CLEVELAND (AP) - Sasha Pavlovic cocked his arm and awkwardly flung the new ball, which wobbled on its flight toward a laughing LeBron James standing at the other end of the practice court.
"Quack, quack," James said, teasing his teammate. "It was the first time I ever held a football," Pavlovic, born in Serbia-Montenegro, explained later. "You can see, I'm not so good."
Lately, Pavlovic has shown off his skills with a leather ball he can handle. Buried on Cleveland's bench for nearly three months, Pavlovic has gone from obscurity to necessity for the Cavaliers, who have been battling expectations while searching for an offensive spark all season.
Coach Mike Brown found one sitting a few feet away. The 23-year-old Pavlovic is playing the best ball of his four-year career. In his last seven games, he's averaging 15 points on 50 percent shooting (34-of-68), with 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 25 minutes.
On Sunday, he scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter in Cleveland's 99-90 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. At times, Pavlovic was the most impressive player on the floor - more than James or even fellow superstar Kobe Bryant, who were outslashed and outshined down the stretch by the far-less-famous European. "My confidence is getting higher and higher," Pavlovic said. "I know I'm going to play, that keeps me more consistent. I have to play hard on defense and my offense will come."
He didn't always feel that way. A gifted slasher with a decent outside touch, the 6-foot-7 Pavlovic has a smooth offensive game. His defense has been just the opposite, the primary reason Brown rarely used him last season, and why Pavlovic played only four minutes in the NBA playoffs.
Getting Pavlovic to buy into his defense-first philosophy has been a challenge for Brown and his staff. "When I first got here, we saw how extremely talented Sasha was in practice," said Brown, in his second season with Cleveland. "He is a very capable scorer, passer, runner, slasher, you name it. One of my coaches went to him and said, 'Sasha, you've got to defend.' "And not even cracking a smile, he looked at my coach and said, "My defense is my offense."'
Pavlovic now realizes that to play more, he must move his feet, stay with his man and contest every shot to remain in Brown's favor - and his rotation. "Slowly but surely he's gotten to a point where he understands that in order for him to play he's got to defend," Brown said.
Pavlovic's impact when the Cavs have the ball has been more profound. The Cavaliers' lack of a true point guard has hindered the team, which ranks 23rd in scoring, 27th in field-goal percentage and last of the league's 30 teams in free-throw percentage.
Pavlovic's added minutes - he's taking time from guard Damon Jones - as well as Brown's decision to start rookie Daniel Gibson at the point over Eric Snow has allowed the Cavs to up the tempo. By pushing the ball, they've been able to initiate their offense more quickly.
In the fourth quarter of Sunday's win, it was Pavlovic, not James, leading the Cavaliers. Pavlovic, whose infusion into the mix came when James hurt his big toe a few weeks ago, either drove to the basket or worked pick-and-rolls with Anderson Varejao, who added 11 points in the final 12 minutes.
He also made two 3-pointers, all three of his free throws and converted a key three-point play with 1:24 remaining to seal it. James has seen Pavlovic do it before. "I go against him every day in practice and he's a very tough matchup for me," James said. "I just always tell Sasha, 'You're going to be very good for us. We're going to need you.' And he has responded."
Earlier this season, Pavlovic's future in Cleveland seemed uncertain, and until the Feb. 22 trading deadline passes, it still is. But his recent play may have the club rethinking its moves in a season when the Eastern Conference is wide open. "Sasha has played an important part of our last few wins," general manager Danny Ferry said Monday. "His scoring off the bench and his ability to get to the rim has given us a real boost."