Since the release of the schedule, Cavs observers have been looking at these first two months as the toughest stretch with the biggest hurdles to clear. The Cavs are not winning in the convincing manner that they did last season and they certainly look shaky at times on both ends of the floor. Yet we lag only a few games behind the crème of the league in the loss column with our first major Western Conference trip kicking off tomorrow night in Big D. Marc Stein, a Western Conference guy and the lead writer in charge of ESPN’s power rankings, fairly or unfairly, is typically hard on the Cavs. But Stein reminded us this week that “the Cavs — for all the lukewarm reviews so far — are a tidy 7-2 against teams at .500 or better.”
Let’s hope they continue to play to the level of their competition on this trip because they will be facing 3 of the top 4 records in the West and a fourth team that, while under .500, is 10-3 at home. In addition to the tough competition, the 4 games come with little rest in a 6 day span – as a frame of reference, the Cavs second West Coast swing, which happens a mere two weeks after this one ends, consists of 5 games in 9 days. Lebron, in his postgame remarks last night, was referring to it as “business trip to the Wild, Wild West.” We will bring you your game previews for each specific game this week but let’s take a quick look at each team and what we should expect/hope for on this trip as a whole.
Sunday at Dallas Mavericks
The Cavs may have caught a break when Dirk Nowitzki collided with Carl Landry last night and was forced to leave the game. Landry lost five teeth in the collision and they found tooth fragments lodged deep in Dirk’s elbow almost an hour after the collision. Marc Spears of Yahoo tweeted that the Mavs were extremely concerned about his elbow and it took them an hour simply to clean it out so they could x-ray it. He did not practice today and is questionable for the game tomorrow night. The Mavs have the 2nd best record in the West but actually have the worst home record of the 4 teams on this trip. It is obviously a whole new ballgame if Dirk, who is a top 5 player in the league so far this season, is out tomorrow night. You never want to cheer another’s injury (even if he plays, he won’t be near 100%) but it would certainly provide a nice opening for the Cavaliers to steal one in Dallas to start the trip. But with the Mavs coming off a home loss and the hype surrounding a visit from LBJ, you have the expect their best shot with or without Dirk.
Monday at Phoenix Suns
The Suns are undefeated at home this year but they have had, much like the Cavs, a tough and quirky schedule out of the gate in the first quarter of the season. They have played only 9 games at home (9-0) while playing on the road 17 times. They went through the stretch 17-9 and have the fourth best record in the West. I think people expected them to be in contention for the bottom three playoff spots out West but were not expecting them to regain their old form after a salary-dumping offseason. The primary salary dump, Shaquille O’ Neal, allowed them to go back to a run-n-gun 7 seconds or less style under Alvin Gentry. We smoked them at home earlier this month when they were on the end of a back-to-back and a 4 game Eastern Conference trip. They shot poorly in the first half which led to a 30 point lead for the Cavs at half. The Suns are at home tonight against the Wizards and will be waiting for us Monday night with a likely 10-0 home record and the Cavs coming in on our own back-to-back. My expectations are not high for this game.
Wednesday at Sacramento Kings
The Kings are not the West Coast swing “rest stop” that they were expected to be when the schedule came out. The Cavs were lucky to win at Arco last year in an overtime game which required a 14 point comeback to tie it at the end of regulation and a 51 point effort from LBJ. The Kings are significantly improved from that squad last year under new coach Paul Westphal and rookie sensation Tyreke Evans. They are 10-3 at home and have made Arco a tough place to play again. I watched them play the Wizards in the late game on ESPN this past Wednesday and I came away very impressed. Evans is approaching LBJ-esque numbers as a rookie averaging close to a 20-5-5. I was also impressed with Israeli rookie Omri Casspi. Granted it was the Wizards ole’ defense, but he was much more than a spot-up shooter and consistently took it to the basket. Jason Thompson is an impressive young big but they lack a true post scorer. Even without Zanesville native and top scorer Kevin Martin, I love this team and am excited about this game. I really think it is a true 50-50 game with the way the Kings are playing at home this season.
Friday at Los Angeles Lakers
The marquee Christmas day matchup with Kobe vs. LeBron and Kobe vs. Shaq. Bryant has played on December 25th in his career more than any other single day on the calendar and this could be the most hyped matchup of them all. The Lakers are the league’s undisputed best team this season. The Cavs lost by 17 in LA last year and the Lakers were the only team to win at the Q when the Cavs were legitimately competing last season. They are on an east coast trip right now in which they dodged a serious bullet (with an assist from the refs) against the same tough Bucks squad that the Cavs saw last night. They will be back home by tomorrow night and fully rested come Friday with only two games this week, both at home – OKC on Tuesday and the Cavs on Friday. The Cavs have a chance with Kobe Bryant playing hurt with a broken finger. It’s a nagging injury which has demonstrably affected his shooting here in his first week having to cope with it. He has said it is the toughest injury he’s had to play with in his career because of how it affects his follow through on his shot. They were roughed up in Utah in his first game playing with the broken finger and struggled in Milwaukee as I noted above. But with the full week of rest at home with the Cavs staggering in on their 4th game in 6 nights and the hype surrounding this game, I expect to take the Lakers best shot on Friday. I give the Cavs a slim chance of ending the trip with a W.
We will have our typically detailed previews of each game throughout the week beginning tomorrow with Dallas but I thought it was important to take a look at the trip as a whole. I think we should hope for 2-2. The Dirk injury could really help us tomorrow night. I do not expect the Cavs to win in Phoenix on the back-to-back and I do not expect them to win in LA on Friday. That Kings game is pivotal and hopefully the Cavs take them seriously. Every team has tough stretches on their schedule and this week could be rough for the Cavaliers starting tomorrow night in Dallas. Good luck on your business trip Mr. James.