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Rolling Cavs dare to talk playoffs

Cleveland moves within two games of last Eastern Conference berth

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2004

CLEVELAND - Day after day, LeBron James politely answers the same humdrum questions.

But Thursday, facing the usual bouquet of microphones and tape recorders, the rookie star was quizzed about something rarely talked about in Cleveland the past few years.

How does it feel to be just two games out of the eighth playoff spot in the NBA's Eastern Conference?

"It's great," James said with a smile after practice. "We've been working hard and I've always said that we're not going to give up."

Whoa. Excuse the skepticism, but in those immortal, high-pitched words of one-time Indianapolis coach Jim Mora: Playoffs?

Yep. The NBA playoffs.

The Cavaliers, those laughable losers who have dropped at least 50 games in each of the past four seasons and haven't made the postseason since 1998, are on the rise.

With their third straight win, 94-93 over Miami on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers (17-28) have already matched their victory total from last season.

And after going 4-1 in a five-game homestand, they've won five of six games - something they hadn't done in more than three years.

"It's happening," said first-year Cavs coach Paul Silas, whose club seems to improve every time it takes the court. "We're finding ways to win. We're learning to win."

The Cavs didn't get win No. 17 until the 2002-03 season-finale, when a victory over Toronto actually jeopardized their chances of winning the NBA draft lottery.

But the pingpong balls bounced their way, the basketball gods dropped James in their laps, tickets flew out of the box-office windows and the Cavs were suddenly chic.

However, the season got off to a rugged start. The Cavaliers opened 6-19, lost their first 13 road games, and some began to wonder if James and Silas could turn things around.

Those doubts are subsiding, though.

Since acquiring Eric Williams, Tony Battie and Kedrick Brown in a six-player deal with Boston last month, the Cavaliers are 11-10. In addition, Cleveland picked up point guard Jeff McInnis in a deal with Portland last week, a move made so James could play shooting guard - his natural position.

The Cavs are 3-0 since trading Darius Miles for McInnis, who has helped stabilize their backcourt and quickened their offense.

"He has changed the tempo of the game," Williams said. "He has a lot of speed and he has taken a lot of pressure off LeBron, so he doesn't have to bring the ball up and run the offense."

Lately, the Cavaliers have shown a grittiness that hasn't been seen in Cleveland teams for years.

With James sidelined with a sprained ankle, the Cavs went 2-1, with the lone loss to powerful Sacramento. On Wednesday, Cleveland won despite playing without forward Carlos Boozer of Juneau, who left the team to attend a family funeral.

Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas picked up the scoring slack, getting 30 points on 14-of-16 shooting, and Dajuan Wagner made two key baskets down the stretch as the Cavs rallied from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

Boozer, averaging 23 points and 16 rebounds in his last five games, said the Cavs are more a team than they've been in a long time. And if they can stay that way, they just might be one headed to the playoffs.

"The guys that have needed to step up have stepped up," he said. "It's not a one-person team by any means. We're two games out right now and if we keep winning we'll be there. We definitely want to make the playoffs. It's a goal of ours."

Silas thinks it's a reachable one.

"If we continue to play well, certainly," said Silas, who took the Hornets to the playoffs four years in a row. "We're only two games out now, so nothing is out of the realm of possibility. But it's still going to be hard.

"We still got a long way to go."



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