After Cavs, Three Playing for No. 2 in East
ORLANDO, Fla. -- After watching a weekend round-robin of Boston-Atlanta-Orlando -- three of the four Eastern Conference contenders -- one thing has become increasingly clear in this race:
These guys are all just playing for second.
That Cavaliers-Lakers NBA Finals that everyone wanted -- but didn't get -- last June is coming this time. Even with more than 30 regular season games and six weeks of playoffs remaining, it's hard now to imagine 2010 turning out any other way.
The Cavs and Lakers are on a delightfully unavoidable collision course. The standings don't lie.
There is nobody in the West within five wins of the Lakers. And the Cavs are six wins better than anyone in the East.
"Nobody in the East is playing close to the level Cleveland is at right now,'' said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy on Saturday night. "We've got a long way to go -- and funny things can happen in a series -- but if you're talking about who's playing at the highest level, it's clearly Cleveland.''
Van Gundy was speaking shortly after his team had just beaten both Boston and Atlanta in back-to-back games. He should have been thrilled. He needs only to beat the Pistons in Detroit Sunday night to become the Eastern Conference coach at All-Star Weekend next month.
But even that honor will be tainted in his eyes because the Cavs are so decidedly better today. Cavs coach Mike Brown is ineligible to coach the All-Stars two consecutive years. Much of the luster will be lost.
"It's only an honor if you've got the best record. That's how I look at it, but that's just not the case,'' Van Gundy said. "If they make you go, they make you go.''
Van Gundy already knows he doesn't have the same team he had that beat Cleveland in the East final last spring and sidetracked the Cavs-Lakers matchup.
It won't happen this time. The Magic (31-16), Hawks (30-16) and Celtics (29-15) all are a cut below the Cavaliers (37-11), even as they dominate each other.
The Hawks completed their four-game sweep of the Celtics on Friday. The Magic beat the Hawks on Saturday for the third consecutive time. Cleveland is a combined 3-0 against the Magic and Hawks.
The Cavs have played more road games than any of the other contenders in the East, clearly establishing their dominance.
The Magic have been winning, not because of newly-acquired but rapidly-fading Vince Carter, but in spite of him. And that problem isn't going away anytime soon.
The Celtics are wrestling with an aging roster, including a clearly-slowed Kevin Garnett, whose troublesome knee has robbed him of much of his effectiveness.
"They (Magic) pretty much have their way with us,'' said Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson after a 104-86 loss Saturday. "We match up well with anyone else except this team, but I don't know what to do with them.''
The Cavs still may be a one-man scoring show, but NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James just refuses to lose now. And unlike last season, James has Shaquille O'Neal protecting him, which will make a matchup against Dwight Howard and the Magic a whole different game if they meet again.
"We've matured in the last couple games (against Boston and Atlanta), but we have to keep it going to get where we want to be,'' Howard said. "We're going to peak sooner or later, but this is like a brand new team.''
The Cavs, meanwhile, begin a seven-game homestand Sunday night, expecting to widen the gap with everyone else in the East. The Celtics will send three players to the All-Star Game next month, while the Hawks have two going.
The Cavs have only one, but he's the most important one who makes them so much better than everyone else in the conference.