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Original Issue

Slaying Them Slowly

Surprising Cleveland is winning cavalierly: by lulling opponents to sleep

Any study of the Cleveland Cavaliers should include a glossary for Cav-speak, the team's euphemism-filled lingo. The Cavaliers run a methodical offense that reduces the pace of their games to...roughly...this...speed. Some might call that a slow-down game, but coach Mike Fratello prefers to think of it as "tempo management." And the Cavaliers refer not to fast breaks but to "selective opportunities," which is another way of saying they avoid running the way Superman avoids kryptonite.

So if any team but the Cavs had won 11 straight games through Monday, as Cleveland had, the stretch would be described as a winning streak. But in the Cavs' case it might be more appropriate to say they were enjoying "an uninterrupted period of positive results," which had brought them a 20-8 record and a surprising perch atop the NBA's Central Division. Besides, Cleveland doesn't streak, it strolls. After losing their offensive catalysts—center Brad Daugherty (back surgery) and guard Gerald Wilkins (torn Achilles tendon) to season-ending injuries, forward Larry Nance to retirement—the previously rock-and-roll Cavs have discovered the wonders of the waltz. "When you want to run, they want to walk," says Atlanta Hawk point guard Mookie Blaylock. "And when you want to walk, they want to crawl."

It's not that the Cavaliers want to creep; it's just that, with their personnel losses, they don't see any other choice. "We may not really like it," says Bobby Phills, who has replaced Wilkins at shooting guard, "but it's hard to argue with wins." That attitude may have contributed more to the Cleveland success than any X's or O's. In a league in which it seems that almost every team has recently had at least one player publicly disgruntled with his coach's offensive philosophy, distribution of playing time or tone of voice, the Cavs have not only accepted Fratello's approach with very little complaint, but they have also actually tried to make the best of it. As an example to the increasing number of malcontents around the NBA, every coach should point to the Cavs, who lead their division without having a player among the league's top 35 scorers. "A lot of players say they're more interested in team success than in individual goals," says Fratello, "but this group is proving they really are."

The Cavs' transition from a running to a walking team began last year. But it wasn't until the fourth game of this season, when the Cavaliers tried to run with the Central Division-rival Indiana Pacers and were overrun instead, losing 93-86, that Fratello decided on a long-term slowdown. "We didn't always know what we would get out of our offense," Fratello says, "but we knew we could do three things every night: rebound, play defense and hustle. We decided those should be the things we would rely on."

Of course, the Cavs have more going for them than just the ability to rock their opponents slowly to sleep. "There's still plenty of talent on this team," says Fratello. Although four-time All-Star and Dream Team II point guard Mark Price's field goal percentage has slipped (a career .485 shooter, he's down to .423 this season), he has had some incendiary fourth quarters, among them a 14-point burst (including 4 for 4 from three-point range) that helped carry Cleveland past the New York Knicks 93-90 at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 22. Four days later, in an uncharacteristic 123-102 blowout of the Boston Celtics, he tossed in seven three-pointers before spending the fourth quarter contentedly on the bench ("We have guys who've worked hard all year, and this was their chance to get significant minutes," he explained).

And even without Daugherty and Nance, the Cavs have become one of the top rebounding teams in the league, thanks largely to underrated power forward Tyrone Hill, free-agent pickup Michael Cage and John (Hot Rod) Williams, who is playing out of position in Daugherty's center spot. At 6'11", 245 pounds, Williams is sacrificing his relatively lean frame to the cause. "This body was made to play occasional center," he says. "It wasn't meant to go slamming into Shaquille O'Neal and Patrick Ewing all the time. But you do what you have to do."

To that end the Cavs have accumulated a list of defensive achievements that can't be attributed solely to their slow-down offense, which through Monday had scored 93.0 points a game, second lowest in the NBA. Cleveland's average of 87.6 points allowed was the stingiest in the league and a whopping 7.4 points fewer than that of Atlanta, the next best team. The Cavaliers had yielded 100 points or more in only five of their first 28 games and had held opponents to 80 or fewer points eight times, both of which also were league bests. But Cleveland's deliberate offense still draws most of the attention. In victories over the Washington Bullets and the Hawks last week, the Cavaliers scored a scant eight fast-break points. The Cavs aren't just beating their opponents, they're annoying them, like a driver on the freeway who won't exceed the speed limit no matter how many cars honk their horns behind him.

They have heard plenty of complaints about their boring—sorry, "stimulation-deprived"—style, usually from coaches or players they have just defeated. But the Cavs shrug off such carping the same way they ignore the criticism of their new uniforms, which have a splash of blue across the shirt and shorts that make them look as if they've just brushed against wet paint. "People either love them or they hate them," says Williams. "I wouldn't say they're ugly, not at all." These being the Cavs, perhaps "aesthetically challenged" would be a better term.

The Cleveland paradox is that nearly all the team's trappings—from its gleaming new facility, Gund Arena, to its new logo and unconventional outfits—are meant to contribute to an exciting new identity, yet its conservative offense is what has come to define its staid persona. The Cavaliers realize their style is not exactly thrill-a-minute, but they are committed to it for much the same reason that Williams named his four children John Jr., Johnfrancis, Johnna and Johnpaul—when they find something that works, they slick with it. "We're pretty much a blue-collar team," Price says. "We know the way we play is not the prettiest thing to watch, but we don't have the horses to try to run with teams the way we used to."

No one would be more receptive to a different approach than Price, who longs for the days when he would push the ball upcourt with Nance and Wilkins on the wings and Daugherty trailing. "At times I feel Mike's got the reins, and when I get the urge to push it up the court, he gives them a yank," Price says. "But the reason this style is working is that everyone understands it's the style that gives us the best chance of winning."

It's clear, though, that Fratello's current approach isn't a good long-term fit for Price. And it's also worth noting that the Cavs gave 24-year-old backup point guard Terrell Brandon a one-year, $7 million contract extension before the Nov. 8 league negotiation deadline—but they decided against doing the same for the 30-year-old Price, whose contract expires at the end of next season. Price does wonder enough about his future with the Cavaliers to have told the Chicago Tribune last month, "You do look around at other teams and say to yourself, That team sure can use a point guard who can shoot."

The only Cav with impressive individual statistics is Hill. At week's end he was third in the league with a rebounding average of 11.8, which placed him ahead of such better-known names as Olajuwon, O'Neal, Ewing and Mourning. But Hill not only doesn't care about getting attention, he consciously avoids it, as he did during the preseason when he declined Fratello's offer to push him for a spot on the All-Star ballot. "I don't need that stuff," he says. "We have All-Star caliber players like Mark and Hot Rod who are at their peak. Let them have it."

"He's like a silent storm trooper," says Fratello. "He comes in, goes after every ball relentlessly, then goes home." In last week's victory over Atlanta, Hill had 10 rebounds in the third quarter. At one point Cavalier forward Chris Mills lost position for a rebound when he took a forearm in the small of the back. When he whirled to glare at the culprit, he found it was Hill.

On the court Hill is known for his menacing scowl, but that look melts into a self-deprecating smile away from the floor. He may be the best example of the Cavaliers' ability to acknowledge their shortcomings and work around them. Hill is not a leaper or a ball handler, and he doesn't try to be. "James Worthy was my idol growing up," he says of the recently retired Los Angeles Laker forward. "I wanted to do everything just like him, drive to the basket the way he did. Unfortunately, I can't dribble." In college at Xavier, where he finished as the sixth-leading rebounder in NCAA history, Hill kept three pet piranhas, which he named Rebound 1, Rebound 2 and Rebound 3. The fish earned their names when Hill watched how hungrily they fought for the goldfish he would drop into their tank. "It kind of reminded me of the way I felt going for a ball off the rim," he says.

But long before college Hill developed his ability to battle for possession in a crowd. Growing up in Cincinnati as the third youngest of 13 children, he learned about boxing out and throwing elbows at dinnertime. "If you didn't make your move as soon as the food was on the table," he says, "you might find yourself having to wait until the next meal."

The Cavs have made their move early this season, but they realize that their style leaves them little margin for error. "We can't afford to coast for one minute," says Price. There seems little chance of that. In order to coast, the Cavs would need to catch a ride, and they've already shown that, all things considered, they would rather walk.



Mills (with ball) gives the Nets a demonstration of Cleveland's new strength under the boards.



Price (below) has struggled to adjust to the Cavs' poky pace but can't knock the very lively results.



Among the unheralded Cavs is Phills, who has risen to the occasion as the sub for Wilkins.