Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Cavaliers Cage Wolves

With the Cleveland Cavaliers on the verge of blowing a big lead for the third straight game, LeBron James got involved.

James had 26 points and 12 assists and helped turn back a rally as the Cavaliers held on for a 107-97 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"When we need it, (James) can provide it," Cavaliers coach Paul Silas said. "That's the mark of a quality player."

The Cavaliers had lost two in a row, squandering a 10-point halftime lead Thursday at Detroit and a 15-point fourth-quarter bulge in Saturday's home overtime loss to Boston. In that contest, James scored just two points in the fourth quarter and admitted his team played "tight" as the offense sputtered.

This game seemed to follow a similar script as Cleveland led by 16 points early in the final period before Minnesota began a comeback. But James, who turns 20 on December 30, wasn't going to let that storyline repeat itself.

"I passed up a lot of shots that I know I should be taking in the game against Boston," James said. "But, tonight I was aggressive, I was attacking, and our offense had a good flow."

Seven straight points by Troy Hudson cut the deficit to 83-74 before James sank a jumper from the right corner over Wally Szczerbiak. A 3-pointer by Hudson and a jumper by Szczerbiak made it 85-79, but James hit a driving 10-footer to again stall the rally.

When Eddie Griffin drilled a 3-pointer to make it 87-82, James drove strong around superstar Kevin Garnett and drew a foul. His free throw and two more by Jeff McInnis made it 90-82 with 5:22 to play.

Down the stretch, James added a free throw and zipped a pass through a zone to Drew Gooden for a dunk and a 99-88 lead with 1:46 left.

"We talked about it after the (Boston) game and we talked about it yesterday in practice and the guys responded," Silas said. "We cannot walk the ball up the court and become tight. And that's what we did in the Boston game."

Asked if James raises his level of play against the league's marquee teams and elite players such as Garnett, Silas replied, "I think so. Absolutely. He loves to play against quality opponents."

"We played a great game tonight from the first quarter through the fourth quarter," James added.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 25 points and nine rebounds and McInnis scored 21 points for Cleveland, which had lost its last four meetings with Minnesota but improved to 10-2 at home, the best mark in the Eastern Conference, and 6-3 against Western Conference opponents.

"It's important for us to establish (Ilgauskas) early," McInnis said. "And the rest of us just fit in. I took it upon myself to be aggressive tonight."

Led by James' 10-of-18 shooting, the Cavs shot 53 percent (39-of-74) from the field and had 28 assists.

Garnett had 26 points, 13 rebounds and six assists for the Timberwolves, who played without Latrell Sprewell. The swingman suffered a foot injury in Friday's win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

"We looked too much for our own shots instead of moving the ball," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "You look at McInnis, James and Ilgauskas, and (the Cavaliers) have three positions where they can really score at. Other guys know how to play off them."

"We really didn't shoot the ball like we know we can, and, at the same time, our defense wasn't really established," Garnett said.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Threes Rain in Wolves’ Win

Eddie Griffin's homecoming was a lot better than that of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Griffin drained six 3-pointers and scored 20 of his career-high 27 points in the first half as the Minnesota Timberwolves rolled to a 119-84 victory over the lethargic 76ers, who have lost six straight games.

A Philadelphia native who attended Roman Catholic High School, Griffin was signed as a free agent by the Timberwolves after a troubled start to his career in Houston. He missed all of last season due to off-court issues that included an assault on a woman and was cut by two teams.

"I've just been trying to stay focused and positive all season," Griffin said. "I've been doing a lot of extra shooting. The veterans have been a big help. They've let me know what to do on and off the court."

"The guy has been through a lot the last couple of years and it's great to see him to come out and have a great game like he did tonight," Timberwolves superstar forward Kevin Garnett said. "It's great to be in a nice flow and rhythm, to be part of a system that really enjoys him. To have our guys truly care about him, that's rare."

The rejuvenated Griffin has worked his way into Minnesota's rotation and is providing 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a reserve.

"I made a decision as a coach that when we got Eddie that we would give him enough responsibility that he would keep on improving," coach Flip Saunders said. "We didn't want to overload him, we didn't want to put too much pressure from the standpoint of being a starter. We let him know that when he goes in there, he has the ability of playing pretty loose."

In his hometown, Griffin was the best player on the court in the decisive first half. He came on midway through the first quarter and sank two 3-pointers, helping the Wolves to a 31-26 lead.

He put on a blistering performance in the second quarter, draining four more 3-pointers as he repeatedly found openings in the double-teaming defense of the Sixers.

"They went to double on KG and that left me open," Griffin said. "Sam (Cassell) and Troy Hudson were able to find me."

In the best game of his career in front of a handful of friends and family, Griffin made 9-of-21 shots and added 11 rebounds and four assists.

"It meant a lot," Griffin said. "A lot of my family were here. I left about 25 tickets. They were able to see me play a good game."

The Wolves held a 61-48 halftime advantage and led by double digits for all but 63 seconds thereafter as the Sixers heard boos throughout the second half. Minnesota opened a 37-point bulge in the fourth quarter.

Latrell Sprewell returned from his one-game suspension to score 24 points and Kevin Garnett added 19, eight rebounds and seven assists in just three quarters for the Wolves, who held a 51-37 advantage on the glass and got back on track after Tuesday's home loss to Dallas. Minnesota has won six of its last seven games.

The Sixers are helping plenty of teams get back on track. Returning from a winless five-game road trip, they suffered their worst loss in their eight years in the Wachovia Center and are mired in their worst slide since also losing six in a row in January 2003.

"As Truman said, it stops right here," said coach Jim O'Brien, pointing to himself. "We have the personnel to be a lot better that we've shown over the last week and a half. We have the personnel within the Atlantic Division to get into the playoffs, but we are not playing up to our capabilities."

Allen Iverson made 2-of-13 shots and Kyle Korver 2-of-14, including 1-of-12 from the arc. Philadelphia made 4-of-25 3-pointers while Minnesota made 15-of-34.

"I wish I could put my finger on one thing," said Iverson, who scored 14 points. "There are a lot of things wrong right now. We're just not playing well. We are not playing well as a team and our individual games are not that great as well. Our communication is not there, like it should be."