ORLANDO, Fla. – Tinted sunglasses concealing the cuts and bandages framing his puffy left eye, struggling Cleveland guard Mo Williams plopped down on a table inside a ritzy hotel ballroom Monday and quickly proclaimed the Cavaliers were not in any trouble.
Far from it.
“We`re the best team in basketball,” he said.
Really? The Cavaliers, winners of 66 regular-season games and their first eight straight in the playoffs, certainly haven`t looked superior to the Orlando Magic.
They can`t stop Dwight Howard inside. They can`t contain Orlando`s squadron of outside shooters. They are missing easy, open shots. They`re not giving LeBron James enough support, and they trail 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Williams remains confident.
“They deserve respect,” he said. “They are a good team. But we are the best team in basketball. I don`t feel that they`ve had to adjust to us one time in the series.”
So, Mo. You`re sure the Cavaliers will win Game 4 tonight and rally to win the best-of-seven series. Willing to guarantee it?
“Guarantee we`re going to win the series? Yeah, yeah,” he said. “We are down 2-1. But there is nobody on this team and definitely not myself that says we are not going to win this series. Yeah, it is going to be tough. We know that. We get this game tomorrow, go home, still got home-court advantage.
“We don`t see ourselves losing two out of three at home.”
The Magic brushed off Williams` boast.
“We just got to go out there and play,” Howard said. “We can`t worry about what other guys are saying.”
James didn`t flinch when told Williams had guaranteed the Cavaliers would advance.
“He should. There`s no other reason why we should be here,” he said.
Orlando, relishing the underdog role in its first conference finals appearance since 1995, won 99-89 on Sunday night in a disjointed Game 3 that included personal fouls, technicals and a flagrant on Magic reserve guard Anthony Johnson for his elbow to Williams` face in the second quarter.
The blow opened cuts above and below Williams` eye, and Cleveland`s point guard said he was still feeling a little woozy from an unexpected shot he felt was intentional.
“My head`s still ringing,” said Williams, who refused to take off his shades to show the wounds. “The game of basketball is not played with throwing punches, throwing elbows.”
Johnson refused to get drawn into a verbal war with Williams, who was called for a block on the play that bloodied him.
“I was trying to get to the rim and make a play and I drew a foul,” Johnson said. “Elbows are a part of the game – good and bad. Sometimes it turns out in a bad manner as last night. Elbows are a part of the game, as it is in hockey, as it is in other sports.”
Never one to miss a chance to state his case, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy defended Johnson and challenged the Cavaliers` contention that it was a cheap shot.
“They can say whatever they want,” he said. “It`s one of the few times you`ll see a guy with the ball in his hands driving to shoot getting a flagrant foul. I`m not saying he deserved it or didn`t deserve it, it`s just a rare play. It`s usually the guy on defense making it. There`s a lot of things go on we can complain about and they can complain about.
“I was upset at the number of times that they flopped last night. I mean, Ben Wallace and Mo Williams fell down more times than a baby learning to walk.”
James was asked if the Cavaliers would retaliate.
“For what?” he said. “We`re just trying to get wins.”
James has been doing his part. His teammates have not.
The league`s MVP is averaging 41.7 points in the series. But there have been extended periods when it`s LeBron and only LeBron vs. the Magic. The Cavs, so together on and off the court all season, have become a one-man show at the worst time possible.
Williams (32.1 percent), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (38.2) and Delonte West (41.9) are not shooting up to their standards, and James had his first “off” night in Game 3 (11 of 28), but he scored 41 and had the Cavaliers within five points in the final minute.
James understands he can`t win a championship by himself.
“It`s going to be tough,” he said. “I know they can play a lot better. They know they can play a lot better. I don`t want to put pressure on those guys. They`ve just got to come out and do it. We just got to knock shots down.”
The Magic feel as though they haven`t gotten their proper due all season. While a potential James-Kobe Bryant showdown in the NBA Finals has been fueled by popular TV commercials featuring puppets of the superstars, Orlando`s players have been wondering: Hey, what about us?
“It`s disrespectful when everybody`s counting us and Denver out trying to win a championship,” said Howard, who made the Cavs pay for fouling him by making 14 of 19 free throws in Game 3. “It`s like, forget the Magic, forget Denver. They want to see LeBron and Kobe go at it. So that is disrespectful. The only way you get respect is by going out there and taking it.
“My mind-set is making people respect us.”
James is locked in on ending Cleveland`s 45-year title drought. A loss in Game 4 would place the greatest season in Cavaliers` history on the brink of collapse.
“I think we`re fine. I`m fine,” he said. “I`m excited about Game 4, and as long as I stay upbeat we have a chance – of course. I`m confident and I`ll make sure the rest of the guys are confident.”