December 22, 2014

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Sitting LeBron a disappointment, but still the right move

While the crowd surely enjoyed the T-shirts, gift cards and TVs the franchise handed out on Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena, there wasn’t much delight for what the Cavaliers offered up against the rival Orlando Magic.

Things started with a thud when it was announced that superstar LeBron James would be sitting out his third straight game.

The fans weren’t the only ones disappointed.

“The air kind of went out of our locker room when the guys heard he wasn’t playing,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We had guys on our team that didn’t want to play against the other guys on their team. We’ve got competitors who wanted to come in here and play against the best Cleveland had to offer.”

The nationally televised game helped push the debate of resting players before the postseason back into the spotlight. The Cavaliers wrapped up the NBA’s best record last week, and coach Mike Brown has been determined to prove to anyone watching that these final game are meaningless.

The decision to sit James was an easy one, especially after season- ending injuries to Toronto’s Chris Bosh and Milwaukee’s Andrew Bogut last week.

Bosh suffered a broken nose against the Cavaliers when he was accidentally elbowed by Antawn Jamison. The Raptors center was averaging 24.3 points and 11 rebounds a game, and needed surgery after the incident. He may be available if Toronto makes it to the playoffs.

Bogut, who was averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, suffered a broken right hand and is done for the season, further damaging the Bucks’ hopes for a lengthy playoff run after the team had already lost All-Star Michael Redd for the year.

While the Bucks were still fighting for playoff position and the Raptors are struggling just to earn a postseason berth — meaning both teams couldn’t afford to rest their stars — it just goes to show why the Cavaliers have no business having James on the court for pointless games.

The biggest issue for the fans isn’t who Brown is resting, it’s who he’s putting on the court when the games are still hanging in the balance. Early in the fourth quarter with the Magic leading by a point, Brown used a backcourt of rookie guard Danny Green and career reserve Sebastian Telfair — considered the two lowest players on the depth chart— and Orlando was able to stumble its way to an easy 98-92 victory.

“It doesn’t matter who’s on the floor, it’s about doing what we do,” Brown said. “It’s not about flipping a switch (in the playoffs). I’m not looking for (the team to regain) intensity — that’s not the word.”

The opponents of resting players before the postseason — count Van Gundy among that group — will talk about how important it is for a team to be clicking on all cylinders as it reaches the playoffs. Van Gundy, who said his team might have still beaten the Cavaliers with James because it would have played better and been more focused, thinks Cleveland couldn’t have gained much from Sunday’s game – even with a win.

“The guys they put in there are taking on different roles from what they’re used to and from what they’ll do once LeBron and those other guys come back,” Van Gundy said.

“Plus, players just seem to have a different mentality and focus with those guys out of the game.”

Brown claims he is learning things about his team — “stuff we’d like to work on and need to correct” — and that the players who are seeing minutes in these final games are fighting for postseason playing time.

But history has shown that Brown tightens his rotation in the playoffs and probably will give only eight or nine players significant minutes in each series.

Brown also isn’t worried about James getting rusty or losing his flow from sitting the final four games of the regular season — the coach hasn’t officially ruled out James playing in the season finale at Atlanta on Wednesday — because the coaches are working James during practice and giving him the “minutes his legs need” to stay ready for the postseason.

While a four-game losing streak and the withholding of James’ brilliance certainly isn’t winning Cavs fans over, they need only think back to last season to understand why it could be effective.

The Cavs only used the season finale against the Hawks to allow James and others to rest, and Cleveland — after blasting through Detroit and Atlanta— was upended by Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals.

If a new approach gives James and the Cavs a new outcome — and the city its first championship in nearly five decades — then the late-season strategy will be something every Cleveland fan can appreciate.

Contact Shaun Bennett at 329-7137 or sbennett@chroniclet.com.