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ON BASKETBALL

Cavalier attitude is different now

It’s tight quarters for Tony Allen (left) and Flip Murray in chasing a loose ball.
It’s tight quarters for Tony Allen (left) and Flip Murray in chasing a loose ball. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)

They haven't experienced the playoffs since Mike Fratello roamed the sidelines and Shawn Kemp, Wesley Person, and (gulp) Vitaly Potapenko were regular rotation guys. That was eight long years ago for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are playing out the string once again this season, but with a different itinerary for the postseason.

No more trips to Secaucus. No more LeBron James wondering what it's really like. He thinks he knows. He will find out in earnest soon enough, when the playoffs begin this weekend with the Cavs as eager hosts.

Against which team, the Cavs don't know. ''I wish we did," sighed rookie coach Mike Brown, who has not gotten sufficient credit for guiding his team to the fourth-best record in the East and doing so despite not having his second-best player (Larry Hughes) for more than half the season. ''But it's out of our control."

So Cleveland is content to let the regular season sort of come to an underwhelming conclusion, which means sitting James so he can rest his sore left ankle and keeping an eye on the others. The Cavs can afford such luxuries, given that they have been on a roll since the All-Star break, which, as James pointed out last night, was the time they went south last year.

''We're very comfortable," James said before last night's game. ''We're very happy with our performance, especially after the All-Star Game. We're feeling good about ourselves." The Cavs are 18-11 since the break.

The Cavaliers haven't won a playoff series since 1993, when they were still playing in Richfield, Ohio, and Lenny Wilkens was their coach. They will be favored against whichever team they meet in the first round, in part because of the humdrum level of the competition and also because they've had themselves a pretty successful season. Going simply by wins and losses, this assemblage has the chance to be the fourth most successful team in franchise history.

That's pretty remarkable, given the mess the Cavs were in this time last year. There had been an ownership change and the new boss decided he didn't want Paul Silas around anymore. Brendan Malone took over for the final 18 games -- and won eight. Cleveland was 10 games over .500 just before the All-Star break and finished 42-40, losing the eighth playoff spot to the Nets via the tiebreaker.

Now, had they made it, they would have been cannon fodder for the Heat, as were the Nets. But the disappointing finish led to wholesale changes and produced Brown, new GM Danny Ferry, and some difference-makers via trade/free agency, including Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Flip Murray, and Damon Jones.

The one thing they're lacking, understandably, is experience in the postseason. James never has been there. Neither has Drew Gooden. No. 2 scorer Zydrunas Ilgauskas has four games under his belt. Hughes has 18 games.

''The only thing that would hold us back is our mentality, because we're a young team and the core guys that we're going to count on don't have a lot of playoff experience," said Jones, who has appeared in 30 postseason games, half of them last year with the Heat. ''The majority of what we do is going through LeBron James -- and he's never played a playoff second. So, from that standpoint, it's going to be tough. But if we come together and do it like I think we're capable of doing it, we're going to be good."

It's too bad Celtics fans didn't get to see James last night, because he has been worth the price of admission. He will in all likelihood be among the top five vote-getters in the MVP balloting and also should be named first-team All-NBA. (Then again, maybe for the Celtics' sake, it was good to have him sit; he averaged 38.3 points a game against Boston in three games.)

Only three players in NBA history have averaged 31 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists in a season: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and Michael Jordan. James is on course to be the fourth. And he's only 21. (Has anyone ever seen his birth certificate? I mean really seen it?)

You think David Ortiz and Tom Brady showed up last night to see Raef LaFrentz or Eric Snow?

James is giving his ankle some much-needed rest, but you can bet the proverbial ranch he will be ready to go as long as necessary once the playoffs start. He mentioned something last night about needing to bring his ''A game" to the postseason.

This season, that's pretty much the only game he's had -- and the Cavaliers have joined him for a ride they hope lasts for a good, long time.

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