The Celtics got off on the right foot to start the regular season, beating the Cavaliers 95-89 at Quicken Loans Arena where Cleveland was 39-2 last season. For one brief, shining moment, the C's had the upper hand. It didn't last.
Predictably, the Cavs have surged back to the top of the Eastern Conference pack. They're dominating at home, just like last year — they've gone 14-2 at the Q since faltering on opening night against Boston. They've won 15 of their last 18 games, ringing in the new year with a raging hot streak that's put them back atop the conference standings. Going into Thursday night's showdown with Utah, they lead the rest of the pack by a game and a half, well on their way to another postseason as the East's top seed.
All the doubts we had about this team are starting to dissipate. Delonte West may be a distraction off the court, but he's a stellar sixth man on it. Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas might be aging, but they're still getting the job done down low. J.J. Hickson may be young, but he's ready to be a starting power forward in the NBA. And LeBron James having an off year? Please.
These aren't the same Cavs that cruised to the conference finals last season, but they do look just as good. And they're going to be a huge roadblock in the Celtics' way if Boston wants a return to the NBA Finals.
But the Cavs aren't without weaknesses.
King James is still King James. That's not up for debate. But the supporting cast around him has always had holes, and this season is no exception. The team that best exploits Cleveland's weaknesses is the one that represents the East in the Finals. That's how the conference works nowadays.
First and foremost, you have to wonder how much Shaq and Big Z still have in the tank. O'Neal is 37, Ilgauskas is 34, and both appear to have lost a step or two on both ends of the floor. O'Neal has gotten lazier on offense with age — he's settling for weaker shots, he's not taking it to the rim, he's not challenging younger, tougher centers. That's a huge flaw, especially in the playoffs when he'll run into the likes of Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins. And as for Z, there have been rumblings about his impending retirement — is his motivation still there? Hard to say.
As for Hickson, he still has some learning to do. He doesn't create optimal shots on the offensive end yet; he's not the efficient scorer that GM Danny Ferry wants him to be. Defensively, he's not contesting shots like a pro. That might come with age, but at the moment, it looks like he's just counting on LeBron to do all the work.
Mo Williams is a good point guard, but he's no superstar. West and Anthony Parker are doing just fine at the 2, but they're nothing special. There's really only one man on that roster playing like a champion. And the Cavs will go as far as he can take them.
As usual, the pressure is on LeBron to carry this team. In the regular season, that's never been a problem. But by the spring, he risks running out of steam.
Shaquille O'Neal was brought into Cleveland to give LeBron a championship-level sidekick. It takes multiple All-Stars to win a title in the NBA — Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Paul Pierce had Kevin Garnett and Dwyane Wade had… well, Shaq.
But the Big Aristotle is getting on in years, and he's not the same player he was four years ago.
Do the Cavs have the talent to compete for a championship? Maybe. At the moment, it's not certain. But one thing's for sure — the Celtics do. When the regular season is over, the real title contender will rise above the rest.