INDEPENDENCE — To start him or bring him off the bench, that will be the question.
By the time power forward Ben Wallace is ready to return from a broken leg, Anderson Varejao and the Cavaliers will likely have answered that question for coach Mike Brown.
Cleveland, which brings an NBA-best 60-13 record and franchise-record 12-game winning streak into tonightâ€™s game against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena, has gone 16-1 since losing Wallace to a broken right fibula in a Feb. 26 loss in Houston.
â€œI feel pretty good about that,â€ Varejao said after practice Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. â€œI know we need Ben and heâ€™s very important to the team, but the team is still doing well.â€
In the 17 games heâ€™s started since Wallace got hurt, Varejao is averaging 10.0 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting .578 from the field. Over his last 13 games, those numbers are 11.2, 8.6 and .604, including a highly productive 13.0, 9.0 and .647 in Clevelandâ€™s last four games.
â€œItâ€™s good to be starting,â€ said the 6-foot-11, 260-pounder, who has helped the Cavaliers to a 28-6 re-cord this season when heâ€™s been on the floor for the opening tip. â€œI feel pretty good out there. But as Iâ€™ve said before, for me, itâ€™s not whoâ€™s starting, itâ€™s who finishes. The bottom line is to keep improving and hold the team together.â€
Brownâ€™s philosophy dur-ing his four seasons in Cleveland has been that a starter gets his spot back when heâ€™s healthy, but there are extenuating circum-stances in this instance.
For one, the Cavaliers are an NBA-best 20-2 since the All-Star break and have won 29 of their last 34 games. Though they also played extremely well with Wallace starting some of those games â€” they are 42-11 on the season with him on the floor for the opening tip â€” things are going so well right now it would be risky to change the lineup.
Two, Wallace has yet to go through a full-contact practice and appears to be at least a week away â€” and possibly two â€” from returning. There are only 15 days left in the regular season, so that wouldnâ€™t give the Cavaliers much, if any, time to adjust.
Three, the very proud Wallace realizes all those factors â€” the time constraints, the current chemistry of the team, the rust he will have to shake off â€” and says he wonâ€™t be upset â€œat allâ€ if heâ€™s asked to come off the bench.
â€œAs long as Iâ€™m playing basketball, itâ€™s the same game as everybody else is playing,â€ the 13th-year pro said.
For now, the main goal is to get Wallace some game action before the end of the regular season.
â€œI need to be out there and get my timing,â€ he said. â€œIf I have to come back in the playoffs, Iâ€™m not really going to help the team that much.â€
With Joe Smith also now in the fold inside, Brown can afford to ease Wallace back. Under ideal circum-stances, the 6-9, 240-pounder would then be ready to be a valuable defensive presence when the Cavaliers figure to need him most, in the East-ern Conference finals against Boston or Orlando or in a possible NBA Finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers.
â€œYou want, not only for him, but for the team and myself, to have him play in a few regular-season games,â€ Brown said.
Brown wonâ€™t come out and directly say as much, but the run the Cavaliers are currently on will make it extremely tough to make a lineup switch, especially this late in the season.
â€œYouâ€™ve got to take that and everything else into consideration,â€ the coach said. â€œYouâ€™ve got to get a feel for the psyche of the team.
â€œItâ€™s no secret weâ€™re playing good basketball, but itâ€™s something I havenâ€™t thought a ton about because we donâ€™t know when Ben is coming back.â€
Varejao, who can opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, is also trying to stay focused on the present.
â€œItâ€™s the coachâ€™s decision,â€ he said. â€œAll Iâ€™m going to do is keep playing hard and keep working hard and try to help the team. I donâ€™t really want to think about it.â€
The ball used by Zydrunas Ilgauskas to score his 10,000th career point March 21 was intended to be a keepsake for the veteran center, but it has mysteriously disappeared.
A Cleveland television station was at practice Monday to do a lighthearted piece on the matter, and the always cooperative Ilgauskas played right along. Ilgauskas said he would sign as many items as necessary to get whoever has the ball to return it. If thatâ€™s not enough, Ilgauskas joked he would try to get LeBron James to sign a few things.
The once-proud Pistons (36-37) had slipped to eighth in the Eastern Conference, which would mean a first-round playoff meeting with the Cavaliers, but they passed Chicago on Sunday and moved back to No. 7.
Guard Allen Iverson has just returned from a sore back, while power forward Rasheed Wallace (strained calf) could be back in action tonight.
A win tonight would give the Cavaliers a 16-1 record for the month of March. The last team to win that many games in a month was San Antonio (16-0) in March 1996. The only other teams to accomplish the feat have been Detroit (16-1 in March 1989), Boston (16-1 in March 1982), the Lakers (16-0 in December 1972) and Milwaukee (16-2 in Febru-ary 1971).
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.