LeBron will remember this birthday

GAME TIME: Cavs 106, Hawks 101

LeBron gave himself an unforgettable birthday present — 48 points that fed Cleveland’s dramatic come-from-behind win. And the extra-special topping on the cake was his jump-shooting — 6-for-9 for 16 of those points.

Indeed, James’ prowess from mid-range and beyond forced the Hawk defenders to crowd him and subsequently enabled James to easily dribble his way into the lane.

In any event, this is certainly a vastly different Cavs team than the one that began the season with two losses and was only 3-3 after the initial two weeks. And the win over Atlanta showcased exactly what those differences are:

• Shaq’s playing time has been drastically curtailed. He only played 20 minutes and was fairly effective in the low post — nine shots down there, good for eight of his total of 11 points. But he also converted only three of his eight free throws. More damaging to Cleveland’s cause was Shaq’s almost total immobility on defense, which was a major factor in Atlanta building a 17-point lead in the second quarter.

• Zydrunas Ilgauskas has accepted his limited playing time and his limited responsibilities. He never ventures into the low post, and his contributions on offense have been reduced to shooting open jumpers after kick-out passes and also lurching around the offensive glass.

• Besides LeBron’s usual heroics, Cleveland has routinely been sparked by one bench player or another. Lately, that player has been Delonte West, but he was extremely passive and ineffective in the game at hand.

While Daniel Gibson only scored two points — 1-for-3 from the field — he did come up with several quick-handed defensive plays.

Fortunately for the Cavs, Anderson Varejao came off the pine to almost single-handedly tighten up what had been very loose baseline rotations on defense. Before Varejao got his game warmed up, the Hawks were running isos for profit — of their 101 total points, 45 were the direct result of one-on-one play.

In the second half, however, Varejao had the quickness to either double the Hawks’ designated scorer — mostly Joe Johnson — or else force him to backtrack.

• This post-intermission adjustment was crucial and proved both the expertise of the Cavs coaching staff and the discipline of the players. Of course, with the Hawks relying almost totally on isos down the stretch, the Cavs had the advantage of knowing where the ball was going to be. This knowledge allowed them to two-time Johnson, get the ball out of his hands and also determine which of the Hawks would therefore be uncovered. Josh Smith was the chosen one, and in the clutch, he missed a wide-open 12-footer and also committed a costly turnover when he drove into a crowd.

• To be a serious contender for a title, a team’s role players must often rise to the occasion and make plays that are normally beyond their skill-levels. Varejao’s game-tying put-back was certainly within the range of his normal game plan. But when he wound up with the ball after a play broke down and the shot-clock about to expire, Varejao calmly dropped a game-winning 3-pointer — the first triple of his NBA career. In his 33 minutes of daylight, Varejao was 6-for-9 from the field and finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.

• It’s only natural that the Cavs came into the game feeling cocky after taking over the fourth quarter in such convincing fashion and beating the Hawks in Atlanta the previous evening. Plus, Cleveland’s pre-game, happy-birthday shenanigans replete with party hats and a cake were not especially conducive to having their chops ratcheted up to the proper level to start the game. But after an extremely lethargic start, the Cavs were able to access their "A" game in time to win the game. This is a dangerous habit to develop, but against the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Hawks, it worked.

• Like all championship-caliber teams, the Cavs were able to close the game in dynamic fashion.
After wishing LeBron a happy birthday, all that the Cavs and their fans can say is this: Viva le difference!

Straight shooting

There’s no question the Nets are currently the worst team in the NBA, but it remains to be determined whether they will eventually become the worst team in the entire history of the league. That dishonor belongs to the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who complied a record of 9-73 and a “winning” percentage of .110.

Compare this with the .064 currently registered by the 2-29 Nets. At this rate, New Jersey’s season projects to 5-77.

But are the 2009-10 Nets really a worse team than the infamous 1972-73 76ers?

Let’s take a closer look, rating each category on a 10-point must system.

At the point, the Nets have the fleet-footed Devin Harris , while Philadelphia had Fred Carter, a powerhouse player who tallied 20.0 points per game during that ghastly season.

Points: 10 for each team.

Courtney Lee vs. Kevin Loughery is no contest. If, over the course of his excellent career, Loughery was the superior player, in his last active season he was hampered by sore knees that greatly limited his effectiveness — yet he still managed to score 13.9 ppg.

Points: 10 for N.J., 8 for Philadelphia.

At the small forward slot, Trenton Hassell can’t compare with Tom Van Arsdale (17.7 ppg), a rugged scorer and lock-down defender.

Points: 10 for Philadelphia, 5 for N.J.

Yi Jianlian is the Nets’ powerless forward, a young, talented player with a basketball IQ so low that he can barely distinguish an X from an O. For the 76ers, LeRoy Ellis was also a finesse player (13.7 points, 10.8 rebounds per game with the 76ers), but at the time he was a savvy 11-year veteran who still had plenty of gas left in his tank.

Points: 10 for Philadelphia, 7 for N.J.

Brook Lopez is rapidly improving as N.J.’s man-in-the-middle, but John Block (17.9 ppg, 9.2 rebounds) was no slouch.

Points: 10 for Philadelphia, 9 for NJ.

New Jersey’s bench features Rafer Alston, Josh Boone, Keyon Dooling, Terrence Williams and Tony Battie. For the 76ers, the subs included Manny Leaks (11.0 ppg), Freddie Boyd (10.5 ppg), John Q. Trapp (10.7 ppg), Dale Schlueter (5.4 ppg), Don May (11.9 ppg) and Dave Sorenson (5.9 ppg).

Points: Philadelphia 10, N.J. 6.

Kiki Vandeweghe hasn’t spent sufficient time in the command seat to warrant a fair evaluation. For the 76ers, Roy Rubin (4-47) was a total flop, while Kevin Loughery (5-26) eventually became an excellent coach.

The quality of the opposing teams cannot be determined on any objective basis.

Total points: 58 for Philadelphia, 47 for N.J. — which at this point in history seems to be totally appropriate.

Vox Populi

I grew up watching the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and so on. All of them fundamentally sound players. In fact, my favorite current player is the Big Fundamental, Tim Duncan. But it seems to me that the new crop of players lacks a true mastery of the game, and therefore the overall quality of play in rapidly diminishing. Give me a good reason to still watch the NBA when veterans like Duncan, Kobe and Shaq retire. – Datu Putra Persada, Jakarta, Indonesia

The biggest, most overriding reason is that NBA players are the best athletes in the world. But here are some other reasons:

• Most young players eventually learn their trade as they grow older.

• The players and the teams are still, and always will be, highly competitive.

• There will always be plenty of fundamentally sound players to watch.

• Among the current rookies with fairly high basketball IQs are DeJuan Blair, Chase Budinger, Omri Casspi, Tyreke Evans, Tyler Hansbrough, James Harden, Jonas Jerebko and Ty Lawson.

• Other young players with sound fundamental games include Arron Affalo, Louis Amundson, Mike Conley, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Danilo Gallinari, Marc Gasol, George Hill, Carl Landry, Kevin Love, Luc Mbah a Moute and Joakim Noah.

Reasons enough to keep your eyes glued to NBA action for the foreseeable future.

Travels with Charley

During its long drive home, a certain CBA team was celebrating a significant road win by inhaling large quantities of beer. Indeed, the coach was even more inebriated than the players. They laughed, they yowled, and in their over-the-top exuberance they bounced around in their seats.

Only the driver of the van was stone sober. He was the last man on the squad, a rarely used point guard whose primary attributes were long-distance shooting, good decisions with the ball and a maturity level not normally found in the CBA.

It was past midnight when a state trooper noticed the van rocking from side-to-side even as it headed on a beeline down the highway. As the trooper flipped on his pursuit lights, the alarmed players opened all of the windows, hid their beer cans, and splashed after-shave lotion all over themselves and the interior of the van.

This was standard operating procedure in the CBA.

At the side of the road, the trooper took a quick whiff of the interior, then asked the driver to step outside. As instructed, the substitute point guard qua driver touched his nose with his fingers in the proper fashion.

“OK," said the trooper. “Now let me see you walk a straight line.”

“I can do much better than that.”

Whereupon in rapid succession the driver proceeded to perform two front flips and two back flips.

The trooper was so impressed that he sent them on their way.

The coach was so impressed that the driver started the next game.

If you have a question or comment for Charley Rosen, please email charleyrosen@gmail.com and he may respond in a future column.