Updated: March 15, 2006, 3:05 AM ET
SPECIAL MIDWEEK EDITION:
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
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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.
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.