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)