Cavs are on different level

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

The East boils down to the Cavs and the Cav-nots, a one-horse race featuring a Cleveland team that is second to none.

Barring an injury to LeBron James, which doesn't seem likely given his track record of durability and his sheer physical size, no team is capable of stopping the Cavs' run to the NBA final.

With about a month remaining in the regular season, the Cavs have slowly separated themselves from a pack that once appeared poised to mount some challenge.

In due time, whatever race is left will soon turn into a run-away, leaving teams such as Orlando, Atlanta and Boston in Cleveland's wake.

The Hawks developed a mental toughness by playing beyond the opening round last spring.

Mental toughness has never been an issue with the Celtics, but Boston is vulnerable because of its aging core and has looked simply overmatched by the Cavs.

The Magic might be the only team capable of winning two games in a best-of-seven series with Cleveland.

Orlando advanced to the NBA final last year by beating Cleveland because of the Magic's perimeter presence.

On the block, Dwight Howard was a beast who couldn't be corralled.

Antawn Jamison can extend his defence and gives James yet another shooter who can spot up and even create on the block.

Down low, Shaquille O'Neal will be sufficiently healed and in rhythm when the inevitable Cavs-Magic series begins in May.

By next Monday, Zydrunas Ilgauskas will be one step closer to rejoining the only team Big Z has played, giving the Cavs a legitimate big who can knock down perimeter shots.

Maybe if Howard decides he wants to simply dominate do the Magic stand a chance.

Maybe if Vince Carter decides to play an entire game with purpose and focus can Orlando go toe to toe with Cleveland.

But how does one beat a team in a seven-game series when there is, at least on the surface, no weakness?

Defence has, at times, been an issue, but teams such as Cleveland are prone to go through lapses because they get bored.

Timing also plays a factor.

Witness Cleveland's recent visit to Toronto, a trip that followed a statement blowout in Boston, when the Raptors pushed the Cavs into overtime in a wildly entertaining and high-scoring game.

Wednesday night, the host Cavs held off Indiana to post a 99-94 win.

The Pacers hung around, but watched in awe when James stepped up in the decisive fourth quarter.

"I don't have words to describe LeBron James," Indiana head coach Jim O'Brien said. "He is just a great winner.

"He does whatever it takes on both ends of the court and on the glass to will his team to victory."

James' stat line featured 32 points, nine boards, nine dimes and two game-changing blocks in the final period.

On Friday night during Cleveland's visit to Chicago, James, 25, will become the youngest player in NBA history to reach 15,000 career points, eclipsing a mark set by Kobe Bryant, who was 27 years old when the Lakers superstar made history.

James has scored at least 20 points in 19 straight games, the league's longest active streak.

Cleveland has not lost to a sub-.500 team since November; has won 11 of its past 12 and five in a row; is on a seven-game home unbeaten run and is well on its way to having home-court advantage throughout the entire post-season.

On the road or at home, no team sports a better record than Cleveland.

Boredom may yet sink in, but if the Cavs can somehow stay motivated, they will join the 1996 Bulls as the only team to string together back-to-back 65-win seasons.

With 13 games left on the dance card, Cleveland would require 11 wins to join Michael Jordan's running of the Bulls teams. M.J.'s 1995 team won an NBA-record 72 games, followed by a 69-win season.

Cleveland isn't quite in that class, but a championship gives the Cavs legitimacy and a long-lasting legacy for a city that craves a champion.

FRANK.ZICARELLI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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