Posted May 4 2010 9:47AM
CLEVELAND -- Nobody said it would be easy, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are finding that getting through the first two rounds of the postseason is much harder than it was.
Just like last season, they're the No. 1 overall seed in the league and they're playing the same lower seeds in the same weak conference. But this time, there are more speed bumps as they navigate their way through the Eastern Conference bracket.
Last season, the Cavs swept their first eight playoff games, winning them by an average of 16.8 points per game. They manhandled a Pistons team that didn't care to be there and then slapped the Hawks, who were banged up and just happy to be in the second round for the first time in 10 years.
That's not the case this postseason.
The Bulls backed into the playoffs, but had postseason experience, an All-Star point guard and a lot more heart than the Pistons did last season. And as the Cavs are finding out, the Celtics are on another level than the Hawks when it comes to experience, defensive intensity and desire.
"They believe," Cavs forward Antawn Jamison said of Boston after its Game 2 win.
Yes, despite what has been written about them over the last few months, the Celtics believe they're a championship team. So far in this series, they've looked a lot more like it than the Cavs have.
Though they have a deeper and more talented roster, the Cavs just aren't playing as well as they were a year ago. LeBron James' injured elbow is a concern and his hesitancy with the ball has hurt the Cavs offensively, but their problems start on defense.
The Cavs were the seventh-best defensive team in the league this season, not far behind the fifth-ranked Celtics, but they haven't had any defensive consistency since early March. Boston had the same problem down the stretch of the regular season, but it clearly flipped the switch in the postseason, and has been the best defensive team of the playoffs thus far. The Cavs, meanwhile, are still dealing with their issues.
Part of the problem is a lack of cohesion. With Jamison and Shaquille O'Neal having played only four games together before the playoffs began (and none since late February), they need time to gel on the court.
"When five guys aren't on the same page, things can break down," James said of his team's defense. "And that's exactly what happened [in Game 2]."
Still, with J.J. Hickson in for O'Neal in the fourth quarter, the Cavs' defense came alive, holding the Celtics scoreless for 10 straight possessions to make the game interesting for a few minutes. But that stretch was more about energy and effort than cohesiveness.
"We were flying around," Mo Williams said. "When we're flying around, it seems like there's 10 of us out there. The team defense is incredible and it's tough on opposing offenses. In the fourth quarter, that's what we were doing. Even when they thought they had layups, somebody was coming from the backside to block it. We made big plays down the stretch, but we've got to sustain that for as close to 48 minutes throughout the game as we can."
For James, Game 2 seemed to be more about his team just not playing well, rather than playing without energy. He was calm and relaxed, even cracking a smile or two as he addressed the media after one of his worst postseason performances.
"This is a long series and I understand that," James said. "I've been in these situations before ... There's no panic button at this point."
About 30 minutes earlier, sitting at the same podium, James' coach was anything but calm. No, Mike Brown wasn't panicking. He was just ticked off. And for him, the loss was more about effort than execution.
"We can't think we're going to win this series playing with the lack of urgency that we played with tonight," Brown said.
Winning the series is not only going to require a sense of urgency ... it's now going to require a win at the TD Garden. The Cavs have won just once in their last 10 tries in Boston and the Celtics are 21-4 at home in the postseason since 2008.
Last season, the Cavs lost home-court advantage to the Magic in Game 1 of the conference finals, and they unable to pick up the win in Orlando that they needed. So general manager Danny Ferry retooled the roster and owner Dan Gilbert took on a greater financial burden. Yet here are the Cavs, struggling just to get back to where they were a season ago. They've run into a road block: a Celtics team that's not going down without a serious fight.
The good news is that if the Cavs make it through this round, they'll be much more battle-tested than they were a season earlier.
If not... then it's really time to panic in Cleveland.
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