CLEVELAND - As little
LeBron James Jr. practiced writing his name on the dry-erase board in Cleveland's locker room, his famous father was busy a few feet away.
The Boston Celtics were on the flatscreen TV, and LeBron James was watching them, studying them, breaking them down.
Stepping away from his work, the youngster examined his penmanship.
"Daddy, my 'n' looks like a 'w'," he said.
Tonight, his father wouldn't mind seeing a different "W."
The Cavaliers, owners of the Eastern Conference's best record and the league's only unbeaten team at home, will host the defending NBA champions in an early January matchup that carries a mid-June playoff vibe. It will be a rematch of last season's epic conference semifinal that went to a Game 7 and the first meeting between the clubs since the season opener in Boston.
"We know it is not just another game," James said after practice yesterday. "We're looking forward to the challenge."
The Celtics are coming in looking nothing like champs.
They lost for the sixth time in eight games on Wednesday night, an 89-85 defeat at home to the Houston Rockets, who held Boston to 11 points in the fourth quarter. After blasting to a 27-2 start, the Celtics appear physically tired and have begun to show the strain of having to live up to their title every night.
But a visit to Cleveland, where 20,000 screaming fans have helped the Cavs build an 18-0 record at Quicken Loans Arena, could be just what the Celtics need to shake them from their funk.
"That's not a bad test for us," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "It's going to be a tough game. They're playing unbelievable basketball. Maybe it will be something to get us going."
Last year's playoff series was defined by hard fouls, wins by the home teams, shooting woes for James in the first four games and his unforgettable matchup with Paul Pierce in Game 7. James outscored Pierce 45-41 in the finale but stormed off the parquet floor at TD Banknorth Garden saddled with a loss that stings him and the Cavs to this day.
"It's still in the back of our mind, but you've got to move on," James said. "You can't harp on last year in this league."
Boston beat the Cavaliers 90-85 to open the season. Before that game, James and his teammates elected to stay inside their locker room as the Celtics celebrated a 17th championship banner being hoisted to the rafters.
In Cleveland tonight, the atmosphere will reek of revenge.
Pierce expects the Cavaliers to come at the Celtics hard.
"This is the team we put out of the playoffs," he said. "They are the best home team in all of basketball, so they have been looking forward to this. We're going to get their best punch."
Cleveland will again be without center Zyrdunas Ilgauskas, who has missed three games with a chipped ankle bone.
The Cavaliers are a much different team than when the teams met in the opener.
"We're much better defensively, offensively, we've learned so much being together," James said. "It was the first rendition of what we thought we could become."