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Exploiting depth, Cavs hit streak

Phills. Mills. Hill. Williams.

There's a certain poetry these days to the roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA's hottest team.

Cleveland has an NBA-best 11-1 record since the All-Star break and has pulled into a virtual tie with Orlando for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff seeding. The top four teams get home-court advantage in the first round.

The Cavaliers stumbled to a 7-14 mark by mid-December. Seven years under previous coach Lenny Wilkens had left them set in their ways, unsure they could adapt to the trapping defense coach Mike Fratello installed.

"We didn't have the trust in each other," said John Williams, whose play at center in place of injured Brad Daugherty has been critical. "It was a new system."

Injuries also took an early toll. Larry Nance had knee surgery. Backup point guard Terrell Brandon missed nine games with mononucleosis. Rebounding specialist Tyrone Hill sat out 18 games with a sprained thumb.

But gradually, Fratello's system caught on, injured players trickled back and the Cavaliers discovered they had developed some depth.

Nance, Gerald Wilkins and Williams each made critical foul shots in Sunday's victory over Chicago. Bobby Phills, a third-year pro buried on Wilkens' bench, has been over 20 points three times this year. Chris Mills, the rookie first-round pick from Arizona, started 18 games earlier and is one of the first players off the bench.

"Everybody knows what their role is now," Williams said. "We realized that trapping doesn't mean giving up a lot of layups."