get that the Wolves are trying to work in four new players compared to Boston's one. If the Celtics were trying to integrate four new players, they would be worse than the Wolves right now.

WRM (Provo, Utah): How can you only move my Lakers up one spot when they just beat the top two teams in the league? Not only that, they beat the Spurs in San Antonio. Sure they lost to Seattle, but can't Kobe have an off game once a month?

John (Cleveland): Good thing you took it all back. See you in the playoffs.

Vincent (Miami): It seems to me that you rank the teams based on your own opinion. In case you haven't noticed, Miami has won all but one of its games since the All-Star break, yet you rank them No. 5. This is further proof you simply don't like the Miami Heat.

Ed's note: It seems to me, Vincent, that it shouldn't have taken you until March to realize that my opinion is a big factor here. But I nonetheless invite you to comb through the list of games Miami has played since the All-Star break and let me know how many impressive victories or efforts you see in that 8-1 stretch. Apart from Dwyane Wade's excellence, is there a lot in there to get excited about? No. 5 is precisely where the Heat belong.

Chat Excerpt

Ben (Phoenix): I see your point when saying Amare Stoudemire shouldn't come back this season, but there is one more variable that is perhaps the most important: Phoenix has a serious chance at a title. If you could add even a fraction of the post play Amare can offer to this team, I believe they can beat their toughest competition: San Antonio. Steve Nash is getting older and it's not certain how long this team can compete at this level, so are you going to tell me that Amare is going to sit there and watch his team in the playoffs when he physically could be out there helping them win the title? And I have a hard time with the argument that he can't fit in with this team at this stage. There's really only one thing I need to bring up to counter that idea: Tim Thomas.

Marc Stein: Pretty much disagree with everything here, Ben. You really believe that the Suns' window is closing? Nash hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. Marion is still pretty young last I checked. Amare just signed a six-year extension. Nothing is guaranteed in life, true, but rushing Amare back before he's really ready because he MIGHT make them better this season holds zero appeal to me. I'd say there's an equally good chance (probably a better chance) that he sets the team back or suffers a health setback that makes him regret coming back so soon. Working in a dominant player like Amare takes time and that's what Phoenix is running out of. Did you hear Steve Kerr on TNT during last week's Suns-Spurs game? He reminded everyone that even the infallible, untouchable Michael Jordan had a rocky return when he finally gave up fantasy baseball and rejoined the Bulls in the spring of 1995.

Combine all the above with the trepidation Amare voiced over the weekend and that should have clinched it for you. As for the Tim Thomas comparison and how it suggests that Amare will be easy to work back in, you're certainly not alone in making that point. But that doesn't stop me from saying: WHAT?!? Tim Thomas is a role player in Phoenix. All he has to do is run the floor and float to open spaces. As seen with MJ and more recently Chris Webber in Sacramento, it's a lot tougher to work in a dominant player so late in the season. Especially when you remember that Amare has only played with three of these guys: Nash, Marion and Barbosa. Webber was coming back to a group he knew well and it was still a struggle.

See the full Marc Stein chat transcript Insider

Film Session

Looked like Cleveland was going to rout the Mavs, holding a 53-34 lead at halftime. But it wasn't over for Dirk Nowitzki and Co.

Mavs rally

Reach For The Floor

AP Photo/Tim Sharp
LeBron James, right, and Mavs guard Marquis Daniels battle for a loose ball. The Mavs won, sweeping East teams at home for the first time, going 15-0.

Extreme Behavior

Tuesday's Best
Grizzlies C Jake Tsakalidis: The Grizz held Boston's Paul Pierce to 15 points, which is news in itself, but Tsakalidis' out-of-nowhere renaissance continued with his third double-double in four games: 19 points and career-best 16 boards.

Tuesday's Worst
Cleveland's third quarter in Dallas: Three baskets, four turnovers and just eight points total as the Cavs fall to 18-19 without Larry Hughes.


Quote of the Day
"I don't think I've ever seen this team play like that."
-- Miami coach Pat Riley, referring to the Heat's 41-14 trouncing of Utah in the first quarter -- fueled by 19 of Dwyane Wade's 25 points -- in what wound up a 121-83 rout.

See how all 184 who played stacked up
The current NBA Playoff matchups

Waiting Game

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Larry Hughes' uncertain look? He's awaiting word from his doctor Wednesday about a return for the playoffs.

One On One . . . To Five

Five questions with Cavaliers guard Larry Hughes:

Q: It's been a month since you underwent surgery on your fractured finger. How close are we to seeing you back on the floor?

A: At this point, I don't know anything. Nothing is definite. I have a doctor's appointment [Wednesday] and then hopefully I'll know what I can start doing. If everything goes well, maybe I can be a couple weeks away from playing.

Q: Will we see you in the playoffs at the very least?

A: My goal is to get back before the playoffs. If I have to wait until the playoffs, I'll be down for three months without doing anything right-handed, any contact, anything meaningful. It's tough when you can't help. Any time you change teams, you want to come in and make an impact.

Q: So how's your left hand developing?

A: It's coming along. The guys are trying to keep me into it with shooting games after practice, stuff like that.

Q: As a teammate, are you as curious about LeBron's future as so many of us on the outside?

A: I haven't asked him about it. I'm just approaching it like he'll re-sign and we'll get a chance to play together for years down the road.

Q: I'm guessing that you wouldn't have left Washington if you didn't have a pretty good idea that he'd be staying.

A: Pretty much. Pretty much. I was definitely looking to go somewhere where you have the opportunity to win every night. Not really knowing his status, I just have a feeling things will work out. It's not often you get a franchise handed to you. That's a tough thing to leave.

Stock Report

A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:

Highest Rise: No. 9 Sacramento Kings
The Kings' seven-spot leap in the latest rankings was actually matched by Boston, but Sacramento's move into the top 10 for the first time since the preseason -- and into the West's top eight -- earns them this coveted corner of cyberspace. It's still early in the Artest Era, so I'm hardly prepared to ditch my initial skepticism about the trade, but the Kings have played only eight home games since getting Ron-Ron and won them all. Couple that with a 7-7 road record in the same span and suddenly Sacto is making a bid for Team No One Wants To Play status.

Steepest Fall: No. 26 Minnesota Timberwolves
While Sacramento revels in its highest ranking of the season, Kevin Garnett's Timberwolves have hit a new low. I can't imagine that the Wolves, after this eight-spot drop, have ever been ranked this far down . . . mainly since you have to go back Garnett's rookie season in 1995-96 for the last time Minnesota was 10 games under .500. Don't forget that last season's underachievers still managed to finish 44-38 despite missing the playoffs. These Wolves would need a 15-4 run just to record a .500 season.

Marc Stein's Complete Power Rankings


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