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Summit meeting tonight

Cavaliers hoping to show who's boss

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / January 9, 2009
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CLEVELAND - As Cavaliers star LeBron James's media session wound down after a blowout win over Charlotte Wednesday, the climax of the Celtics' game against Houston was being shown on three flat-screen televisions in Cleveland's locker room. Once James answered his last question, which involved tonight's showdown against Boston, he walked directly in front of the TV closest to his locker and became transfixed with the Celtics' 89-85 loss. He openly rooted against the Celtics, as did teammates Daniel Gibson and ex-Celtic Delonte West.

And when Yao Ming's putback lay-in with 12 seconds left sealed Boston's second home loss, a smiling James exclaimed, "Oh!" while West yelled, "It's over." Cheers from the Cavaliers' training room, where the game also was being shown, could be heard. And after the buzzer sounded, center Ben Wallace walked into the locker room from the showers and jokingly said, "Code 10. Definitely a man-down situation."

While the Cavaliers (28-6) aren't feeling sorry for the struggling Celtics (29-8), there isn't a team they respect more than the champs and they openly expressed excitement about tonight's matchup.

"We look forward to the challenge," said James, who is averaging 27.4 points. "If you want to be one of the best teams, you got to beat the best. Boston is the best."

Said coach Mike Brown, "They're NBA champs. We want what they have and we're not going to get it in the regular season. But we can definitely get better and work on trying to get to where we need to get to for the postseason. When you do talk about NBA champion, when you do talk about trying to attain a certain level, the team that does come to mind is the Celtics because they did it last year and they're the current NBA champions."

A lofty perch
While this is a tough time for the Celtics, losers of three straight and six of eight, these are memorable times for the Cavaliers.

Before Wednesday morning's shootaround, media relations intern Jeff Schaefer changed the NBA standings in the locker room, reflecting more significance than had been evident in a long time. The Cavs had leapfrogged Boston to hold the top spot in the East by a half-game. It's the first time Cleveland has been atop the conference this late in the season since March 21, 1989. The Cavaliers have lost only once since Dec. 13 and triumphed in 27 of their last 31 games.

But just like the Celtics when they were hot, winning 19 straight games, the Cavs aren't getting overly excited about their success.

"It's good because we've been playing that type of basketball where we feel we are one of the best teams in this league," James said. "It's too early in this season, so we can't get content or get complacent about being up there on top of the standings because teams are getting better and we're getting better also. It's good to see it, but it doesn't matter if you don't continue to work hard."

Said Wallace, "We really haven't passed [the Celtics]. We still need to take care of business and do what we do. They're still the team to beat. If we beat them [in the playoffs], then I'll say maybe we passed them.

"Until someone else hoists that trophy up, they are still going to be known as the champs. If they dismantled the league, they would be the last NBA champions. You don't like it, but you got to respect it."

Celtics president Danny Ainge still respects his team and has not hit the panic button. Ainge said no trades or free agent signings are imminent.

"We're obviously not playing on all cylinders," he said in a phone interview yesterday. "We're not making shots down the stretch. We're having a tough time scoring in the fourth quarter. I'm not panicking; they're still that same team that won the championship. I feel no different about the team now than I did three weeks ago."

It's a big deal
While it's good for bragging rights to have the best conference record now, it will be a major factor by season's end in terms of home-court advantage. Boston and Cleveland can certainly second that notion after the playoffs last season.

Boston lost only one home game during the postseason, winning Game 7s against Atlanta in the first round and Cleveland in the second at TD Banknorth Garden. Cleveland believes it would have won the series against the Celtics if it had home court.

"As you see, all the wins that either team got was on their home court," said Wallace. "They had four to our three, with the last game on their home floor. It's very important."

The Cavaliers are the only NBA team with a perfect home record (18-0). Cleveland hasn't lost a home game since Washington won Game 5 of a first-round playoff series April 30. The Cavaliers are averaging 105.4 points on 49.4 percent shooting from the field at home. Boston has lost six straight regular-season games in Cleveland, its last win here Dec. 15, 2005.

When asked what the keys were to home success this season, James said, "Our fan support is unbelievable. Two, our intensity when we come out to games has been really high. We control tempo throughout most of the games. We get better every game."

A big difference
Behind 27 points from Paul Pierce, the Celtics defeated the Cavaliers, 90-85, in the season opener Oct. 28, when Boston received its championship rings. James had 28 points, and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 15 points and eight rebounds. The Cavs, however, will be without Ilgauskas tonight for the fourth straight game because of a left ankle injury; he could return in February. Celtics guard Tony Allen will miss his third straight game with a right ankle strain and didn't make the trip that concludes at Toronto Sunday.

Following practice in Independence yesterday, James said the Cavs have improved dramatically since the opener.

"We are much better," he said. "We are much better defensively. Much better offensively. We just learned so much from being together. It was the first little rendition of what we thought we could become. The first game going to Boston on ring night was definitely a tough challenge.

"We're a much better team. But we did have [Ilgauskas], and [tonight] we will see how guys step up, which guys have been able to do. But losing [Ilgauskas] definitely is going to hurt us a little bit."

When asked if tonight's is a statement game, Brown quickly retorted, "For whom?"

Considering Boston's recent struggles and long stretch without a regular-season win in Cleveland, it definitely seems to be more of a statement game for the Celtics, even though they are the respected champs.

"It's something I can't worry about," said James of the Celtics' struggles. "I'm not a part of their franchise. I'm not a part of the Boston team. I don't know how it is up there. I'm not in their locker room."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com.

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