|Focus is on Celtics and Pistons, but don't give away Cavs' East crown just yet|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 07 March 2008 12:32|
At the same time Wednesday night, LeBron James was reminding everyone why they shouldn't give away the defending conference champ's crown just yet.
James' 50-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound masterpiece in a 119-105 victory at New York was one of the most spectacular performances in the NBA this season, maybe even better than anything he delivered last postseason while carrying an otherwise flawed Cleveland team to its first NBA finals.
These Cavaliers look much better. What should scare the Celtics and Pistons is that so does James.
``I like this team. I think this team has a chance to be just as good if not a little bit better than the team from last year,'' Cleveland coach Mike Brown said.
The Cavs put on the worst offensive display in finals history while getting swept by San Antonio. Part of the problem was James, who couldn't hit from the outside with enough consistency to soften the Spurs defense and give him room to drive.
But as he showed while hitting seven 3-pointers against the Knicks, that part of his game is no longer a weakness. James went into the weekend leading the NBA with 30.8 points per game, and his averages of 8.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists were also career highs.
And his supporting cast should be much better. The trade deadline deal that brought Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith to Cleveland improved every aspect of the Cavaliers in some way, from rebounding and defense to perimeter shooting.
``We've been playing great basketball since these guys have been a part of it,'' James said. ``I think we're finally almost getting to the point where we're learning the system, knowing each other, knowing where we like to have the ball, where we don't like the ball.
``My game is always going to be the same. I'm going to play every game like it's my last and play hard no matter who is on my team. It gave me a little more momentum to go out there and play harder because, bringing in some new guys, I want them to know that this not all talent what I do on the basketball court. I work at it.''
Cleveland lost 107-96 the next night in Chicago, as James' 39 points weren't nearly enough for a team playing without Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson, all key members of their rotation.
The Cavs face long odds to get back to the finals. Cleveland had a fairly easy run last year, beating a pair of .500 teams in Washington and New Jersey before knocking off the Pistons to win the East title.
Currently sitting in fourth place in the East, the Cavs would likely have to face the Celtics or Pistons in the second round, with the other one waiting in the conference finals. Even with their improvements, the Cavs wouldn't be favored to pull that off, and Brown conceded that ``it's going to be a lot tougher this year than it was last year.''
James is used to the doubts, and seems anxious for his chance to prove them wrong.
``That's what it's been like since I've been in the league. We just go out and play,'' he said. ``We don't worry about what other people think. That's their job to go out there and talk about possible MVP, possible Eastern Conference champions or possible world champions. But you've got to step on the court and you got to play. We'll see what happens.''
PREDATOR TO PREY: Teams have figured out that they can no longer just show up and expect to beat the New Orleans Hornets.
The Hornets are now learning the same lesson when they play struggling opponents.
New Orleans' vault toward to the top of the Western Conference means foes now view the Hornets as a good win, instead of an expected one.
``Teams get up for us. Teams get up to play us,'' center Tyson Chandler said. ``It's no longer us being the (hunter), now we're the hunted. Predator to prey. It makes it tougher because those games you used to be able to kind of sneak by, no longer sneak by. You've got every team in the league gunning for you now.''
That wasn't the case in Byron Scott's first three years, when the Hornets finished below .500. This time, they are in position to earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in the powerful Western Conference.
``It's a little bit different than it was last year, last couple of seasons,'' Scott said. ``I think teams, they don't look at their schedule and just write a 'W' right there. I think they respect us a lot more than they did the last couple of seasons, so that's something that we've earned.''
However, there is a negative. Now it's the Hornets, not their foes, who are more likely to come out flat. Scott was angry with his team when that happened last Sunday, as the Hornets lost for the second time in a week to a Washington team playing without stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler.
``Again, we still have to understand when you're playing teams that are less talented than you are as far as their record is concerned, that they're going get ready for you to play,'' Scott said. ``So that's something that we haven't been used to and that's something that we hopefully have to get used to.''
SETTLING IN: It's taken a little bit of time for Jason Richardson to get comfortable in his new digs in Charlotte, but it couldn't be coming at a better time for the injury-plagued Bobcats.
Acquired in a draft-night deal with Golden State, Richardson has blossomed with leading scorer Gerald Wallace on the sidelines because of a concussion.
Eliminating a game against the Knicks in which he was limited by an eye injury, Richardson averaged 30.1 points over a recent six-game stretch. He scored 30 points in back-to-back games against Boston and Toronto, had 25 in a win over Minnesota on Tuesday night, then scored a season-high 42 against his old teammates in a victory over the Warriors on Wednesday.
``I think it has taken him some time to get comfortable in a new situation with new teammates,'' coach Sam Vincent said. ``He had to pick up a new system. We don't run and quick-shoot as much as they do in Golden State. So, it took him some time to develop a real comfort level, but he has gotten to that point now.''
Richardson has been working hard on his outside shot, and though Charlotte does like to get out and run in transition, he still had to get used to a more structured offensive system.
``In Golden State it was free-for-all. We had so many shooters it was like, any time you are open you shoot the ball,'' Richardson said. ``I kind of still do that sometimes. I sometimes take some bad ones.
``I am used to just being out there catching the ball and shooting, and coach is giving me the opportunity, the green light, to do that because he knows we'll knock a lot of them down. I can't just settle for that all the time.''
Richardson has more in common with Bobcats basketball boss Michael Jordan than just the jersey No. 23. The two high-flying guards are the only players in league history to win back-to-back Slam Dunk titles.
But Richardson leads the league in 3-pointers made this season, adding a dimension to keep defenders off balance.
``A lot of people will start playing up on me because they know I can knock those down,'' Richardson said. ``So I have to find ways to get to the basket or dish the ball off to my teammates.''
BAD TIMING: The Indiana Pacers picked the wrong time for a trip to Texas.
In what may go down as one of the toughest back-to-backs in the NBA this season, Indiana had to play in Houston on Wednesday and San Antonio on Thursday. The Rockets beat the Pacers 117-99 for their franchise-record 16th straight victory, then the Spurs made it 11 in a row with their 108-97 win the next night.
``Clearly playing both the Rockets and the Spurs is a very hard challenge for us right now,'' Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said. ``Not too many teams get the opportunity to play against a team that has 15 wins in a row and 11 in a row. We just didn't have what it took to get things done.''
The Pacers are scheduled for another trip to the Lone Star State next Friday to face Dallas.
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.