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Turnaround of Year: How the Cavaliers Made the Playoffs

April 21, 1985|United Press International

RICHFIELD, Ohio — By mid-December, George Karl was getting so little respect that even Rodney Dangerfield would not return his phone calls.

"It got to the point where my dog insisted on wearing sunglasses and a beard whenever I walked him," said the Cleveland Cavaliers' rookie coach.

"Things were going from bad to terrible. With a 2-19 start staring me in the face, I knew I had to do something to save the team and my job.

"That something was to admit I was wrong. I knew John Bagley was our point guard and Roy Hinson our power forward. But the rest of the lineup needed juggling."

Karl, his team finally injury-free, subsequently made three significant changes that turned around Cleveland's season and propelled the Cavs to their first playoff berth in seven years.

--Phil Hubbard moved into a starting role, replacing Paul Thompson.

--World B. Free was given more playing time, and began starting in place of Johnny Davis.

--Rookie center Mel Turpin was outshone by reserve Mark West, who took over a starting role in February.

Hubbard's debut as a starter was a success. The 6-foot-8 center, a five-year veteran, scored 18 points and paced Cleveland to a 102-97 victory over New York on Dec. 15.

"That felt so good," said Hubbard. "At that point, we had lost seven straight. Our only wins were against Atlanta (102-99 in the Omni on Nov. 15, after losing the first nine games; and 118-111 at the Coliseum on Nov. 25).

"I think Coach was willing to give me a chance and create some movement inside."

Hubbard is averaging 16.2 points on .515 shooting since he dethroned Thompson, who was traded to Milwaukee on Feb. 12.

Following the triumph over the Knicks, the Cavs won three of four games with decisions over San Antonio, Indiana and Atlanta (again).

But Cleveland then lost three straight, and Karl realized more offense was needed.

"I saw how Phil being in the lineup made Roy a lot more comfortable," said Karl. "Having World play more took the offensive load off the rest of the guys.

"I was wrong to use World as a reserve. We needed him more than 25 minutes or so. He started hitting jumpers, and Bagley piled up the assists he deserved."

Free scored 21 points as host Cleveland surprised Washington 100-93 on Jan. 3, and the Cavs surged.

Victories over Phoenix and New Jersey followed, and 18,074 packed the Richfield Coliseum on Jan. 12 expecting to see Chicago rookie sensation Michael Jordan shine.

Instead, Free grabbed the headlines by scoring 32 points and handing the Bulls a 101-98 defeat.

"That really was the pivotal point for me," said the veteran guard. "That was the night I got all my old confidence back."

But yet another problem surfaced--Turpin began being manhandled by the stronger NBA centers.

Cleveland lost four straight games and six of its next eight. Karl, upset with Turpin's lackadaisical practices, looked to the obscure West for help.

Free scored 26 points and Hubbard added 11 rebounds in a 110-94 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at home on Jan. 29.

After faltering to a 2-3 mark in early February, West started for the first time on Feb. 7 against Chicago.

The result? West absorbed the punishment of the pivot well and his aggressive boxing-out helped teammate Ben Poquette collect 16 rebounds.

Free, meanwhile, had 29 points and the Cavs won, 108-99, to improve to 16-33.

Visions of the playoffs began during a three-day period in mid-February when Cleveland defeated Philadelphia twice.

The Cavs dumped the 76ers, 112-107, in Philadelphia on Feb. 15, and duplicated that on Feb. 18 at the Coliseum with a 120-113 result as Free scored 35 points.

On Feb. 23, Cleveland routed NBA Central Division-leading Milwaukee, 128-106, at the Coliseum, sparking a six-game winning streak that brought the Cavs to 25-37.

Another six-game winning skein that began in late March further improved Cleveland's record to 34-43 and placed the team on the verge of making the playoffs.

On April 9, before 10,185 at the Coliseum, Free scored 35 points and Hubbard added 22 to pace Cleveland to a 114-100 decision over New Jersey.

"That clinched the playoffs, and a meeting with Boston," said Karl. "I know people give me the credit, but all I did is admit I was wrong.

"If I make NBA coach of the year, that's great. I already know I have the team of the year."

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