The Cavs escaped Game 5 and the first round with a 96-94 home victory against Chicago on Tuesday. The details will be lost amid the speculation over LeBron James' elbow, which was so sore at the end of the game that he shot a free throw left-handed.
James said a recent MRI showed no structural damage and that he would be ready for Game 1 of Round 2 against the Celtics on Saturday. But he also said he didn't know what was causing the numbing sensation. With three full days before his next game, James will have plenty of chances to figure out what is bothering him and offer fans and media plenty of time to ponder a playoff future for the Cavs without James. That doesn't mean Game 5 with James was a beauty for Cleveland, but it got the job done.
• Shaq's back. All series long the Cavs force-fed Shaquille O'Neal in an attempt to get him re-incorporated into the team's schemes, an effort that often left their offense disjointed and their defensive rotations slow. Ugly as it was, it was necessary if Cleveland is to be running on all cylinders in the conference semifinals or beyond. In Game 5, Shaq looked better than he had all series. Smart around the basket, Shaq mixed a handful of bank shots with nifty passes to cutters. And he drew a slew of late fouls, many of which appeared sketchy at best, but still was effective at disrupting the Bulls' defense. On defense Shaq was active, challenging shots, diving for loose balls and rebounding, which limited the Bulls' second-chance opportunities. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it may prove an important piece in the Cavs' spring puzzle.
• Focus. Focus. Focus. Cleveland had numerous chances to break open Game 5, but as this team does to an alarming degree, it didn't settle for the methodical. Too many times someone tried the spectacular pass through traffic. Too many times they lined up the home run three-pointer instead of making the extra pass inside. Too many times James waved off teammates to go one-on-one versus an active Bulls defense. Consequently, the Cavs found themselves going more than five minutes in the third quarter without a field goal, or within a foul call or two of being down more than a basket in the fourth quarter.
If there is a weakness with the Cavs, it is a tendency to get lazy in their execution and play-calling among the players. That's why Antawn Jamison can carry the team in the first half, but get only three shots in the second. Playoff games aren't won with a big three early in the third quarter. This is grind-it-out time. And while the refs and some untimely Bulls shooting helped the Cavs move to Round 2, the Celtics won't be so forgiving.
• Give peace a chance (or at least a year). Vultures have reportedly been circling Vinny Del Negro in Chicago since his run-in with team president John Paxson over Joakim Noah's playing time. While Del Negro isn't a finished product as a coach, he has the ear and respect of the Bulls. Two years running he has coaxed his team to put a real scare in teams that were expected to roll over Chicago. He has overseen Noah's growth from energy sub into a fine starting big man. And he has Derrick Rose's ear, no small factor in getting the rest of the roster to buy into what Del Negro is selling. With a summer of free-agent shopping ahead that could leave the roster vastly improved, Del Negro deserves a chance to tease this sort of performance in at least one more regular season. But it is doubtful he'll get that opportunity.
• Go West, young man. With his preseason arrest for weapons possession and his struggles with emotional health obscuring Delonte West's presence this season, he demonstrated Tuesday that Cleveland needs the guard if it hopes to win a title. With Mo Williams and Anthony Parker shooting a combined 3-for-16, West's 16 points were instrumental in helping the Cavs avoid a sweat-inducing Game 6 in Chicago. He also showed again why he may be Cleveland's best on-ball defender not named LeBron, displaying quick feet and good anticipation in the passing lanes.
• What's next? The Celtics answered a lot of the questions by dispatching the Heat in five games. While Boston's defense and talent level will likely make for a long series, the Cavs might be better suited to face the Celtics. Boston is a team Cleveland is built to contend with, especially with the big lineups Mike Brown tends to favor. Possessed with more poise but less athleticism than the Bulls, the Celtics' wings may face a tough task dealing with players such as Parker and Jamario Moon, whom Cleveland imported last summer. That won't be the case for Rajon Rondo, who will likely torch the Cavs defense like Rose did for Chicago. That may not be enough to overcome a healthy James, but it will be enough to throw the series in doubt should LeBron struggle with his sore elbow.