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Celtics will have their say

Final games affect eighth playoff spot

CLEVELAND -- The Celtics aren't just in the playoffs. They're also in a position to say who else might be joining the so-called Elite Eight of the Eastern Conference.

Starting tonight.

The cratering Cleveland Cavaliers need a win in the worst way to even think about playing playoff basketball, a once unimaginable prospect when sanity prevailed in ownership circles here. At the All-Star break, the Cavs were nine games over .500 and had the fourth-best record in the East. They take a 40-40 record into tonight's game, the first time they've been at .500 since mid-November.

Even worse, the team with which they are tied, the Nets, owns the tiebreaker edge. And the Nets, by the way, will be in Boston tomorrow night to close the season in a game they might need to win to advance. The Celtics got some good news last night: Indiana's loss to Orlando ensured that Boston will have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.The freefall of the Cavaliers mirrors last year's undoing, when the team dropped 11 of its last 15 and finished one game out of the playoffs behind the vaunted 36-46 Celtics. This year's team has changed owners, changed coaches, changed players and still finds itself living T.S. Eliot's words: April is the cruelest month. Cleveland has lost three straight, six of eight and eight of 11. LeBron James is being milked to the max. He took a Kobe-esque 35 shots in Sunday's 90-87 loss to the Pistons, finishing with 37 points. Over his last eight games, James has sat down for all of 33 minutes. He's shooting a lot, scoring a lot and losing a lot.

With New Jersey hosting Washington tonight, the Cavs figure they need to win out, which would include victories over the newly minted Atlantic Division champions at Gund Arena and the predictably clueless Raptors in Toronto tomorrow night. Interim coach Brendan Malone, who replaced Paul Silas because ownership felt Silas couldn't take the team to the playoffs, said as much after the Sunday loss to the Pistons.

"We've got two games left. We have to win them both," Malone said.

If they lose tonight and the Nets win, it's over for the Cavs. James, who will likely get mentioned on quite a few MVP ballots, will have gone through two NBA seasons without so much as a sniff at the playoffs. He's still got a ways to go to catch Shareef Abdur-Rahim, however (670 games with no playoffs.)

Much of Cleveland's early season success stemmed from a favorable schedule; seven of its first 33 games were against Charlotte and Atlanta. New owner Dan Gilbert assumed control after the trading deadline in February. On March 21, with Gilbert leading the way, Silas was whacked. The explanation at the time was that the team, which had a 34-30 record, would fall out of playoff contention if it stayed the course. Under Malone, the team is 6-10 and on the verge of playoff elimination.

Cavs GM-on-the-verge Jim Paxson did not respond to an e-mailed request for a comment.

James has been playing out of his mind, to no avail. In his last six games, he has scored 37, 40, 33, 27, 38 and 37 points. He will become only the fifth player in NBA history to finish a season averaging more than 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game. But injuries to Zydrunas Ilgauskus (right ring finger) and Drew Gooden (shoulder, hip) have hurt the Cavs, as has the ability to get someone to regularly relieve James of some of the scoring burden.

We know who it's not: Jiri Welsch. The ex-Celtic, who fetched a No. 1 draft pick from the Cavs in February, has not played in the last six games and remains firmly planted on Malone's bench. . . .
The other four players to average 25, 7 and 7 in one season: Oscar Robertson (6 times), John Havlicek (2), Larry Bird (1986-87) and Michael Jordan (1988-89) . . . Celtics coach Doc Rivers had thought about practicing yesterday, but, upon landing here after the Sunday night victory in Toronto, decided to give the lads the day off . . . Ricky Davis (an ex-Cav) was shaking his head as he left the Air Canada Centre after the Celtics' 103-98 victory. He was charged with five turnovers, two of them on traveling violations. Could he ever remember being called twice in a game for walking? "Never," he said. "It was ridiculous. I can't believe it." . . . The Celtics are now 18-7 since acquiring Antoine Walker . . . A victory tonight would give the Celtics 19 road victories, matching their record on the road of two years ago. Their best road record in the last decade was the 22-19 mark from the 49-win team of 2001-02.

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