- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

CLEVELAND — Most teams have an X factor that determines how far they go in the playoffs. In the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, it is the “Z” factor.

The Cavaliers have a superstar in LeBron James and a standout guard in Larry Hughes, but the key to making a serious run in the postseason appears to be center Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The 7-foot-3 Lithuanian, known in Cleveland simply as “Z,” can dominate in the post and cut off the lane on defense.

“Anytime we can go to Z right on the box or right off the box it opens up everything for everybody,” Hughes said.

Such was the case in Game 1 of Cleveland’s first-round playoff series with the Washington Wizards on Sunday. Ilgauskas took over in the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ 97-82 victory, scoring 11 of his 16 points in the final period.

That has been happening a lot lately, and the two-time All-Star, fully healthy after years of injuries, is relishing his moment. Ilgauskas, the Cavaliers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in the 1996 draft, missed his rookie season because of a broken right foot and the 1999-2000 season because of an injury to the other foot.

Ilgauskas, closing his ninth NBA season, finally has been able to stay on the court. He has not missed more than four games in any of the past five seasons. Still, the 31-year-old struggles with nagging pains. Last year as the Cavaliers returned to the playoffs after a seven-season drought, Ilgauskas was hampered by the effects of a sprained ankle.

But he finished this season strong and brought momentum and confidence into these playoffs.

“I could never get in sync last year,” said Ilgauskas, who averaged 11.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in 78 starts this season. “I have played some of my best basketball this season this last month or so. I was able to put together a string of consecutive games with good points and rebounds. It gets your confidence going, so you don’t even have to think. You just react to what happens.”

The easygoing center is capable of pulling big men out of the lane and hitting mid-range jumpers and is a deft passer out of double-teams. However, he also has shown he can take over a game with his size and basketball acumen in the paint.

He simply overpowered 6-foot-10 center Etan Thomas in Game 1 and showed some finesse when he went across the lane and softly dropped a hook shot over 6-foot-9 forward Antawn Jamison. Ilgauskas said he was surprised not to see more of Washington’s backup center, 7-footer Brendan Haywood.

“If you see there is a mismatch and he has it going, we have to feed him,” James said. “The one thing that Z did was a great job of passing out of the double-teams to Eric Snow for a layup. He even got it to Eric weak-side for a jumper.”

Ilgauskas, with his 260-pound frame, wing span and shot-blocking ability, is also a clog in the middle of the defense.

It has been a career of adjustments for Ilgauskas, who was expected to be a star in the league before being beset by injuries. Now, with the addition of James, he is a role player who considers one of his top assignments to “stay out of his way.”

Ilgauskas has been on his share of losing teams in Cleveland and is now part of a winner with championship aspirations. The Eastern European keeps his outward emotions in check, but his coach can sense what being healthy in the postseason means to Ilgauskas.

“He is such an even-keel guy,” Mike Brown said. “Nothing really shakes him or really rattles him. He just wants to win. He has been in a lot of situations where they hadn’t made the playoffs or, if they had, they hadn’t really gone far. He’s hungry to win.”

And become the X — make that the “Z” — factor for the Cavaliers.

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