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Cavaliers rely on defense to beat Nets in opener of semifinal series

May 7th, 2007 1:15 am by TOM WITHERS



CLEVELAND - LeBron James' stuffy nose was nothing compared to the congestion New Jersey dealt with.


With their superstar slowed by a nasty head cold, the Cleveland Cavaliers turned up their defense to beat the Nets 81-77 on Sunday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.


The Cavaliers clogged up passing lanes, pushed bodies around under the basket and generally made life miserable for the playoff-tested Nets, who rarely got off a shot without a hand waving in their faces.


"Our defense was the thing that carried us," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said proudly.


James, who came down with a cold while the Cavs waited around for a second-round opponent, sniffled his way to 21 points and Larry Hughes added 17 as Cleveland remained unbeaten so far this postseason.


The Cavs came in rested after their four-game sweep of Washington in the first round, and they needed every ounce of energy to hold off the Nets, who pulled within 79-77 on Vince Carter's two free throws with 19.5 seconds left.


But James scored on a tough drive to put Cleveland up by four, and on New Jersey's final possession, the Cavaliers made a defensive stand that must have given Brown chills from head to toe.


As the Nets quickly worked the ball on the perimeter looking for a shot, they encountered a Cavalier at every turn. Up top, nothing there. Down low, nope. Inside, outside, it didn't matter.


And when New Jersey's Bostjan Nachbar finally found enough room to get off a shot with 7.9 seconds left, James blocked it.


"We understand that if we get stops, we're a tough team to play," Hughes said.


It was the type of fundamental, team-oriented defense Brown learned as an assistant under San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and the kind he has repeatedly preached to his team that it must play in order to win an NBA championship.


"We closed the game like we should," Cavs guard Sasha Pavlovic said. "We played defense as a team."


Cleveland held New Jersey to 37 percent shooting and forced Carter into taking awkward, off-balance shots. The Cavs also dominated inside, outrebounding the smaller Nets 51-37 and getting 20 offensive boards.


Pavlovic scored a playoff career-high 15 points and Drew Gooden 14 points and 14 rebounds for the Cavs, who will host Game 2 on Tuesday night.


Carter had 23 points on 7-of-23 shooting to lead New Jersey, but Jason Kidd, who averaged a triple-double in the Nets' opening-round win over Toronto, was only 2-of-11 for just seven points.


During a crucial four-minute stretch of the fourth, the Nets went 1-for-6 with a turnover, helping the Cavs open a six-point lead. Carter missed all five field goal tries in the fourth quarter.


"We missed some shots we thought we'd make," said Kidd, who despite the shooting woes just missed a triple-double with 10 rebounds and nine assists. "If we have those chances in Game 2, hopefully it'll bounce our way."


Richard Jefferson, the third wheel in New Jersey's offensive machine, added 16 points.


"There were some point-blank shots I should have made," Carter said. "If my team's going to trust me and put the ball in my hands, I've got to make them." New Jersey relied too much on 3s, going just 5-of-20 from long range - mostly a result of the Cavs forcing them out of the lane.


"It's one game," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "You don't overreact."


A year ago, the Cavaliers were overmatched in their semifinal opener at Detroit. It was a tough lesson to learn, but the players swore they would grow from the experience, and one game into this series it looks as if they have. Cleveland's victory was a struggle. The Cavs shot just 40 percent and they couldn't open a comfortable distance from the Nets, who were within 77-73 with 2:03 left on a layup by Jefferson. Kidd then made a steal and was on his way in for an easy layup when Pavlovic, whose poor defense in the past kept him seated on Brown's bench, ran down New Jersey's guard from behind and swatted away his shot at the rim. "I thought he was going to dunk it, he didn't and I just blocked it," Pavlovic said. Kidd took the blame for not finishing stronger. "He made a great hustle play," Kidd said. "It was my fault, but that's what playoffs are all about, making plays at the right time. They made them coming down the stretch." James didn't use his cold as an excuse for a somewhat off game, but it certainly affected him. At halftime, he sat on the Cavs' bench with his head covered with a towel and spent the final few minutes before play resumed blowing his nose. During his postgame interview, James sniffled, coughed and excused himself for clearing his throat several times. "It's the playoffs, you have to battle through it," he said. "No matter what it took I was going to be out there." NOTES: Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, drafted last week by the Cleveland Browns, received a thunderous ovation when he was introduced at halftime and presented with a Cavs No. 10 jersey. "It's overwhelming," he said. ... Nets minority owner/hip hop mogul/LeBron buddy Jay-Z sat courtside in seats normally reserved for James' entourage. ... Cavs G David Wesley wasn't with the team so he could tend to personal matters.

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