Cavs one step away from franchise's first Finals trip
CLEVELAND -- Orange, blue and white uniforms and thigh-hugging shorts. Mark Price ran the point, Brad Daugherty manned the middle and Craig Ehlo's defensive assignment was not a fun one: guarding Michael Jordan.
Remember those Cleveland Cavaliers?
Well, when that Lenny Wilkens-coached crew made the NBA's Eastern Conference finals, CDs were just out of their wrappers and Johnny Carson was days away from his goodbye to late-night TV.
It was 1992. LeBron James was 7.
"I wasn't even playing organized sports," he said last week.
Fifteen years later, James and the Cavaliers are again among pro basketball's final four.
Cleveland, a franchise teetering on extinction before James' arrival four years ago, advanced to the conference finals for just the third time with an 88-72 win in Game 6 against the New Jersey Nets on Friday night.
James fought off foul trouble to finish with 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Cavaliers, who will meet the Detroit Pistons in Game 1 on Monday night in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"This is uncharted water for us," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "This team obviously has not been there, so it's a nice step for us because we made it to the semifinals last year. We're excited about it, we're confident about it and we're looking forward to it."
The series opener will come exactly one year since Cleveland's 2006 season ended with a Game 7 loss in the conference semis to the Pistons, whose vicelike defense strangled James in the second half of a 79-61 win.
However, those Cavaliers were not as (post)seasoned as this year's squad, which has more offensive options than a year ago and doesn't have to rely nearly as much on James to do it all -- all the time.
In Friday's win, Cleveland's superstar, who at times has been too deferential during these playoffs, got a huge assist from two forgotten veteran teammates. Donyell Marshall celebrated his 34th birthday with 18 points -- all on 3-pointers -- and Damon Jones, better known for his flashy wardrobe than defense, helped hold Vince Carter without a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Their contributions, along with some clutch outside shooting by rookie Daniel Gibson, showcased both Cleveland's depth and perhaps a deeper resolve by the Cavaliers to make an already special season one to remember.
"It was big how guys stepped up," James said. "We have some true professionals on our team who were called upon, and they answered the call."
While waiting around for Brown to holler their names, Marshall and Jones were among a group of reserves who have been playing on the practice court in Quicken Loans Arena on game days to stay sharp.
"LeBron and Larry [Hughes] and them would laugh at us talking about, 'What are you guys doing? We got a game,'" Marshall said. "We knew we weren't playing but we wanted to stay in the best kind of shape possible for these situations. That's the sign of a true professional."
Until now, the Cavs have had a relatively clear path. As the No. 2 seed, Cleveland had little trouble sweeping the seventh-seeded Washington Wizards, who were missing injured All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler.
The sixth-seeded Nets were tougher, beating Cleveland at home in a close-out game before going down on their own floor in six.
Now come the Pistons, the No. 1 seed making a fifth straight trip to the conference finals. They are the only team left between Cleveland and the NBA finals. The Cavaliers, formed as an expansion team in 1970, have never played for the title.
"I am tired of losing to those guys," Drew Gooden said.
Back in '92, it was Jordan who denied the Cavs a spot in the finals as Chicago eliminated Cleveland in six games. And as it was for Jordan, the Pistons are the final hurdle for the 22-year-old James, who made it to the conference finals a season sooner than his boyhood idol.
He has been criticized for not being more like Mike, for not taking over games as the more famous No. 23 once did.
"It's about winning, isn't it?" James said. "It's not about me going out there and scoring 35 points a night and losing. We're in a business where we're all about winning, and we're moving on."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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