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Cleveland's Future Hinges on James

2nd-Year Player at the Front of Playoff Push

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page D11

Little by little, the lessons are coming for LeBron James. And no, they can't be found under the cap on a bottle of Sprite or on a pair of James's signature line of Nike basketball shoes.

After all, selling soda pop and hawking sneakers is easy when you have James's talent and charm; but dragging a struggling franchise into the NBA playoffs has proven to be much tougher, as James is learning this spring.


Dragging a struggling franchise into the NBA playoffs is a difficult task, as LeBron James is learning this spring. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

_____Eastern Conference_____
The Wizards and Bulls are vying for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which carries home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Washington holds the tiebreaker over Chicago.

Team W-L Pct. GB
4. Chicago 46-34 .575 -
5. Wizards 45-35 .563 1

REMAINING GAMES
Bulls (2): Tonight, vs. Knicks; tomorrow, at Pacers.
Wizards (2): Tonight, at Nets; tomorrow, at Knicks.


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_____Nets Basics_____
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Last night's 119-111 loss to the Wizards at MCI Center put Cleveland in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. Cleveland's loss combined with New Jersey's win over Toronto left it one game ahead of the Nets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with three games left to play.

It was only Thursday night prior to a game against the New York Knicks in Cleveland, James pulled a Joe Namath and confidently predicted that the Cavaliers would hold on and make the postseason for the first time since 1998.

"We ain't worried about not making it," James said.

"We're going to make it."

James scored 27 points and grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds but made only 7 of 25 field goal attempts and the Cavaliers inexcusably lost to a Knicks team that had nothing to play for. James had an even stronger effort last night, scoring a game-high 38 points, while logging 48 minutes, but it wasn't enough to overcome the combined performance of Washington's big three, Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, who combined for 85 points.

"I'm not disappointed in tonight," James said last night. "We played well but they had a great attack. They have three guys who are hard to stop."

Making the playoffs was supposed to be the most basic of goals for James and the Cavaliers this season, which is one reason Coach Paul Silas was fired and replaced by Brendan Malone on March 21. At the time, Cleveland was in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Naturally, the weight of expectations has fallen squarely on James's broad shoulders even though the second-year swingman has far less experience than many of the players on Cleveland's roster.

Prior to last night's game, third-year forward Drew Gooden summed up Cleveland's tenuous playoff position by drawing on his experience as a college star at the University of Kansas.

"We have to treat this like the NCAA tourney where it's one loss and you're out," said Gooden.

But even references to March Madness hold little meaning to James, who skipped college and was selected with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft by the Cavaliers. Gooden played in a Final Four, center Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a member of Cleveland's 1998 playoff team and guard Eric Snow made seven playoff appearances with Seattle and Philadelphia.

But those players aren't being asked to lead the Cavaliers to the postseason nor will they take the heat if things fall apart.

Fair or not, James has been compared to legends of the game like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and he's well aware that those players took their teams to the playoffs and won championships as young players. James desperately wants to get his first taste of playoff basketball and says he doesn't mind the pressure that has come from having to carry the Cavaliers.

"I've always wanted that," James said. "If we lose a game, I want it to come on me and if we win, I want it to be for the team. Anything bad that happens, I have no problem taking the leadership role and saying I did something wrong, which I know I do. When we have success, I want it to be about the team. That's the kind of player I am."

James recently broke Wesley Person's franchise record for minutes played in a season and ranks second in the NBA in minutes played. James looked tired last night, particularly in the first half, instead of taking the ball to the basket and attacking the heart of Washington's defense, he mostly curled off screens and settled for fade-away jump shots.

Still James defiantly said he's not tired and has enough energy to help the Cavaliers win two of their final three games (at Detroit, home against Boston, at Toronto), which they likely will need to hold off New Jersey.

"I'm not fatigued," James said. "I could play a full game every night. This is not the time of the year to be tired."


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