James, Cavaliers having a historic 2008-09 season

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio – Owners of the NBA’s best record and a second Central Division title, the Cleveland Cavaliers are making jumpers. And history. They’re leading the Boston Celtics by four games for the Eastern Conference’s best record and hold a 1-game advantage on the Los Angeles Lakers for crucial home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They’re riding a nine-game winning streak, and with their next victory – No. 58 – they will set a franchise record for most wins in a season. The Cavs, so bad before LeBron James arrived, have never been better. Ben Wallace had no idea. ‘Ever?’ Wallace asked after practice yesterday when told of the impending wins mark. ‘Ever-ever?’ Ever. ‘Well, then that’s probably going to happen,’ Big Ben predicted. Not probably. Definitely. With an incomparable 32-1 record at home, and eight of their next 12 games inside the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland’s other rock and roll structure, the Cavs likely will smash the previous club record of 57 wins set by the 1988-89 Cavs and the 1991-92 edition. In fact, if the Cavs, who host the New Jersey Nets tonight, can run the table at home and finish 40-1, they’ll match the 1985-86 Boston Celtics for the best home record in league history. And three more wins will put them at the exalted 60-win plateau, a line usually reserved for greatness. Not bad for a team that won 45 regular-season games a year ago. ‘To win 60 games is hard,’ Cavs coach Mike Brown said. ‘Not many teams can say they’ve done it. I had the good fortune to do that once in Indiana and once in San Antonio. It was a hard time to get there, but if we do get there, it doesn’t guarantee us what our main goal is, and that’s to win a championship.’ Title talk seemed far-fetched earlier this month when the Cavs played poorly on a West Coast trip. They fell behind in games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix and Sacramento and needed late rallies to win. Their defense was ragged and there seemed to be a general lack of focus. But in their last five games, four of them at home, the Cavs have tightened things up. ‘Nothing is wrong right now,’ James said. ‘But we can’t allow something to slip and we started to on that West Coast trip. But we’ve gotten it back. We’ve gotten better in every aspect of our game offensively and defensively, and now it’s just going out there and winning games.’ Two seasons after making the finals for the first time, the Cavaliers, 12-1 in March and a league-best 17-2 since the All-Star break, have a legitimate shot at dethroning the Celtics, who were pushed to seven games by Cleveland in last year’s Eastern semifinals. James has the Cavs and their fans dreaming big. The clear leader to win his first MVP award, James has become the game’s best all-around player. Not only has he become an unstoppable offensive force – he’s averaging 29.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists in March – he has worked so hard on his defense that he’s inching toward being the league’s premier stopper, too. Michael Jordan all over again. Along with an ability to block shots that mere mortals can’t touch, James has taken it upon himself to guard the other team’s best scorer during crunch time, an assignment he wasn’t always willing to accept. ‘Defensively he’s as quick and strong as anybody at his position or any position,’ Portland coach Nate McMillan. ‘He has the ability to be the best.’ For now, James’ sole goal is to get the Cavaliers a title and end the city of Cleveland’s championship drought which extends back to 1964. Before the season started, James felt that his team, bolstered by the addition of point guard Mo Williams, would challenge Boston. Never did he think the Cavaliers would be closing in on 60 wins with four weeks remaining before the playoffs. ‘At the start of the season, no, I don’t think we would have thought we’d be in this position,’ he said. ‘I could say we would be really good. But to play the way we’ve been playing on the road and at home, it’s a little bit better than I think we all thought. ‘But I’m happy we’re in this position. We want to take it one game at a time and not worry about what wins we’re going to get. But we want to get as many as possible.’ Only six years ago, Cleveland was as low as it gets. The Cavaliers won just 17 games during the 2002-03 season, which ended with them winning the NBA lottery, a golden ticket that allowed them to draft James. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has been with Cleveland since 1996, remembers those dark days. ‘It was a lot of frustration back then,’ said the 7-foot-3 giant. ‘I see it now when we go into Memphis and other places, you see the empty arena and there’s no hope in people’s faces. We went through three head coaches that year. It was not a pretty sight. But better times came along.’ Even better ones may lie ahead.