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Gunnin' For No. 1 

As All-star Weekend Fades, The Cavs Turn Their Attention To The Top

There's simply no way to describe the Cavs' season so far, other than to say it's been joyful and spectacular. At 40-11, the Wine and Gold are a full 13 games up on Detroit in the Central, have the third-best record in the entire league, the best home record, the game's most unbelievable player, the association's busiest doctors and an owner who loves totally made-up words.

As LeBron recently emphasized, all of that don't mean a thing unless you win a ring. Which is why the third-best record in the league, and second in the East, is simply not good enough. Not when the team could win more than 60 games, have the MVP suiting up every night and still face the prospect of a Game 7 on the road against a team standing in the way of the finals.

It doesn't look like anything will change for the Cavs when the NBA trade deadline comes and goes. Word is, GM Danny Ferry is extremely happy with his roster and eager to just get everyone healthy once again for a sustained drive to the playoffs, but nonetheless, is exploring every option of adding another piece if the price is right.

If and when that happens, you'll hear Coach Brown and Duke Danny spouting the expected platitudes when asked about the expectations for the second half of the season: "We like the chemistry of our team." "We only focus on one game at a time."

What the Cavs will never say, but what is clear, is that their chief goal is the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. After losing 97-92 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis in Boston last year, and with a prospective Eastern Conference finals match-up against the Celtics looming large this spring, there's simply no other way to look at it. Only 19 teams have won a Game 7 on the road in NBA history, and the Cavs don't want to be in the position, yet again, of being on the wrong side of that statistic.

Is it possible for the Cavs, 40-11, to catch and overtake the Celtics, 44-11, in the final months of the season? The Celts have 14 of their remaining 27 games on the road, and those come against opponents with a combined .548 winning percentage. The Cavs, meanwhile, have 16 of their final 31 at the Q, where they've only lost one game (to the Lakers) all season, and they'll face teams with a .491 win percentage on the road.

Unfortunately, the Cavs face a staggering stretch this week that could foreshadow how the rest of the season unfolds and whether or not they have any shot at clinching home-court advantage through the playoffs. Starting on February 22, the Wine and Gold play nine games in 12 days, including road contests at Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta, Miami and Boston, while hosting Miami and Detroit back home. Milwaukee and Memphis provide the only respite from playoff-caliber opponents.

As if those 12 days and opponents weren't tough enough, the Cavs are coming off their most disappointing and ineffective string of basketball in an otherwise dominant season. The mighty struggles, while relatively small when looked at independently, are reason for concern when they pile up, and the schedule over the next few weeks doesn't give the team much leeway to fix the problems at the heart of their slide.

Since Delonte West broke his wrist on January 15, LeBron and company have managed only a 10-5 record. The three reliable bigs - Z, Anderson and Ben Wallace - look tired; J.J. Hickson's youth continues to show at the most inopportune moments, especially his atrocious performance during the Lakers loss; Sasha and his world-record-setting fragile bones will be on the shelf once again; Wally World is playing admirably but logging huge minutes on a bum knee while banging in the paint; Boobie seems to shoot well only every other month; and the team's trademark defense doesn't look all that dominant anymore.

West is set to return to practice soon, and his perimeter defense will be a welcome boon to a squad that leads the league in allowing only 91.1 points per game. But his adjustment period, both in stamina and shooting, is unknown. He was having a stellar season pre-injury, shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 40.9 percent behind the arc. You hope he picks up where he left off, but that's far from certain.

After that hellacious run, and after a brief three-game road trip out west, the schedule turns in the Cavs' favor. From March 15 through March 31, they play nine games, eight of them at home. If they can regroup and survive the end of February, two weeks in Cleveland should be an opportunity to continue their ascent to the No. 1 spot and the comfort of the Q in May and June.

After all, it would be a shame if this magical season came down to one night in Boston instead.

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