Coach's Corner: Mike Thibault on Lakers vs. Cavaliers
By Mike Thibault (As told to Andrew Pearson)

The Lakers visit the Cavaliers Sunday 1:00 p.m. ET on ABC.


Thibault
Sunday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers features two pretty good teams – but not great teams yet – who are kind of on that precipice right now as to how they are going to finish the season. Both teams have star power recognition with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but they have struggled at times throughout the season trying to find enough people to blend and become threats on the court with their star scorer. When Cleveland finds that blend – and they had it going early in the year with Larry Hughes healthy – they are a very consistent, good-scoring team. Going and getting Flip Murray to try and help alleviate the Hughes situation was good, but they are under .500 in the games since joined the team.

LeBron and Kobe face off Sunday.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
They've folded down at the ends of games, blowing double-digit second half leads, most notably against Dallas and Miami. In both of those games, Cleveland had a pretty good offensive flow going in the first half and just stagnated down the stretch. There was a little bit more one-on-one. It just seemed like they didn't have the same rhythm to the game. Some nights you just can't change anything when it starts to fall apart. Teams get hot and with the pro game being so long, momentum swings are huge. Personally, I never ever felt safe with a 17-point lead in the first quarter, and I don't know if I ever felt safe starting the fourth quarter with a big lead unless we were just playing great. You would think with Zydrunas Ilgauskas having been a pretty good scorer lately and Drew Gooden having been reasonably consistent they wouldn't have this problem, but it is the other backcourt people who've been lacking consistency. Damon Jones hasn't been the spark they were looking for when they signed him this offseason, as he's shooting a career-low .358 from downtown. You need them to be counted on every night.

With that said, the Cavs are in far better shape than Los Angeles going down the stretch in terms of playoff positioning. Los Angeles has to be feeling the pressure with Utah and New Orleans/Oklahoma City right behind them. As the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland has a bigger cushion, but they also have a huge concern about how they're finishing the season. Everybody remembers the collapse they had last year when they finished up 8-12. Unfortunately, these things can get into a teams' head. They already have that history in their mind so to speak. The Cavs need to find a way to be better on both ends of the court, especially in the second half of games right now. They've stopped scoring – only eight points in the third quarter versus Dallas – and they haven't been able to stop other teams.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

You have two teams that over the course of the season are not shooting as well as their opponents overall. Somebody is going to have to become a good lockup defensive team here. For Los Angeles that has been the most maddening thing about their team. They've been consistently inconsistent. You don't know every night which defensive team from Los Angeles you're going to get. Some nights they play great defense, and the next night they don't. I think they're going to have to have Odom or somebody locking up on Gooden or whatever the matchup may be. It is going to be won by someone who can shut down the other guys. Kobe used to be a lockdown defender himself, but he is spending so much energy on the offensive end, that it is getting harder and harder for him to be that force. You certainly used to think of him as one of the ten best defenders in the league.

In the last game the two played in Los Angeles, the Lakers came away with a 99-98 win. Almost as a sign of things to come, it was a case where Cleveland couldn't finish and the Lakers did, with Kobe hitting big shots down the stretch. As is usually the case with two stars, they often cancel each other out offensively. Then you look down the next notch. Who is going to step up? Lamar Odom, Smush Parker or someone else? Is Ilgauskas, Gooden or someone else going to be the factor for Cleveland? The team that can do a good defensive job on those players will give themselves the edge.

X-FACTORS

Los Angeles has to play better team defense. It is a huge key for them. For Cleveland, they have to play consistently throughout a game. They can't have a hot quarter and then an off quarter. Part of that can be attributed to turnovers. In their previous matchup, the Lakers scored 14 points off of nine second half turnovers by the Cavs. Cleveland has got to play this like a playoff game and win some of those categories.

BOTTOM LINE

Five of Cleveland's next six games, counting Sunday's matchup against Los Angeles, are home games, where they have been pretty good. That can correct some of their woes, but it is not an easy thing to do. This is their time to make a little run and gain a little more separation, just to get some momentum. When you have about 20 games left to go in the season, you need to be feeling good about yourself going into the playoffs. It is hard to turn on a switch if you've had bad karma going on for the last month. This is a way for them to get themselves righted. I know they are waiting to hear on Larry Hughes, but they can't count on it. They need to figure some things out. They have relied a lot the last few games on LeBron's big scoring and that is a huge load to carry.

If I had to pick the game I would be leaning more towards Cleveland to come out on top in this one. The Lakers have not been a great road team, and with Cleveland being at home, I see them getting the ship righted. The Cavs loss earlier out in Los Angeles was a game they could have won the game at the end. The difference will be if Cleveland can avoid a late game meltdown.

-- Mike Thibault appears courtesy of the National Basketball Coaches Association.