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Better Know a Cavs Season: 1991-92, the apogee of the orange-and-blue era (Part IV)

The 1992 Cavaliers were a team in transition, in a league in transition, in a nation in transition, in a world in transition. Against this backdrop, they authored one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics
Mike Sanders’ emergence boosted the Cavs’ already-robust bench as the 1992 playoffs drew near.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

APRIL 1992

Four police officers are acquitted of beating Rodney King. Duke topples Michigan to win its second straight national title. Universal Pictures releases The Babe. Aaron Judge is born in Linden, California and Isaac Asimov dies in New York, New York.

(Released April 20, 1992)

The prize was there for the taking. With a win on April 2, 1992, the Cavaliers could reach the 50-win plateau for just the second time in the franchise’s history.

Standing in Cleveland’s way was a reminder of how far the franchise had come in its 22 years of existence — and what it had very nearly become along the way.

The Cavaliers were not alone when they joined the NBA ahead of the 1970-71 campaign. Buffalo, New York received the Braves and Portland, Oregon received the Trail Blazers. The two franchises’ fortunes couldn’t have been more disparate. The Blazers won the NBA championship in their seventh year of existence, parlaying their first winning season into playoff victories over the Bulls, Nuggets, Lakers and 76ers to take the 1977 title. They became pillars of Pacific Northwest culture, immortalized by one of the greatest sports books ever written, David Halberstam’s 1981 tour de force The Breaks of the Game.

For the Braves, life was (for the most part) nasty, brutish and short. In eight years on the shores of Lake Ontario, Buffalo won just one playoff series, a best-of-three triumph against Philadelphia in 1976. Meanwhile, factors ranging from poor play to arena conflicts with the Sabres and local college teams stifled attendance. After a near-move to Miami in summer 1976 and a bizarre saga that involved basketball’s only franchise trade, owner Irv Levin relocated the team to San Diego in 1978.

The newly renamed Clippers played six uneventful seasons before moving north to Los Angeles, where their luck by and large did not change. At the dawn of April 1992, the Clips had yet to make the playoffs in California. Although they would clear that hurdle by the end of the month, a playoff series win was still 14 years away, and an appearance in the Western Conference Finals another 15 years after that.

Somewhere in the middle of these extremes fell the Cavs, who had hit paydirt early with an iconic Eastern Conference Finals run in 1976 but teetered on the brink of collapse for much of the early ‘80s. Ted Stepien’s tenure as owner brought to Cleveland some of the most astounding incompetence ever seen in North American sports, and it nearly pushed the franchise north to Toronto. The Cavaliers survived, rescued from irrelevance by the Gund brothers, whose ownership so completely changed the team’s fortunes that Bill Livingston suggested in 1992 that writers left over from the Stepien era had become too lenient toward the organization as a result.

Either way, it was hard to argue with the Cavs’ facelift. Cleveland romped to a 115-98 win over the Clippers, christening the new month with its 50th win. The team’s veterans led the way, as Nance, Daugherty and Price scored 19, 18 and 18 points, respectively.

The next night, the orange and blue took a sledgehammer to the franchise record book yet again. The Cavs held off the Heat 103-100 to establish a new single-season high with their 21st road win, weathering a Miami rally in which Glen Rice had three looks from beyond the arc in the final 15 seconds but bricked them all.

Checking in at the Coliseum on April 6 for the final time in 1992 were the Knicks, who smashed the Hawks 115-94 two days prior as they desperately tried to keep pace with the Cavs in the races for seeding and home-court advantage. The two concepts were not synonymous at the time; the top two playoff seeds were reserved for division winners, but the team with the better record received home-court advantage. This byzantine arrangement and its own tight division race with Boston meant that New York couldn’t afford a loss.

As they had so many times in 1992, the Cavs rose to the occasion and dealt the Knicks a crippling blow. Battle sank a late jumper to break a 92-92 tie, and Nance and Williams came up with a pair of critical blocks that sealed a 97-93 win.

The Cavs knew, Kerr said, that they “[could] beat [the Knicks] in close games.” Graeff noted that Cleveland’s average margin of victory in its four wins over New York on the year was just four points. Though they wouldn’t end up locking horns in the playoffs, the Cavs and the Knicks — still a fairly young team in 1992 — had accrued some useful big-game experience from their regular-season meetings.

Cleveland served as a thorn in the Knicks’ side again two days later by dropping its next game 100-97 to the Celtics. With the Cavs down 98-97 late, Price slipped and missed a desperation runner that sealed his team’s fate. More pressing for the Cavs was the ease with which Lewis put up a season-high 38 points, shooting .630 from the field and making sure Boston didn’t miss a beat with Bird on the bench.

“It didn’t seem to matter who we put on him. He still hit the shots,” Price said. “We put 6’11” guys on him and he still hit the shots.”

Following their first back-to-back sub-100-point performances since January, the Cavs produced an offensive explosion against the Hornets, riding a Nance triple-double and a career-high 23 from Kerr to a 141-134 win. With the victory, Cleveland wrapped up the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.

Fittingly, a Plain Dealer headline the same day trumpeted a milestone for the team: “TV Ratings Best Ever for Cavs.” Cavs games on WOIO-TV were pulling in an 8 rating/12 share, termed the franchise’s “best performance ever” by station program director Dick Sullivan.

With playoff position all but locked up, the Cavs could afford to sit Daugherty against in its last regular-season matchup with New Jersey. The Nets ran Price (12 points), Nance (10 points) and company out of the Meadowlands, 110-86; New Jersey had now gone 30-24 since its 6-16 start and stood firmly in the playoff hunt.

“It’s been like walking through a minefield,” the ever-quotable Fitch told reporters. “If you get to the other side with your legs intact, you’re happy.”

On a lighter note, Graeff mentioned in his notes column that the Cavs’ hotel in the Garden State was hosting a tattoo artists’ convention. Kerr joked that he considered having his Cavs jersey and number inked on his upper body, but relented “when told he would be in serious trouble if he were ever traded.”

The last five games, Kerr observed, were about “staying sharp” as the Cavs’ postseason fate (No. 3 seed with home-court advantage over every conference foe except Chicago) came into focus. Led by a Daugherty double-double, the Cavs started their last push with a 114-91 beatdown of the Bullets. Two days later, Cleveland easily downed Chicago 115-100 as the Bulls sat Jordan with knee tendinitis.

“He’s dealt with this before. He’s going to be fine,” Pippen said, before adding the understatement of the millennium: “He’s very competitive.”

Getting Ehlo back but missing Price with a strained right thigh muscle, the Cavs took their 25th and final loss of the 1992 season against Charlotte (the former scored seven points in 14 minutes and “felt good,” in his own words).

Finally, on April 18, 1992, the Cavaliers learned their playoff fate. A day after Cleveland dispatched Indiana behind 30 points and 16 rebounds from Williams to complete a season sweep, New Jersey hammered Orlando 127-111 to clinch the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers (57-25 after one last win over Atlanta) were set to meet the Nets (40-42) in the postseason for the first time.

1992 was a strange year for the New Jersey Nets, who qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1986. Fitch ran into his dreaded minefield mere days after his team blew out the Cavs, when Coleman — Rookie of the Year in 1991 — refused to check into a close game against the Heat. Two days later, in yet another close game against the Pacers, Chris Morris did the same thing.

“(Coleman) recently missed a Nets practice and was informed the next day by Fitch that it would cost him $1,000,” Graeff wrote in his around-the-league notes column on April 19. Coleman then “reportedly pulled $5,000 in cash from his trunks,” saying “this is for the practice I missed and for the next four I am going to miss.”

New Jersey undeniably had characters, but it also had more than its fair share of solid pieces. Coleman was a budding star, a 19.8-point-per-game scorer in his second season in the league. Defensive ace Mookie Blaylock continued to come into his own in year three while an album bearing his uniform number took America by storm. Chris Morris, Sam Bowie, Chris Dudley, Terry Mills and Tate George figured into an adequate eight-man rotation.

The heart and soul of the team, however, was unquestionably Drazen Petrovic. The Croatian point guard — the “Mozart of the Hoops” — had doubled his year-over-year scoring average, dropping 20.6 points per game in 1992 after averaging 10.2 points per game in 1991. He’d burned the Celtics for 39 points on their home floor on March 13, and needed just 19 shots to collect 38 against Indiana on April 5. At 27, he was a FIBA world champion, a European champion, and a two-time Olympic medalist, and there was reason to believe he was just getting started.

Petrovic threw his best punch in Game 1, dropping 40 points without making a three-pointer, but the Cavs were ready for it. Price drilled five three-pointers, at the time a franchise playoff record. Daugherty took up residence at the foul line, taking 17 free throws and making 16 (career highs in both categories for both the regular season and postseason). The two players recorded 35 and 40 points, respectively, and delivered Cleveland its first-ever win in Game 1 of a playoff series.

“This was one of the better games on both sides of the ball that I have ever played in,” Price said afterward.

Its outcome was in doubt until the final minute, when the Nets had the ball down 114-111 looking to tie. Williams alertly stole Mills’s inbounds pass to Bowie, though, and the Cavs were soon 120-113 victors.

Though unusually sparse (16,512, the second-smallest postseason audience in Cavs history), the crowd rattled New Jersey throughout. “I warned our guys about this crowd,” Fitch said, drawing on his experience with the 1976 Miracle of Richfield team. “They got into it. When they get into a game, they’re dynamite.”

The Cavs found some breathing room in Game 2, exploding to a 16-point lead they would not relinquish after the first quarter before a sellout crowd of 20,273. “We jumped on them early and never let up,” Kerr said of the 118-96 win. Daugherty was his usual excellent self, scoring 29 points and pulling down eight rebounds, while Price scored 15 points and dished out 15 dimes.

The real eye-opener was Sanders, who scored 12 points in the first quarter alone. “This one was for everybody playing shirts vs. skins down at the Y,” Bill Livingston said of the one-time 10-day contract pickup’s 16-point outing. “This was for the once and future small forward of the Cavs, Mike Sanders.” Sanders was not an elegant shooter — Livingston compared his jumper to “a steam shovel moving some dirt around” — but his seven makes in 10 attempts were just what the doctor ordered.

The Nets, predictably, were left searching for answers. Asked to assess his team’s standing down 2-0 in the best-of-five series, Fitch told reporters, “I can get your two best friends the two best seats in the house Thursday.”

New Jersey Nets v Washington Bullets
The eternally quotable Bill Fitch — who 20 years prior had guided the Cavs through their stormy post-expansion years — found his mettle tested by a Nets team alternately talented and troublesome.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

With 6:46 left in Game 3 and Cleveland leading 92-82, the series seemed destined to end in a Cavalier sweep. However, Petrovic exploded for nine points late (including a dagger three with 1:02 on the clock to put his team up 107-103), and the Cavs wrote their own death certificate by shooting .211 in the fourth quarter. Final: New Jersey 109, Cleveland 104 — the Nets’ first postseason win since 1984.

“Do you think about not going past the first round of the playoffs so many times?” a reporter asked Nance postgame.

“Every time I turn around, one of you guys reminds me,” Nance responded. The Nets’ win, which dropped the Cavs to 2-18 on the road in the postseason all-time, had ignited whispers of deja vu. One more loss at the Meadowlands and the Cavs would be back at the Coliseum, once again playing for their postseason lives in the first round.

On the last day of April, the 1992 Cleveland Cavaliers broke with their predecessors once and for all. Staring down a 30-14 deficit in the first quarter, the orange and blue recovered using their trademark: depth. Williams dropped 20 points off the bench, taking 12 free throws and making 10. Daugherty, hindered by a sprained ankle, contributed 19. Nance, Price, Ehlo and Sanders scored in double figures, and Nance, Daugherty and Williams rebounded in double figures.

The result was a 98-89 win that sealed the Cavs’ first trip to the second round of the playoffs since 1976. “We deserve this,” Wilkens said of his first second-round trip since he took Seattle to the Western Conference Semifinals in 1982. “It will bring us a lot of confidence down the line.”

“All anyone talks about is our first-round failures,” Price said. “Maybe that talk will stop now.”

Ehlo: “We are a better team now. We’re older, we’re more confident.”

It was undeniable. Despite some injuries, these Cavs were a much improved outfit from the Cavs teams of the recent past. Sure, their opponents were no Michael-Jordan led Bulls — in one final twist, Morris and Petrovic nearly came to blows in the third quarter — but Cleveland had a victory on which it could hang its collective hat.

“The first round is always the toughest to get past,” Sanders said. “If this team continues to play hard, it could get all the way to the NBA Finals.”

The Cavaliers ended April 1992 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics. Teams still alive in the playoffs were: Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, New York and Detroit in the East; Portland, Utah, Phoenix, Seattle, the LA Clippers and the LA Lakers in the West.