Friday January 22nd, 2010

Here are five things we learned from Cleveland's gritty 93-87 victory over Los Angeles on Thursday night:

1. The Cavs can beat the Lakers at home, on the road and when undermanned. Arguably the most impressive aspect of the Cavaliers' win was that they accomplished it without Mo Williams -- the club's second-leading scorer (16.9 points) and minute-man (35.6) -- and Jamario Moon (who scored 13 points in 24 minutes in the Christmas Day win over L.A.). LeBron James was right when he told TNT after the game that you can't overanalyze Cleveland's two victories. But should these two teams meet in the Finals, this win will undoubtedly do wonders for the Cavaliers' confidence.

2. Mike Brown's strategy against Kobe Bryant is working -- whatever it might be. Bryant is now 23-for-64 (36 percent) against the Cavaliers this season and has yet to establish a rhythm in either contest. Brown's strategy is to utilize each of his defensive assets. James can be physical with Bryant and bump him off his spots. The 6-foot-6 Anthony Parker has a long wingspan and can contest many of Bryant's shots. Delonte West, who drew the assignment in the fourth quarter on Thursday, is quick enough to stay with Bryant off the dribble. Bryant is still going to get his points -- he added 31 to the 35 he scored in their first meeting -- but Cleveland's ability to throw different looks at him is effective and forcing Bryant to toss up more shots than Phil Jackson is probably comfortable with.

3. Ron Artest is a great defender. Just maybe not against LeBron James. One of the big reasons the Lakers signed Artest was his ability to defend bigger players like James and Denver's Carmelo Anthony. Yet while Artest's physicality is an asset against Anthony, who gets a lot of touches in the low post, he has been completely ineffective in two head-to-head meetings with James. The reason is two-fold: The Cavaliers run a lot of pick-and-rolls for James, and his explosiveness coming off the screen neutralizes Artest's D and puts a lot of pressure on the Lakers' big men to stay with LeBron on the way to the basket. The other reason is, quite simply, James is just too fast for Artest to stay with off the dribble and capable of getting his shot on the rim, even after first contact.

4. Andrew Bynum is still a major asset for the Lakers. Bynum's numbers (5.5 points, 7.0 rebounds) against Cleveland this year are hardly noteworthy, but his ability to defend Shaquille O'Neal one-on-one will be a significant factor should these teams meet again. With Bynum -- the only Lakers player who finished with a positive plus/minus -- on the bench in foul trouble in the third quarter, the Lakers had a chance to push their lead to double digits. But O'Neal scored back-to-back buckets against a defenseless Pau Gasol to keep the Cavs within striking distance. O'Neal isn't the force he once was, but against L.A.'s finesse front of Gasol, Lamar Odom and D.J. Mbenga, he's capable of dominating. Bynum's size and length is the Lakers' only hope for a deterrent.

5. Anderson Varejao annoys everyone, but he really annoys the Lakers. Varejao came up with the play of the game when he drew a loose-ball foul on Artest after he escaped an Artest-Gasol sandwich in the paint to track down James' missed free throw with 20 seconds left. Varejao is a Brazilian Energizer Bunny and L.A. still hasn't figured out an answer to his constantly running motor. He was a staggering +20 in the first meeting and finished with 11 points and eight rebounds on Thursday. He's stronger than Gasol, quicker than Bynum and too physical for Odom, who was visibly frustrated with Varejao on Thursday.

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