THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The King has a court

In search of supremacy, Cavaliers appear loaded

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / March 6, 2009
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CLEVELAND - "Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision." - Muhammad Ali

That quote is on a wall the Cavaliers pass every time they walk from their locker room to the Quicken Loans Arena floor. LeBron James believes his team already had the elements to win a title. But with the addition of veteran forward-center Joe Smith yesterday, James also believes his Cavaliers have the talent to overcome the defending champion Celtics - and everyone else.

"We are in pretty good shape now," James said. "I think the potential that we have from the rest of the regular season and the playoffs is really high. It doesn't change our goal. Our goal is to win an NBA championship. But I think Joe helps that even more."

"Coming from him, the franchise, that's a pretty big statement," Smith said. "I feel good about it. He understands what I bring to the table."

The Celtics and Cavaliers are the marquee teams in the Eastern Conference. East-leading Cleveland (48-12) will make its final regular-season appearance tonight at TD Banknorth Garden.

The Celtics (48-14), however, will be without Kevin Garnett (knee), Brian Scalabrine (concussion), and Tony Allen (finger), while the Cavaliers will be without Ben Wallace (broken leg). The Celtics also are trying to integrate two new players in guard Stephon Marbury and forward-center Mikki Moore.

"More than likely, I will be out there," said Smith, who didn't practice yesterday.

Because of injuries and transition, tonight's showdown won't be a true indication of what a potential postseason matchup could offer. But the game has playoff seeding and home-court implications, and James expects a heated contest. The Cavaliers are 0-7 in Boston since Garnett and Ray Allen joined the Celtics in 2007.

"It's going to still be competitive," James said. "This is a very good team in a very good place that we are playing in. We got to be ready. Just because they don't have KG doesn't mean they still aren't a very good team, which they really are."

Building a winner
A season ago, the Cavaliers integrated Delonte West, sharpshooter Wally Szczerbiak, and Smith after acquiring them in midseason trades. But they lost to the Celtics in a seven-game, second-round playoff series.

Smith was shipped to Oklahoma City Aug. 13 in a three-team deal that brought point guard Mo Williams to Cleveland. West is now the Cavaliers' starting shooting guard, and Szczerbiak is a shooting weapon off the bench. The hot-scoring and smooth-passing Williams has complemented James offensively, developing into an All-Star this season. And the Cavaliers now have healthy depth at the guard spots with Daniel Gibson and Tarence Kinsey.

"[General manager] Danny Ferry and [coach] Mike Brown have built a heck of a team," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "They got great players to build around LeBron. Great, tough players. The thing I like about what they've done is all the guys are tough guys.

"Delonte is as tough a guy as I've ever coached in my life. Mo Williams is a tough guard. They match what LeBron is with shooting and skill, and their bigs are all skilled."

The Cavaliers have offensively skilled 7-foot-3-inch center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a rebounding and defensive specialist in the injured Wallace, and a hustling reserve forward in Anderson Varejao. Missing, however, was experience and scoring at the forward position off the bench. The Cavaliers couldn't depend on rookies J.J. Hickson and Darnell Jackson. So even before Wallace was knocked out for 4-6 weeks with a fractured right fibula he suffered at Houston Feb. 26, Ferry knew he needed to add the "right fit" in the post. After Oklahoma City bought Smith out of his contract Sunday, the Cavaliers pounced.

"Being able to add Joe was great," Ferry said. "I don't know that it was necessarily a must because I think we have a group of good players. But when you're able to add a player of his caliber and his professionalism into a group with the experience that he has, it definitely can't hurt us.

"It makes us even better. And the depth we have makes us even stronger."

Not your average Joe

Smith, 33, averaged 8.1 points and 5 rebounds in 27 games for Cleveland last season and has played in 39 career playoff games. The 6-10, 225-pounder averaged 6.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 19.2 minutes in 36 games for the Thunder this season, but has not played since Feb. 10. While there are some new offensive sets for Smith to learn, he is familiar with Cleveland's system. The 13-year veteran also played with Williams in Milwaukee and is known for his professionalism and leadership ability.

"It's a great thing for us, especially with Ben being out for a while now," Ilgauskas said. "It gives us another big into the rotation. It cuts down on minutes for me, probably, which will be good."

"I know what [Smith] brings," Williams said. "I know where his spots are. It's not a situation where I need to learn where he wants to be on the court. Us having chemistry already will bring out the best from him."

The Celtics were interested in Smith and Moore. With Moore becoming available first, the Celtics aggressively pursued him and signed him Feb. 24. Boston's swift move was prudent because Smith planned to go to the Cavaliers all along once he became a free agent.

"We couldn't wait," Rivers said. "We didn't know what was going to happen. We liked both guys and we wanted one. That was our whole goal. They both can stretch the floor. Joe has more experience in big games. I'm sure that will come into play at some point, but Mikki will gain that by playing with us."

On paper, the Cavaliers appear to be better than a season ago. But only time will tell if the Cavaliers fulfill "a desire, a dream, a vision" to not only overcome the Celtics, but eventually become NBA champions for the first time.

"We want to continue to get better every day and take each game like it's our last," James said. "I'm a confident guy and I expect that from our guys every time we go out and play. These are the best pieces that we've had. But it all depends on momentum, how well you finish down the stretch, and if you can stay healthy."

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

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