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Bob Ryan

King James stands alone

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / June 2, 2009
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There is a special place in offseason Hades reserved for NBA teams that win 66 games and do not win the championship.

Let us hope the Cleveland Cavaliers come up with a couple of air conditioners.

It's an exclusive club, with just three members.

1. The 1972-73 Celtics, who were 68-14 and lost to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals, then just the second round.

2. The 2006-97 Mavericks, who were 67-15 and lost to the Warriors in the first round.

3. The 2008-09 Cavaliers, who were 66-16 and have just lost to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, which is now the third round.

The Cavaliers are, no doubt, dazed and confused. "How could this happen to us?" they are probaby asking. But if you watched that series, you can easily understand how it happened. Now. The whole thing looks so logical. Now. Anyone can see that the Magic were the better team. Now.

But few people saw it coming.

I was definitely not one of them. Oh, I came away from the Celtics series very impressed with the Magic. I thought they had a much better chance of winning a game or two - no more - against the Cavs than the battered Celtics did. Going six against the Cavs was still the max in my mind. The fact that Orlando had twice defeated the Cavs, including a 19-point win without Jameer Nelson? Pish and posh, said I. That was then, and the Cavaliers are obviously much different and better in the now.

For Cleveland had not just defeated Detroit and Atlanta; the Cavs had mauled them, winning all eight games, by an average margin of 16 points. LeBron James was busy being LeBron James while the Cavs as a team appeared to be in perfect sync at both ends of the floor. Yes, the Magic appeared to provide some individual matchup problems for the Cavs, but I thought Cleveland was simply not about matchups, that it was about playing off LeBron at the offensive end while functioning as a smothering defensive unit when the ball changed hands.

How very wrong I was.

The Cavs vs. the Magic turned out to be LeBron and the 11 Dwarfs vs. a Real Team. It took a defensive slip-up (is there a reason to be guarding anybody standing near midcourt when there is one-tenth of a second left?) and a miracle shot by LeBron to avoid an Orlando sweep. That memorable LeBron display of virtuosity in Game 5, as entertaining as it was, never should have taken place. By that time, we had already established which was the better team, and it was not who most of us originally thought it was.

What LeBron did in the Orlando series was spectacular and admirable, but history teaches us that when a man is called upon to do that much in a series, it is usually an exercise in futility, whether it's Jerry West vs. the Celtics in 1965, Kareem vs. the Celtics in 1974, or Michael vs. the Celtics in 1986 (don't forget that in addition to the 63 in the double-OT second game, he had 49 in the opener). When someone is doing as much as LeBron was doing, it means the others are doing virtually nothing.

All season long, Mo Williams had performed at an All-Star level, but in the biggest games of the year, he was just another guy who used to play for Utah and Milwaukee, not an elite point guard. It was his first time on that particular stage, so perhaps we can grant him a personal mulligan. But that doesn't help the team. They're still sitting home while the Magic are heading to LA.

And Zydrunas Ilgauskas was 7-3 going on 5-3. It's nice for a guy 7 feet 3 inches to have a reliable outside shot. It's not so nice when that's all he has. If you're 7-3 and 260, the first thing you should be on offense is a major low-post presence. In an ideal basketball world, you won't take a shot outside eight or 10 feet, because you are powering in with bull moves, jump hooks, and turnaround jumpers (I'm not foolish enough to ask him to have perfected that anachronism known as a hook shot).

This is extremely important if you're playing against a rival who happens to be the other team's most important defensive player; in other words, a guy you'd like to get in foul trouble. You know; someone like, say, Dwight Howard. OK, we all know that Ilgauskas will always have trouble guarding Dwight Howard, who has much quicker feet. But in this series Ilgauskas, never made Howard play any individual defense. With Big Z clangin' 'em up from 20 feet and beyond, Howard was able to stay home and play goalie.

But perhaps the biggest discrepancy in this series was bench play. In terms of scoring, at least, Cleveland flat-out didn't have any. It will be a source of embarrassment for all eternity that in the 2009 playoff series between Orlando and Cleveland, Mikael Pietrus of Orlando personally outscored the entire Cavalier bench, 83-66.

Daniel Gibson had 31 points in the deciding Game 6 against the Pistons two years ago. He had 22 points, total, in this series. Joe Smith, who was going to be the key frontcourt sub, had 16. Ben Wallace, of whom no scoring is asked anyway, had 12. One-time starter Sasha Pavlovic had 9. Wally Szczerbiak, twice DNP'd, finished with 7.

You can get as technical as you like, but I think you can sum up this series by saying that Orlando just plain freaked Cleveland out. They did it with relentless 3-point shooting and they did it with Howard's inside might. I don't know where Kendrick Perkins is these days, but I do know that he made a lot of money doing nothing. Against Perkins, Dwight Howard had trouble making moves to the hoop. Against the Cavs, he did whatever he wished. He still has no facing move whatsoever, but against the Cavs he didn't need any. Good luck to the Lakers.

So there it is. The Cavs won their 66 and they blitzed through the first two rounds, but now that it's over, it's clear they have a lot of issues. Oh, sure, LeBron should have shaken hands and he should have acted like the leader he thinks he is by answering every postgame question, but that's just protocol.

LeBron can, and will, improve his manners. The question now is this: Do the Cavs know how to improve their game?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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