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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

LeBron James' Cavaliers get an A for effort in becoming NBA's alpha team

Cleveland did upgrade in the off-season by adding Shaquille O'Neal, but the Lakers and Celtics appeared to improve themselves even more. The reason the Cavaliers have passed their rivals is because th

January 24, 2010|Mark Heisler

Who are these guys?

Same guys they were same time last season.

It's true. Even as the NBA's newest marquee team with Shaquille O'Neal joining LeBron James, and its hottest with 18 wins in 22 games, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't dramatically different.

James still scores or assists on 44% of their points.

Unlike last season, when four Cavaliers averaged double figures, only three do that now and one -- Mo Williams -- was just lost for a month.

O'Neal, who has a physical presence and puts fouls on opposing centers, is not, as Charles Barkley called him, "the same player as Zydrunas Ilgauskas."

Nevertheless, Ilgauskas' numbers last season were better than Shaq's this season (12.9 points and 7.5 rebounds to 10.7 and 6.7.)

Last season's team ran away with the East and beat out the favored Lakers for best record . . . which I'd bet this season's team will do again.

Of course, Orlando dumped those Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. Without James' last-second three-pointer in Game 2, the Magic would have swept them.

The Cavaliers upgraded with Shaq and Ilgauskas in tandem and Anthony Parker and J.J. Hickson instead of Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak -- but not as much as the Lakers and Celtics upgraded.

The Cavaliers yearned for Rasheed Wallace, but Boston grabbed him before they knew what hit them, along with Marquis Daniels and Shelden Williams.

Meanwhile, the Lakers effectively added a 7-footer with Andrew Bynum going from last postseason's 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds a game to 15.4 and 8.4.

That leaves the Cavaliers as the humble little team . . . that's still kicking them around, having swept the Lakers and zoomed past the Celtics, who led them by 1 1/2 games on Christmas and trailed them by 3 1/2 before Saturday.

There's a simple reason, aside from the presence of one man, er, superman:

The Cavaliers play harder.

The Lakers show more urgency than last season, but that hardly puts them on the Cavaliers' level. In Thursday's game the team with Shaq, Ilgauskas, Hickson and Anderson Varejao outrebounded the team with Bynum, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom by five.

The Celtics played as hard as the Cavaliers -- when they were younger. Now they are the Spurs of the East, 4-6 since Christmas as Coach Doc Rivers nurses Kevin Garnett along, with Wallace out too.

The Cavaliers' gung-ho spirit flows, of course, from James. Aside from everything else he does, as a leader, he's the closest thing to Magic Johnson since Magic Johnson.

Unlike Kobe Bryant, a Michael Jordan-style leader by intimidation, James is a positive reinforcer.

It's a blast being around LeBron, who's all fun all the time with his team-picture skits, break dances, etc., infuriating opponents but keeping teammates in stitches.

It's great to play with him, as it has been since he was at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High, where he readily gave the ball up to four guys from the neighborhood.

"LeBron plays with joy and intensity, which is difficult and rare," ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said.

"Combine that with an A-plus skill set and you have an all-time great player and leader."

There is a downside for teams that play so hard in the regular season. Their advantage fades in the playoffs when everyone plays hard (with the occasional exception of the Lakers).

The playoffs are about matchups, such as that Orlando high-pick-and-roll the Cavaliers still can't cover.

Before their Christmas romp over the Lakers that turned everything around, the hole in the Cavaliers' defense looked so huge, ABC's Mark Jackson called them "a disaster waiting to happen."

In a loss in Memphis where Mike Conley scooted past O'Neal for the game-winning layup, Grizzlies Coach Lionel Hollins actually said of Shaq, "I was hoping he would still be in the game, so we could [put] him in the pick-and-roll."

The Cavaliers called around, offering Ilgauskas' expiring contract for Washington's Antawn Jamison and New Orleans' David West. When they missed out on Golden State's Stephen Jackson, who went to Charlotte, James broke with protocol to acknowledge he would have loved playing with him.

They fell in Houston the night after the Memphis loss, dropping them to 15-7.

Since, they're 18-4.

Riding on this is James' future, and the NBA's balance of power, the Pundits' Blue Plate Special.

The consensus has been James will stay.

My guess is he's gone if the Cavaliers don't make the Finals, which looked like a 2-1 shot at best with two teams as good as they were, Boston and Orlando.

Now I'd give the Cavaliers a 50-50 chance to get out of the East with the Celtics limping toward spring and the Magic in search of itself

I also had an Age of Kobe theory, noting titles would ultimately decide whether Bryant or James would be remembered as the best, as Jordan's six titles raised him above all comers in the '90s.

Since Bryant led, 4-0, and was on a great team while James had to be his own team, the world looked like Kobe's to inherit.

This just in: It's still a ballgame.

Of course, the season just raises issues and the playoffs settle them, so little actually changed.

James is still knocking them dead in Cleveland and everyone else is once again looking at going there for Games 1, 2 and 7.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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