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A tale of two contenders

Mar 31, 2010, 11:46 PM EDT

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are the crown jewels of the league. Both lead their respective conferences, both will have homecourt advantage through their conference Finals, both are elite.

And Wednesday they provide a fascinating cross-examination of one another.

The Lakers mailed one in in Atlanta, getting wiped off the map by the Hawks 109-92. It was not pretty. The Lakers have very little to blame. It wasn’t a matchup problem. It wasn’t a back to back. It was the tail end of a road trip, but still. To be down by double digits nearly the entire second half is pretty incredible for a team many consider to still be the best in the league. The answer? Even the Hawks announcers knew, the Lakers had no interest in being on the floor tonight.

It’s nothing new for the Lakers, who have lost three of their last five, two by double digits in routs. This team has simply played lazy for the majority of the season, turning it on for select quarters in most games, and yet there they are, top of the standings, top of the world. For all this team’s talent and ability, their effort indicates that they simply do not care about the regular season. I could spout off to you something about how true champions give their all in every game, every contest, but that’s a lie.

This is the NBA, and 82 game death march, and only the strongest survive, sure, but part of being strong is knowing when to drag your feet to conserve strength. The Lakers just happen to be dragging their feet, occasionally coming to a complete stop and getting trod over. Even the most confident Laker fan has to wonder how much is simple boredom and how much is actual problems with the team, most notably their play inside. They’ve earned the faith of the acolytes, but they’d better deliver at the altar.

Meanwhile, the Cavs let the Bucks who, no lie, they could very well end up seeing in the second round, hang around for 48 minutes, needing a LeBron James steal on the last possession off a horrible Luke Ridnour pass to ice it. This despite a 45-9 free throw advantage for the Cavs, at home. What’s more, if you watched the game, the Cavs were plugged into this one. While the Lakers were FedExing theirs in, the Cavs were locked in, putting forth the same effort that’s gotten them where they’re at. Yet the result was still in doubt, even with everything that was in their favor.

Last year the Cavs blistered the regular season, torching their way into the Conference Finals, laughing and dancing all the way. And all they got for it was a lousy t-shirt that said “Dwight Howard WUZ HERE.” And a win’s better than a loss. But so much of a team’s success depends on the ability to “turn it on” and get hot at the right time. Peak too early and you’re Cleveland last year. Peak too late and you’re the Pistons nearly every year in the 2000’s.

We’ve got two contenders who are still the favorites. Two titans who are still the Lords of their conferences. But to pretend that the Lakers loss is meaningless is as shortsighted as putting too much stock in it and equally foolish. And to assert that all is well with Cleveland because they got the W is to forget their history, and to ignore that the Lakers got blown out, but they also didn’t give anything, either.

  1. MattC - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:19 AM

    Good lord… only in Cleveland could a team with the best record in the league, missing Varejao (undoubtedly a sixth man of the year finalist) and Shaq, could get questioned after gutsing out a tough win against the NBA’s hottest team since the All Star Break.
    Their effort has been pedestrian more than once in the last month, but if anything, they are bored too. The only worry about Cleveland is the free throw shooting. Other than that, it’s asinine to think that tonight’s game should raise serious “general” questions about the team’s legitimacy, last year’s heartbreaking history aside.

  2. coach g - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:47 AM

    Cavs went 13-1 with first and second string point guards out.
    Cavs went 11-1 with first and second string centers out.
    Who else could do that?

  3. Colin Zvosec - Apr 1, 2010 at 1:55 AM

    Interesting angle on the Cavs. When I read your part on the Lakers, I was expecting to read how the Cavs may have had an off night, but made the plays you would expect a title contender to make to still win a game in which they played poorly (very wordy sentence, I know).
    Watching this game, I did get the sense that the Cavs “wanted” to win, and that they were trying to win. However, things just didn’t seem to be going their way. Even when they got up double digits in the third, the game just had an off feeling. They were missing free throws, turning it over, and LeBron was missing shots he would make about 70% of the time.
    Of course, saying all of that, I can’t really disagree with what you said here.

  4. Ron - Apr 1, 2010 at 3:41 AM

    Matt Moore does it again.
    I swear this guy just doesn’t get it.
    Matt, you fail to mention the biggest factor for the Lakers in all of this: where is the motivation for them to do better at this stage of the season?
    They have already locked up the West. They will be the number one seed in the west, no way Dallas is catching them four games behind with seven to go.
    They are not going to catch Cleveland.
    So what is the motivation? To beat out Orlando for home court advantage should the two meet again this year? Pleeeeaaaassseee.
    I am a Laker fan and I don’t care about these games either. I really don’t. I don’t blame these guys for being bored. Does the team have issues? Sure they do (point guard defense being the biggest one). But all teams have some issues.
    Can the Lakers turn it on when they want to? They have already proven that. Will it be enough this year? I wouldn’t want to bet on it. But time will tell.

  5. Foul Dwimmerlaik - Apr 1, 2010 at 6:42 AM

    Laker fan here too.
    I agree with Ron. Why exert the energy when things are almost locked up. It will even be more tragic if they gave their all in the remaining games and risk injury during the playoffs.
    I don’t think the Lakers will be lackadaisical when the postseason begins.

  6. Tom Pestak - Apr 1, 2010 at 7:05 AM

    I just want to say this:
    I don’t buy the “Lakers don’t care”, “Celtics don’t care” BS. Teams care, especially when their heart and effort are being called into question in the media. The Lakers didn’t care about playing well against OKC their potential first round matchup this year? The Lakers didn’t care about playing against Cleveland and Orlando? Give me a break. They lost the games because they weren’t good enough to win them.
    They cared. They care. They’d much rather win than play half-assed and then answer to ESPN, Phil, Kobe, and Laker Nation in that order. They got beat because they’re not as good as they were last year.
    About the Cavs: I agree with you that they struggled, but you have to realize something. There is no team in the NBA that can beat the Cavs if they are healthy and clicking. No team. The problem is they haven’t been healthy except but for a few games in late December and they didn’t have Jamison or Powe then. If you take the peak play of each player on the team and that team is alive and well in the playoffs, the Cavs will not be beat. It’s just really hard to say that will be the case. Who knows what Shaq will be like, who knows if Mo and Parker will continue their shooting slumps, who knows how healthy Varejao will be. But don’t for one second think the Cavs aren’t as good as their record indicates – they are MUCH MUCH better, they just haven’t really been able to show it. I hope they get a chance to.

  7. DMC - Apr 1, 2010 at 9:30 AM

    Written like a true Lakers’ fan.

  8. DMC - Apr 1, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    Written like a true Lakers’ fan.

  9. Robj - Apr 1, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    Anybody….who has LeBron James on their team.
    Best player in the league today.

  10. LongDistanceBuckeye - Apr 1, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    It saddens me to see and read that a “PROFESSIONAL NBA TEAM” like the Lakers are bore when they are being paid millions to perform. We the fans are not bore! We are the ones paying these players. We are the ones who cheer, hope and pray that our team shows up, play hard and be professionals each and every game. No we’re not the ones who are playing in 82 games in the regular season. No we’re not the ones traveling from city to city, leaving our families and friends behind. No we’re not the ones who puts our bodies out there to be used and sometimes, abuse. But then again…we didn’t sign a million dollar contract to do so. So I would just like to say that I am a muti-sport fan for this very reason…..I HATE BEING BORE!!!

  11. Rick Hudnett - Apr 1, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    Anything can happen in the NBA playoffs!

  12. Brian - Apr 1, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    Difference between Lakers and Cavs…compare LA and Cavs win-loss records against the elite teams of the league this season and last…its a reverse…Cavs are taking it all people!!!

  13. Peezie - Apr 1, 2010 at 10:28 AM

    @ LongDistanceBuckeye – I “bore” too…
    What the hell is “bore”…?? Good Lord.

  14. Ron - Apr 1, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    It’s different in the playoffs. The Lakers will step up their game. History is repeating itself. When the Lakers won in 2000, their record was 67-15. They blew everyone away in the season, but struggled throughout the playoffs to earn the title. 15-8.
    In 2001, their record during the season was “only” 56-26, still good, but 11 games off their previous season. They didn’t play nearly as well, a combination of teams getting up for the champs and the knowledge of having accomplished their goal in the previous year. Human nature is going to set in, and they just aren’t going to play as well as the previous year, whether they get paid millions or not.
    So what happened? They crushed everyone in the playoffs and went 15-1, a record that isn’t likely to be beaten anytime soon.
    I am thinking something similar is going to happen. The Lakers will show up for the playoffs, and show up strong. The Cavaliers are still going to have matchup problems with the Magic. I don’t know if the Cavs can get past the Magic; but if they do, I sure hope so, so that the Lakers can finally put this baloney to rest and put Cleveland away.
    When the playoffs start, you can throw away anything that happened in the regular season. Last year, Orlando beat the Lakers both times during the season, but got crushed in the finals. Same thing happens in the finals if Lakers meet Cavs.

  15. B - Apr 1, 2010 at 11:49 AM

    Is anyone else tired of reading articles making excuses for the Laker’s crumbling empire? Is every sports writer still in denial about the Cav’s dominance? If the Lakers could just turn it on like a tap, why have they done nothing to ensure home court advantage in the finals? I predict a sore loser syndrome similar to the X-mas blowout during the finals games in LA, that is if Kobe and the crybaby snitches even make it to the finals.

  16. Foul Dwimmerlaik - Apr 1, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    @LDB: I understand your point as far as the Lakers being paid to perform. However, the Lakers are NOT paid to perform. THEY ARE PAID TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP. Not just winning season games but to take it all in the end.
    There is prudence in not over exerting, but winning and staying healthy in the post season where it truly counts.
    The NBA season is like a marathon — you need not be at the first place in each leg, JUST BE WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE — you give everything you got when the Finish Line is near and beat the rest of the opposition. The Cavs last year were pretty much in first place for most legs in the NBA marathon — only to choke and sputter near the finish line.

  17. Celtic Glory Days - Apr 1, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    really? THAT’s your comment?
    Ever occur to you that maybe LongDistanceBuckeye isn’t a native English speaker, and that his/her English is WAAAYYY better than any foreign language that YOU can read and write?

  18. LBJ - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    You are a fool to think that the Lakers will crush the Cavs. I look forward to that Finals not only because I am from Cleveland but because I think it is matched up well. I probably fear Orlando more than any other team not just because of what they did last year but because the Cavs have struggled against them this year too.
    This biggest difference between the Cavs and Lakers is the want. The Lakers have already had their dessert while the Cavs haven’t gotten past the main course. There is also that little panic that Lebron is going to leave which will kill basketball in Cleveland because I guarantee that if Lebron goes Mike Brown will be sent packing too.
    Take away Shaq and the Cavaliers are a very young team with a superstar that is still a kid. The Lakers are getting a little long in the tooth and that will factor in. I believe the Lakers are mailing it in at this time because of their age. I find this troubling because like someone said earlier, they get paid to play for the fans and paid quite well. If they are going to give a sub par performance, intentionally, shouldn’t the fans get discounted tickets for that game? It’s like paying full price to see your favorite band and having a cover band take their place.
    The bottom line is this, if the Cavs can get into and through the playoffs 100% healthy, I don’t think they can be beat. There is just too much depth on this team.

  19. Foul Dwimmerlaik - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    I recall that last year the Cavs were dominating. Getting homecourt through out the playoffs by having the best season record — beating the Lakers for homecourt should they meet in the Finals — the Cavs practically rampaged, dominated, and annihilated the opposition in rounds one and two. But only to choke in the EFC.
    It is paramount to get the number one seed in one’s conference where the 2-2-1-1-1 format works well for the team with the homecourt advantage. However, the Finals’ 2-3-2 format can be very much be a double-edged sword for the team with the homecourt advantage.

  20. Anonymous - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:11 PM

    The Cavs play in the East where four teams are good and the rest of the conference are loafers. If the Cavs played against the West that record would not hold up.

  21. snave - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    I here all this talk about how good the cav are and their record is. They should have a winning record they only have 2 and half contender in the entire eastern conference. Most nights they are a playing a under .500 team. Even if they do get a contender one night the next 2 or 3 games are against the likes of NJ, NY, IND, MIA, Det. If they are as good as everyone say they are, with the easy conference, they should have broken the Bull record of 72 Win. Put them in the western conference they are a 55 win quad at best compared to Dallas. You Laker wanna be’s and Kobe haters say the same thing every year about them and every year who are you watching come playoff time hoping your team can get past. the LAKERS. So save yourselves some stress and come join a proven, you here me proven WINNER. Who the heck is CLeavland. Matter of fact where is Cleavland. Even Labron rying to get away

  22. B - Apr 1, 2010 at 12:57 PM

    you will be the one crying this year. the magic is not the team they were last year, and as for the lakers… well we’ve allready seen what happens to them when the cavs demolish them even at home. i hope you think of me laughing at you while you watch your lakers fall. hahahahaha.

  23. Foul Dwimmerlaik - Apr 1, 2010 at 1:16 PM

    Are you really an NBA fan or are you just an ignorant homer? Since when did losing just one game at home an indication of a guaranteed win in a 7-game series? The Magic swept the Lakers last year during the season and guess who won the title? Uhuh. Thought so. Make sure LBJ improves his sportsmanship and learns to shake the hands of his opponents after a hard series — especially when he loses.
    Don’t fly too high, sonny boy. It hurts real bad when you take a nose-dive. LMFAO!!!
    Damn whippersnappers. They think they know it all.

  24. B - Apr 1, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    don’t you have a tea party town hall to go to? by the way you eat turds for breakfast and the CAVS are going to destroy the lakers.

  25. Cesar - Apr 1, 2010 at 4:52 PM

    what matters is what you do in the playoffs. You can do all the dancing and different shananigans prior to games but make it count in the playoffs. Hope ur cavs don’t run into an experienced celts team in the playoffs. EXPERIENCE MATTERS!! LAKER 4 LIFE!! COME BACT TO ME ONCE UR CITY HAS RINGS UNDER THEIR BELTS. YOU GUYS WILL ALWAYS BE CHICAGO (JORDAN)BULLS’ BITCH!!

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