The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics meet again tonight, and this time, it counts.
Six days after the Celtics beat the Cavs at the Schottenstein Center in the final preseason game, the teams kick off the NBA regular season at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavs enter the ’09-’10 campaign trying to maintain focus on the court, despite several mounting issues off of it.
New sheriff in town
The Cavs finished last season with the league’s best regular season record, at 66-16.
Focus and determination paced the team through the schedule without many distractions or letdowns.
With its vast array of team handshakes and pre-game routines, Cleveland demonstrated a close bond that top-tier teams strive for.
After sweeping through the first two postseason series unscathed, Cleveland couldn’t contend with Orlando’s hot outside shooting as the Magic dispensed of the Cavs in six games.
Orlando exposed weaknesses on the Cavs’ interior, as center Dwight Howard averaged 25.8 points and 13.0 rebounds per game, including 40 points and 14 boards in the series-clinching, game six victory.
To counter Orlando’s post supremacy, the Cavs dealt for 15-time All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal. To defy criticism that he had little fuel left in his tank, O’Neal averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds last season with Phoenix.
The King’s cloudy future
The media have beaten to death the uncertainty regarding league MVP LeBron James’ future in Cleveland.
James is scheduled to become a free agent once his contract ends after this season, and he has maintained a firm stance on not exploring his options until the season ends.
The bright lights and infinite endorsement opportunities of the Big Apple could entice him to sign with the New York Knicks or New Jersey Nets.
But the easiest solution to the dilemma could occur if the Cavs can win a championship.
James has reiterated his aim to follow in the footsteps of Hall of Fame inductee Michael Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles.
His talent level in New York or New Jersey wouldn’t immediately match the championship-caliber squad he currently leads in Cleveland.
Regardless, James’ refusal to commit one way or the other keeps the issue relevant, potentially causing a distraction as the Cavs target a trip to the NBA Finals.
For the Cavs to replicate the camaraderie they displayed on the court last season, they must quickly surmount several obstacles.
Delonte West, who started at shooting guard and played more minutes than any other Cavalier during the postseason, didn’t record any playing time during the preseason.
West was arrested in September after being pulled over for speeding while carrying a pair of loaded handguns and a loaded shotgun in Maryland. The sixth-year guard has battled depression, and the team remains unsure of when he might return.
Veteran Anthony Parker has assumed West’s starting spot.
With two new starters, it could take time to reacquire the chemistry the team fed off of last season.
Tuesday’s season opener against the championship contending Celtics could prove to be a measuring stick gauging how close the Cavs are to matching or exceeding last season’s success.
After a 4-4 mark in the preseason, James contended that the Cavs will amp up their play up now that the wins and losses hold meaning.
“The preseason is so long and dreadful,” James said. “I’m just ready to get the season started now.”
As the Celtics and Cavaliers prepare to initiate a new season of basketball, O’Neal expressed his excitement as the two Eastern Conference titans clash.
“I’ve been here 17 years and I’ve been in a lot of rivalries and will continue to be in rivalries and it only makes for good basketball,” he said. “[It’s] going to be a hell of a game.”