Cleveland Cavaliers Squander Opportunity to Emerge As League's Best

Alexander TerebinthContributor IFebruary 8, 2009

The Cleveland Cavaliers almost came away as the best team in the NBA.  However, that distinction currently belongs to the Los Angeles Lakers.

What was billed by all the pundits as Kobe Bryant v. LeBron James turned into a battle of role players (Lamar Odom had seven offensive rebounds in the second half? Really?), as the Cavaliers missed out on an opportunity to distinguish themselves as the class of the NBA, while allowing a historic home winning streak to dissolve in the process.

Neither Kobe nor LeBron broke the 20-point plateau, as Bryant battled the flu, and LeBron struggled against the collapsing defense of the Lakers, that made the Cleveland star attempt acrobatic shots on the way to the rim.  

Lamar Odom took rookie JJ Hickson to school and in the midst of a stellar all-around performance. Bolstered by a supporting cast of ancillary characters, Odom propelled the Lakers to an authoritative victory.

During the first half of the contest, Cleveland was clearly the better team, with Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who missed the previous match up between the teams) serving as a difference maker, draining his characteristic 18-foot jump shot off the pick and pop.  

However, the Cavaliers, reverting to old form, had a sluggish third quarter, and it appeared the Lakers made the necessary defensive adjustments at halftime and Mike Brown and his staff remained unable to counter.

Interestingly, the tilt provided a lot of insight in to the many different match-ups that will play out in the likely event the two squads rendezvous in the finals in June.  

It is clear that Wally Szczerbiak cannot guard Odom, and that going small against the tall Laker squad in the closing minutes of the game was a mistake.

While the Cavs were proficient behind the three-point line, their defense was uncharacteristically soft.

Despite the Cavs owning the paint in the first half, they were kept off the boards in the third and fourth quarters.  

Additionally, LeBron needs to relinquish more of the point guard duties, deferring to Mo Williams at the end of games.  

We all saw enough of King James dribbling around and jacking up a desperate three in last year's series against Boston to know the Cavs have better options.  Plus, he should be on the block utilizing mismatches and getting to the rim.

Cleveland works better when they move the ball crisply, or allow Williams to break down the defense and dish. James had a terrible second half vs. the Lakers and wreaked considerable damage on his potential claims to the league MVP.

Yet, what was most disappointing about the loss is the Cavaliers had a chance to emerge from the weekend as the best team in the land.

With the Celtics losing to San Antonio early Sunday afternoon, Cleveland were provided with an opportunity to rightfully seize the distinction of the league's best team at this point in the year.  

However, with their win on Sunday, the Lakers are clearly playing the best basketball. Consecutive wins on the road against Cleveland and Boston, the clear class of the East, leaves little doubt of their prowess.

However, the Cavs and their faithful need not fret.  It's a mere regular season defeat. In fact, a difficult and somewhat embarrassing loss in front of the home fans can serve to galvanize a team, bring them together, make them stronger, and sting them into better performance.  

While the first home lost of the season will hurt for a while, it should provide a stinging reminder that there is much work that remains to be done.

You know LeBron will be looking for redemption the next time the Lakers come to town. Everybody in Cleveland is hoping that happens in June rather than November.