Winners of five straight, the Cavaliers can keep right on running for the moment, but their fans need to slow down and take a deep breath.
I know Cleveland put up 126 points in an overtime win in Toronto a week ago. I know the Cavaliers scored 101 points over the first three periods and led New York by 49 points early in the fourth period on Monday. I know they ran roughshod over the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday.
I’m also very aware 7-foot-1, 325-pound center Shaquille O’Neal —and unsigned 7-3 free agent Zydrunas Ilgauskas, for that matter —didn’t play in any of those games.
But all those fans who are hypothesizing that the Cavaliers are actually a better team without O’Neal —I know you’re out there, because I read your comments on Twitter and listen to you on talk radio – need a reality check.
Let’s remember, we are talking about the Raptors, who are softer than Charmin, the Knicks, who look like a bunch of guys somebody pulled out of the local rec, and the Nets, who can’t beat anyone.
Now don’t get me wrong.
In recent games, the Cavaliers have looked like the Los Angeles Lakers’ Showtime era of Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, etc. (I do, however, feel the overwhelming need to point out those teams also had a rather slow-footed center named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)
Sure, J.J. Hickson is not only leaping and ‘bounding, he’s improving by leaps and bounds.
Antawn Jamison is fitting in nicely, Anderson Varejao is wreaking havoc all over the court and LeBron James has been LeBron James.
That’s all great. As a fan, you’ve got to love the recent play of the Cavaliers, who will meet another sad-sack team when they host Detroit tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
But let’s keep it real.
Let’s remember the Cavaliers haven’t exactly been playing the Lakers or Orlando. Heck, they haven’t even been playing Dallas, Atlanta, Denver or San Antonio, which visits The Q on Monday.
More important still, let’s remember the playoffs are an entirely different animal.
Please, please, please remember that.
Teams meet as many as seven times in a row. Each knows the other’s plays as well as their own. The pace often slows to a crawl.
The officials allow more contact. Games get ugly. Defense rules as teams figure out ways for the ball to end up in the hands of the player least likely to make an open shot.
That’s when the Cavaliers will need O’Neal.
Remember how Kobe Bryant drove the lane and bounced off Shaq.
Remember how Shaq made a power move to the hoop and nearly obliterated an opposing center’s face with his elbow.
Remember, too, that Orlando has Dwight Howard and the Lakers have Andrew Bynum and Pao Gasol.
(Remember how effective Shaq and “Z” were against the Lakers in the regular season? Remember how many problems Howard caused Cleveland in the playoffs a year ago, minus Shaq?)
Most of all, remember the more good players the Cavaliers have around James, the better their chances of winning.
But, if you’re one of those people who just has to worry about something, worry about how coach Mike Brown is going to use his pieces when O’Neal and Ilgauskas return.
Where are Hickson’s minutes if O’Neal, Jamison and Varejao are playing in the playoffs, when rotations are shortened to eight players, nine at the most? Heck, there might not even be many minutes for Ilgauskas. Can Brown play Hickson and “Z?” If not, which one sits? Do they both?
Can Brown push the right buttons? Can he juggle a bench that will likely include Varejao, Ilgauskas, Hickson, Delonte West, Jamario Moon, Daniel Gibson and Jawad Williams? That’s seven guys, plus five starters. At least three reserves are going to have to sit in the postseason, four on some nights.
There’s time to figure all that out, of course, so if you want to enjoy how the Cavaliers are playing right now, by all means, go right ahead.
But do remember this: Against legitimate title contenders like the Lakers and Magic, the Cavaliers never were, are not now and never will be a better team without O’Neal.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.