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CLEVELAND Cavs thinking playoffs after a strong first half



Published: Wed, February 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The team is just five wins shy of last year's total.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Paul Silas frequently brags that his teams play better in the second half of the season than in the first.

"Historically," Cleveland's coach said proudly.

Upholding the tradition is going to be tough for these Cavaliers.

Despite some key injuries, including a broken cheekbone that had All-Star LeBron James wearing a protective mask for more than a month, the Cavaliers (30-21) are having a season that few expected.

"At the start of the season, I wasn't sure how we'd blend," said Silas, 65-68 in two seasons with the team. "I thought if we were around .500 at this point, I'd be happy."

With 31 games remaining, the Cavaliers are just five victories shy of their win total for last season and in line to make the playoffs for the first time since 1998.

But the schedule is about to get much tougher, and the Cavaliers will have something else to contend with in the next two months: pressure.

"We've been thinking about making the playoffs since the beginning of the season," said forward Ira Newble. "To us, this is kind of like a new season. The first half is behind us and now it's time to focus on the playoffs."

Back to work

The Cavaliers got back to work Tuesday, returning from the All-Star break and to the practice court in preparation for tonight's home game against Chicago. The time off was important for some of Cleveland's injured players.

Newble, who has missed eight games with a sprained left Achilles' tendon, will be back in the starting lineup against the Bulls. Rookie forward Anderson Varejao practiced at full speed for the first time on his injured ankle and could be back by the end of the week.

"He looked good," Silas said of Varejao, whose energy and rebounding have been missed. "They [team doctors] want to give him another couple practices. I'm ready for him to come back now."

For frontcourt protection until Varejao returns, the club signed rookie forward James Thomas to a 10-day contract. Thomas played nine games for Portland this season and had his best game against Cleveland with six points and 15 rebounds on Jan. 19.

Strong at home

Just before the All-Star break, the Cavs went 4-1 on a homestand that improved their record at Gund Arena to 20-5. Establishing themselves as a dominant team on their own floor was one of Silas' primary goals for his young team.

Now that they've achieved that, the Cavaliers' next target is to prove they belong among the league's elite. The Cavaliers are just 10-12 against teams with winning records.

The matchup with Chicago's begins a rugged eight-game stretch as the Cavs will face Indiana, New Jersey, San Antonio, Seattle, Philadelphia, Miami and Orlando in the next two weeks. The Nets (23-30 entering Tuesday) have the worst record of the bunch, but they've improved since the arrival of Vince Carter.

Silas expects his team to rise to the challenge, just as the Cavs did when he pushed them to reach 30 wins by the All-Star break.

"Right now, the playoffs are our short-term goal," he said. "Long term, of course, it's a championship and we have to start thinking that way."




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