JANUARY 12, 2009 6:01PM

The Cavs look like the team to beat in the East...

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Regardless of what Celtics or Magic fans may argue to the contrary, the Cleveland Cavaliers have quietly become the Eastern Conference's best team.

Just a handful of games remain before the official halfway point of the 08-09 season and King James and Co. have the best record in the conference at 29-6. As of Monday, the Lakers were a half game better at an NBA-leading 30-6, but Kobe's Western Conference powerhouse already lost a pair of games at home--something Cleveland has yet to do this season.

In fact, since the third game of the year, the Cavs are a mind-blowing 28-4, with their only losses coming on the road at Detroit, Atlanta, Miami and Washington.

Friday's dominant win over the defending champs from Boston may be remembered in five months' time as the "passing of the guard." LeBron dropped 38 points on the Celtics.  Perhaps more impressively,  the Cavs oft-ignored supporting big men manhandled Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe in the paint. 

The Cavs were so completely in control of the game that by the five minute mark in the fourth quarter, Celtics coach Doc Rivers had ordered up the 'hack-a-Wallace,' in order to limit Cavs possessions by forcing the notoriously poor free-throw shooting Ben Wallace to the line.

Big Ben converted 5o-percent of his fourth quarter charity stripe heaves, with the crowd going bananas after every attempt. Wallace joyfully played to the audience and openly smiled on the court for the first time that I can remember since he was cutting down the nets in Detroit.  A few minutes later, Wallace hit the bench and the "Chalupa!" chant erupted. Apparently Cleveland ticket holders get a free Taco Bell entree with every 20-point Cavs home win.

Until one watches a few televised games from The Quicken Loans Arena (aka "The Q"), it is easy to write off the Cavs' success as LeBron carrying a mediocre team, as he has in seasons past.

But that was clearly not what was happening Friday, nor has it been the case all year.

While LeBron grabs the headlines, the supporting cast of Mo Williams (who should be an all-star in his own right), Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace, Boobie Gibson, Wally Szczerbiak, Aleksandar Pavlovic and even J.J. Hickson are all playing the type of defensively-oriented, all-hustle ball that hearkens back to the Bulls' championship teams of the 90's.

What does this all mean? Bad news for the entire Eastern Conference, especially for the Knicks--who have already gone all-in for the summer of 2010 (when LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh each splash into their first free agency markets). It will surely be much harder to lure King James away from his home state if he's already got a pair of NBA titles under his belt. And with the way his team is playing right now, it looks like LeBron's first title is not too far away.

(photo by Tracy Boulian/The Plain Dealer)


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Unquestionably, the win against Boston was a statement. Not merely because they won, but because they did so in dominant fashion. However, their schedule over the next twelve days should show what the Cavaliers are made of. They just beat the Hornets at home, but now they face the Lakers, Blazers, Jazz, and Magic - all on the road. Delonte West was injured this week and will be out for six weeks. This makes the ensuing test even harder, since West has become an integral part of the team (statistically, West and Lebron make the best duo in the NBA right now).
To me they were already the best team last year, albeit very narrowly. Boston only beat them because they had home court. Even so, the Cavaliers had a chance to get a win in almost every game on the road in that series while the Celtics never looked like they could win in any of the three games in Cleveland.
The Q is a madhouse. It's hard for the visiting team to win there no matter who they are, as is evidenced by the fact that the Cavaliers are undefeated at home thus far this season. It largely has to do with the fact that Northern Ohio has been championship starved since 1964 (excluding indoor soccer).
Losing West is a bigger blow than having Big Z out. Tonight's game in L.A. is going to be a show. You're right Nathan, this is a crucial stretch for the Cavs.

On to the Q and Cleveland fans--I read a report recently that Cavs regional broadcasts are getting far and away the highest ratings league wide. The Cavs local games garner viewers at double the league average. The people in the Q believe and the people of Ohio are doing their damn best to keep Lebron around.

Hell, the crappy duo of cable networks that "cover" my Hawks don't even pick up every game. How am I supposed to watch my team when they're playing on the road and the local affiliate has bumped them for women's ACC hoops? pathetic.
Well, the Cavaliers went 3-1 on their West Coast trip. It's better than I expected (I thought they'd lose 2 games), and pretty impressive, given the fact that they're short-handed right now, and given that they beat the Warriors and Jazz on back to back nights. This is even more impressive in comparison with the Celtics's West Coast road trip during the week of Christmas-New Years week.
The road trip was impressive. Orlando is really coming together lately, but I still don't think they're capable of winning at the Q. Of course, the Cavs have yet to play Orlando (they're going down to to Florida Thursday--it'll be on TNT), so we really don't know how they will match up. Cavs and Magic play three times from now until the end of the regular season--twice in Orlando. Those will definitely be games to watch.