As if we needed any further proof of the disparity of talent between last year's NBA Finals participants, the best players on both teams have been down for extended periods, and the results have been polar opposites.
San Antonio hasn't lost without Tim Duncan, defeating Dallas and Utah, two of the top teams in the Western Conference. The Cavaliers have lost five consecutive times without LeBron James, the latest coming against Charlotte, which had lost seven in a row and fell at Detroit by 19 Sunday.
|Time for LeBron James to shed the turtleneck and put on a jersey. (Getty Images)|
Hate to break it to James, but teams, particularly in the Eastern Conference, have been going to town on his Cavaliers for months now. Last summer's run might as well have been a fluke considering many were gearing up for this season's chase with the mantra that if Cleveland can do it, so can they.
It's about time the Cavaliers strike back.
Larry Hughes has returned from a month-long absence, Anderson Varejao is now in the fold and James' return, as it has seemingly been for days now, is just around the corner. He's being extremely cautious about not coming back too soon, but it's obvious his crew is lost without him. There comes a time where he's got to say to himself: This is a sprained finger on my non-shooting hand, and we can't afford to slip any further in the standings.
Suck it up and play.
That's what the entire city of Cleveland wants to tell LeBron, so I'll go ahead and say it for them. By the time the playoffs roll around, every player is dealing with soreness and bruises. There's no one 100 percent healthy. James has been around the league long enough to know that.
Another thing James knows from experience is how important a strong draw is to Cleveland's chances in the Eastern Conference. Rallying to claim the No. 2 seed last season was a major reason the Cavs made it all the way to the championship round, utilizing their home-court advantage and avoiding top-seeded Detroit until the last possible series.
Now the Cavs are sacrificing valuable ground. Before James hurt his finger on an ordinary-looking foul by Nazr Mohammed, Cleveland had just beaten Boston and seemed to be gaining momentum. Entering Tuesday's home date against Indiana, the Cavs haven't won since, slipping into a tie for the No. 8 seed in the conference with fellow underachiever New Jersey. The Cavs' record against the rest of the East is 4-8.
Understanding we're just a quarter of the season in, it's bad for a team's confidence to be this lost without its superstar, especially when a quality squad like San Antonio seems to be getting along just fine.
Considering how nasty Duncan's injury looked compared to James', there's no way he should beat the King back onto the floor. Word is that Duncan is moving around without pain and might play Tuesday night at Golden State. James' return should come at least a few hours earlier.
The key word there being "should."
|Tuesday||San Antonio at Golden State|
|Wednesday||Dallas at Toronto|
|Wednesday||Detroit at Houston|
|Wednesday||New Orleans at Denver|
|Wednesday||Utah at Phoenix|
|Thursday||San Antonio at L.A. Lakers|
|Friday||Cleveland at New Jersey|
|Friday||New Orleans at Dallas|
|Friday||L.A. Lakers at Golden State|
|Saturday||New Jersey at New York|
|Saturday||Phoenix at New Orleans|
|Saturday||Dallas at Houston|
|Sunday||Golden State at Detroit|
|Saturday||Boston at Toronto|
|Sunday||Golden State at L.A. Lakers|
Team of the week: Orlando was surprised at home by Indiana last Friday, prompting Stan Van Gundy to again state his team could be plagued by overconfidence. He's doing his best to keep his players grounded and focused, but there's no question what they've accomplished is no fluke. With Dwight Howard controlling the paint on a nightly basis, averaging 15.0 rebounds and shooting 61.4 percent from the field, the Magic have a fighting chance to win every time out provided everyone else pulls their weight. Howard turned 22 over the weekend, planned on celebrating with a few Shirley Temples and should see the party carry over into this week with Atlanta, Milwaukee, Charlotte and Memphis as likely victims. He'll be celebrating 100 at some point this week, too -- dunks. Nobody in the NBA has even half that.
Team of the weak: Sacramento has yet to win on the road, failing in its first eight chances. With leading scorer Kevin Martin sidelined by a strained groin, the Kings won't be favored in stops in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. Although Ron Artest is playing well and John Salmons and Francisco Garcia have bravely tried to fill Martin's shoes, Sacramento still lacks the inside presence needed to be taken seriously in the West, currently ranking last in the league in rebounds and second to last in blocks.
Player to watch: Miami won for the first time in five games Sunday against the Clippers, but you can't blame Dwyane Wade for the team's struggles. The shooting guard has notched double-doubles in four consecutive games entering Monday's visit to Phoenix, averaging nearly 29 points and 10 assists. The Heat will finally get home for five of its next six games this week and are viewing this portion of the schedule as its opportunity to claw out of the Eastern Conference basement.
• Chris Bosh loves playing in Atlanta, where he starred at Georgia Tech for a single season in 2002-03. The Raptors power forward made his return from a groin injury on Sunday and finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds to push his team past Houston. He'll do battle with the Hawks prized young big man, Al Horford, currently dwarfing all rookies with his 10.8 rebounds-per-game average.
• The Kevin Durant show makes its only appearance at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday when the Sonics roll through. Durant scored a career-high 35 points over the weekend and leads all rookies with a 20.3 average, the highest a first-year player has posted since James, Carmelo Anthony, Wade and Bosh entered the league. Anthony led that rookie class with 21.0 points per game.
• Given Miami's struggles and Shaquille O'Neal drawing blame for being "washed up," disgruntled Heat fans can take a first-hand look at what one of the players they gave up to get the Diesel is doing when Caron Butler brings the Wizards to town Thursday. Butler, a first-time All-Star last season, is flourishing while taking over as Washington's go-to guy with Gilbert Arenas on the mend, averaging 22.9 points per game and keeping his team afloat in the Southeast Division.
• Friday night is all about rivalries, starting with Howard's duel against Charlotte's Emeka Okafor. He can deny it all he wants, but there's no question the Magic center gets up for the player who was drafted just after him in 2004. Michael Redd takes aim at the player he used to back up when he came into the league, Boston's Ray Allen. Assuming James is back, he'll take the court against good buddy Jason Kidd, although not on the same team as both would like. Knicks center Eddy Curry returns home to Chicago.