After failing to reach the NBA finals last season despite possessing the league’s best record, LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers know they’ll ultimately be judged by how they fare in the postseason.
They’ve hardly looked like a contender for anything through their first two games.
The Cavaliers try to avoid a third consecutive loss for the first time since March 2008 on Friday night at Target Center, where the young Minnesota Timberwolves look to build on a stunning comeback win in their season opener.
Cleveland (0-2) didn’t lose back-to-back games until February last season, compiling a franchise-record 66 victories before being bounced by Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavaliers had trouble dealing with Magic center Dwight Howard(notes) in that series, prompting general manager Danny Ferry to acquire Shaquille O’Neal(notes) from Phoenix. The 37-year-old future Hall of Famer has hardly made a difference thus far, scoring six combined points after halftime in the two losses.
James is shooting 46.3 percent, but the eight other Cavaliers who have seen action are making 34.8 percent of their shots. James’ 38 points weren’t enough in a 95-89 home loss to Boston in Tuesday’s opener, then his 25th career triple-double couldn’t help Cleveland overcome 13 missed free throws Wednesday in a 101-91 defeat at Toronto.
“Early in my career, I’d get very upset when you lose two or three games, you’d just feel like you can’t turn it around,” James said. “But I’m at a point in my career now where I know that you can lose two but, at the same time, you don’t look too far into it. You learn from the mistakes and you just try to get better.”
O’Neal is struggling to fit in on both ends of the floor, and the Cavaliers have particularly looked vulnerable when he and fellow 7-footer Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) have played together. O’Neal is 0 for 5 from the free-throw line and is shooting 47.8 percent from the field - hardly impressive for a player who’s second all-time behind Artis Gilmore in field-goal percentage (58.2).
“Coach (Mike Brown) is still learning us, we’re still learning the system, we’re still learning each other,” O’Neal said. “It’s going to be a work in progress.”
While O’Neal and fellow newcomers Anthony Parker(notes) and Jamario Moon(notes) try to fit in, Cleveland is still waiting for the season debut of Delonte West(notes). It’s unclear if the troubled guard, who has battled a mood disorder and other personal problems during a turbulent offseason, will play Friday.
Regardless of West’s status, Minnesota should be feeling confident after an impressive come-from-behind win Wednesday. The Timberwolves trailed New Jersey by 16 with less than 7 minutes to play, but rallied to win 95-93 on Damien Wilkins’(notes) putback at the buzzer.
“They didn’t quit,” first-year coach Kurt Rambis said. “They felt like they had an opportunity to win the ball game even when they were down 15. I admire that in the guys. So I was very proud of them that they fought back to win the ball game.”
Jefferson, playing for the first time since tearing his ACL on Feb. 8, looked a bit rusty, scoring nine points on 2 of 9 shooting in 25 minutes.
The Timberwolves have lost seven straight to the Cavaliers by an average of 14.1 points, suffering 22- and 23-point defeats last season. James has averaged 33.6 points during that winning streak.