Cavs steamrolling toward playoffs

Monday March 23rd, 2009

The Cavaliers are officially a juggernaut.

Cleveland has won nine in a row and is a staggering 32-1 at Quicken Loans Arena. It has a 4½-game lead in the East over Boston, 5½ games over Orlando and 16 over Atlanta. OK, so the last one's irrelevant.

Is there anything left for the Cavs to get excited about within their conference? Well, how about a first-round opponent?

Six teams -- Chicago, Milwaukee, Charlotte, New Jersey, Indiana and New York -- are vying for the East's eighth playoff spot. Of those teams, only Chicago (an overtime win in January) and Indiana (a one-point win in February) can claim a victory over Cleveland this season.

So which team would the Cavs prefer to face?

New York probably sounds pretty good. Cleveland is 4-0 against the Knicks this season, including LeBron James' 52-point outburst at Madison Square Garden in February. Think the LeBron-to-N.Y. rumors can't get any worse? Or that New York-area reporters can't extract insinuations from James' every word? Try a weeklong series with nothing else to focus on.

(All stats and records are through Sunday.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
It will be interesting to see what the Cavs do with Anderson Varejao this summer. Cleveland's top reserve has the option to terminate the final year of his contract, and indications are that he will do just that. Varejao, a favorite target for LeBron around the rim, is averaging a career-high 8.4 points this season and proved he can be an effective starter when he posted 11.3 points and 7.4 rebounds in the 16 games Zydrunas Ilgauskas was sidelined.
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 2
Good news, Lakers fans: Regardless of the outcome of this postseason, Phil Jackson will be back next season. When asked recently by local reporters if he envisioned a scenario in which the Lakers win the championship and he rides off into the sunset, Jackson said, "No, I certainly don't. I still have a year left on the contract."
3 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 4
Orlando Magic (51-18)
The Magic have been searching for an effective power player to ride shotgun next to Dwight Howard for most of Howard's five-year career. Could Marcin Gortat be the answer? The 6-11, 240-pound Gortat is averaging just 3.6 points and 4.3 rebounds, but he has come on of late, getting 10 points and eight rebounds against Milwaukee and following it up with five points and eight boards against the Knicks.
4 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
He's baaaack. Kevin Garnett returned to the Celtics lineup on Friday and chipped in 10 points in 15 minutes in a win over San Antonio. Garnett added another 10 points in 17 minutes in a blowout of the Grizzlies the next night. "I felt really good," Garnett said after the game in San Antonio. "I missed a couple of assignments, but overall it was good for me." Garnett's minutes are expected to increase against the Clippers on Monday in preparation for Wednesday's showdown with Orlando.
5 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 6
Perseverance, thy name is Houston. Tracy McGrady? Out. Rafer Alston? Traded. The latest setback came last week when backup forward Carl Landry sustained a minor leg injury after being shot outside a Houston-area restaurant. The Rockets responded by winning three straight (four overall), including a gritty win at San Antonio on Sunday. Said coach Rick Adelman: "I think [this team] always had an attitude. This group this year has responded game in and game out."
6 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
Eeeesh. A home loss to the depleted Celtics followed by a narrow defeat to the Rockets dropped the Spurs to third in the West. The good news is that injured guard Manu Ginobili has returned to practice and may be back on the floor by the end of the month. "It's the next step in getting him back to whole," coach Gregg Popovich said.
7 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 7
Byron Scott retired from the NBA in 1996, but he may need to call his own number if he wants some reliable bench help for his injury-plagued lineup. "I'm trying to find players who can help us hold a lead or cut into a deficit," Scott told local reporters. "Once I settle on a name, then I try to figure out the best way to use that player to help us win. I'm always thinking about that because it's really important right now." The task didn't get any easier Sunday: Already missing Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic, the Hornets lost Hilton Armstrong after he left a win over the Warriors to get stitches in his right ring finger.
8 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 8
They feasted on a soft recent schedule with five straight wins, against the Thunder, Clippers, Nets, Grizzlies and Wizards. Now comes a legitimate test: Denver begins an important week with road games against playoff contenders Phoenix, New Orleans and Dallas. "It's a big week for us," Chauncey Billups told the Denver Post. "I think it's just about being focused for longer periods of time."
9 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 9
Utah Jazz (43-26)
If the Jazz have any doubt if potential free agents Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap can play together, they need only look at the tape from Friday night's game against the Thunder. With Mehmet Okur out for the entire second half, Boozer (15 points, nine rebounds) and Millsap (14 and seven) played well together in the victory. "We know each other," Millsap told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I know what he's gonna do. I actually read off of him [and] see what he's gonna do."
10 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 11
Obligatory Greg Oden Update: The often-injured former No. 1 pick returned to the lineup last Wednesday, scoring four points and pulling down seven rebounds. Oden played in Portland's two subsequent games but has yet to crack 13 minutes in either game. "I'm just trying to get back in the swing of things, get my wind back," Oden told reporters. "Hopefully next time I can go longer."
11 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 10
Atlanta Hawks (41-29)
Is there any team that needs home-court advantage in the first round more than the Hawks? Atlanta is 27-7 at home this season but just 14-22 away from Philips Arena. The Hawks have a murderer's row of games this week, with home dates against the Spurs, Celtics and Lakers.
12 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 12
Here's what an NBA executive told me recently about the Mavs: "You can't take any team that is starting Antoine Wright seriously." Wright has been decent filling in as the starting small forward, averaging 10.1 points in eight games. But Dallas needs its real starter back. Josh Howard has been out of the lineup since March 5 with a sore ankle and isn't expected to return until at least early April.
13 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 15
Phoenix Suns (38-31)
It would be nice to think Shaq's recent Twittering from the locker room had something to do with the Suns' four-game winning streak, but Phoenix's good fortune owes a lot more to a schedule that included the Thunder, Warriors and Wizards. Still 3½ games out of the West's final playoff spot with 13 games to go, the Suns are going to need a lot more softies than what the week ahead offers: Denver, Utah and Portland.
14 Miami Heat
Last Week: 13
Miami Heat (37-32)
Erik Spoelstra has tired of seeing Michael Beasley's freakish athleticism only in practices. After Beasley kissed three rims following a recent practice, Spoelstra laid into his prized rookie before a game against New Jersey. "I wrote that down: 'Every time there is a 50-50 skirmish or a rebound in traffic, he shows the ability that he can go up and get those,' " Spoelstra said. "It's still about blocking out, finding some contact. But in huddles I write down, 'Forty-inch vertical.' I want to see it in a game."
15 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 16
Remember when Detroit was rolling along and Allen Iverson was persona non grata? After a 1-3 week, people are starting to ask how quickly the Answer can get back in the lineup. Iverson (back) missed his 13th straight game on Sunday but may be inching toward a return. "Hopefully, we can get him out on the court to do some things as early as tomorrow," coach Michael Curry said Sunday.
16 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 14
When coach Tony DiLeo shouted at Donyell Marshall to check in on March 15 against Miami, Marshall said DiLeo "had to say it again." Marshall, who had seen time in only 13 games all season before his number was called against the Heat, has played in each of the last four games and has helped the worst three-point-shooting team in the NBA by connecting on nine of his 13 attempts.
17 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 19
Chicago Bulls (32-38)
With eight home games remaining and only two games against teams with .500 records or better, the Bulls have to be considered the favorite to nab the East's final playoff spot. But they may have their eyes on a bigger prize. Chicago is just 2½ games behind Detroit for the seventh spot and has two games left with the Pistons.
18 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 21
The Bobcats' M.O. is this: They lose to the good teams (with a few exceptions, like wins over Boston and the Lakers in January) and beat the bad ones (with exceptions like Saturday's 25-point drubbing by Indiana). Fortunately, only six of their 12 remaining games are against teams with .500 records or better. Winning half of those games could be enough to get them into the playoffs.
19 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 17
Milwaukee has established a theme for its push toward the playoffs: consistency. "We've shown that when we're really tuned in and we're competitive, we can beat anybody," coach Scott Skiles said. "We've also shown that when we're not, we're not near as good obviously." And lately, they haven't been in losing seven of nine games in March. Maybe the us-against-the-world mentality some players have embraced will help. "Our confidence can't waver with the way other people think of us," Richard Jefferson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We wouldn't have gotten this far and won this many games if we doubted ourselves."
20 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 20
Devin Harris' shoulder injury couldn't have come at a worse time for New Jersey, which is trying to hang in the playoff race. Harris, who hasn't played since March 15, called the possibility of playing in Wednesday's game at Cleveland "far-fetched," and the Nets have given no timetable for his return.
21 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 22
A frustrating season may be finally starting to boil over. Point guards Jarrett Jack and T.J. Ford got into a heated argument on the court that carried over to the sideline against Dallas on Friday. Jack was sent to the locker room for the rest of the game. "Things happen," Jack told the Indianapolis Star. "I don't think it's to the point where it's uncomfortable or anything. We talked [after the game Friday] about general stuff. The reason I got sent to the locker room had nothing to do with me and T.J. It was two separate things."
22 New York Knicks
Last Week: 18
Ugh. The Knicks followed an inspired 3-2 road trip with blowout home losses to New Jersey and Sacramento last week. Making matters worse, David Lee, the Knicks' most consistent player this season, missed Saturday's loss to Orlando with pain in both knees.
23 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
Don Nelson is doing a tremendous job of alienating Jamal Crawford. After benching Crawford in favor of younger players and threatening Crawford with a trade if he doesn't opt out of his contract after the season, Nelson called the Crawford-Monta Ellis backcourt "oil and water" last week. Crawford continues to take the high road, calling Nelson a "genius" and telling reporters that he loves playing for the lottery-bound Warriors.
24 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 24
Is Marc Iavaroni bound for Toronto? The recently deposed Grizzlies coach was brought in to observe practices last week. The Raptors have downplayed the significance of the visit, but GM Bryan Colangelo has a history with Iavaroni dating to their days in Phoenix, where Colangelo ran the front office and Iavaroni assisted Mike D'Antoni.
25 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 26
"The Thunder have to stop winning," an NBA scout said last week. "They are blowing their chances at Blake Griffin." Oklahoma City is 5-5 in its last 10 games, including a surprising win over San Antonio. "They've won a lot of games defensively," Kevin Durant said. "We can learn from a team like them." It's a good thing GM Sam Presti probably has many of those lesson plans from his days as the Spurs' assistant GM.
26 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 25
Are the Timberwolves tanking again? In 2007, Minnesota (in)famously shut down its top players and let Mark Madsen shoot seven three-pointers in the season finale in order to keep its top-10-protected lottery pick. The stakes aren't as high now and Minnesota isn't being quite so obvious this season, but in the last two weeks the Wolves have lost home games to Washington, New York and Oklahoma City.
27 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 29
Is Jerry West coming back to L.A.? The former Lakers GM is reportedly under consideration to replace Mike Dunleavy as the Clippers' top basketball executive. West has been out of the NBA since leaving Memphis in 2007.
28 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 30
Remember when former Dolphins coach Cam Cameron got a Gatorade shower after Miami won its first and only game of the season in 2007? Part of me thought Kings coach Kenny Natt was going to get the same treatment after the Kings beat the Knicks on Friday, their first win against an East foe this season. Alas, things returned to normal Sunday, when Sacramento dropped a 112-100 decision to the Sixers at home.
29 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 27
The hot topic in Memphis these days is the monetary value of forward Rudy Gay, who is up for an extension this summer. Despite the Grizzlies' struggles, Gay wants to remain in Memphis. "This is where I want to be," Gay told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "Playing for a coach that's as passionate as [Lionel Hollins] is and playing for someone who makes you work hard, makes me want to pick up my game. I think I have since [the coaching change], so I'm comfortable that this is where I should be."
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
In an e-mail interview with the Washington Times last week, owner Abe Pollin said (and I'm paraphrasing) GM Ernie Grunfeld is staying, coach Ed Tapscott could be going and there is no amount of money he won't spend to win. "While I will say that I don't want to go over the luxury tax threshold," Pollin said, "I also will not rule it out."
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