CLEVELAND (AP) -- Sasha Pavlovic has always had it all: size, speed and strength along with a sweet outside shot.
All he needs to work on now is his comedic timing.
Displeased with Pavlovic's defense early last season, Cleveland coach Mike Brown gave him an ultimatum -- get better or get used to sitting next to me on the bench. The suggestion led to Pavlovic famously saying, "My defense is my offense."
On Monday, Pavlovic said he was just joking.
"I remember saying that, but I wasn't serious about it," he said, cracking a smile. "He probably took it serious. That's my fault."
There was no mistaking Pavlovic's defensive impact in Cleveland's 81-77 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Sunday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal. Assigned primarily to guard Vince Carter, Pavlovic harassed New Jersey's leading scorer into a 7-for-23 shooting performance.
Pavlovic also made the game's biggest defensive play, chasing down an unsuspecting Jason Kidd from behind following a steal and swatting away Mr. Triple-Double's layup attempt at the rim with 1:45 left and the Cavs protecting a four-point lead.
"A great play," Kidd said.
Looking back, would he have made that same play a year ago?
"Yeah," said Pavlovic, who played for Serbia & Montenegro in the 2004 Olympics. "I would always hustle. If I'm on the floor, I have to do that."
Pavlovic's extra-effort play symbolized Cleveland's lunchpail-like approach to the opener. The Cavaliers, well-rested after a first-round sweep, were a step quicker and maybe a little tougher than the Nets, outrebounding them 51-37, grabbing 20 offensive boards and holding them to 19 points under their playoff average.
Still, New Jersey, which hopes to even what figures to be a long series in Game 2 on Tuesday night, had a chance to win.
"We had a couple good looks that didn't go in and they scored on the other end," Kidd said. "The game was there for us to have. We came up short, but it's something we can learn from. We were right there."
Other than Pavlovic's stunning block of Kidd, neither team pulled any surprises in the opener.
LeBron James was the focus of New Jersey's defense, drawing double teams almost every time he touched the ball. And Carter demanded the bulk of Cleveland's interest as the Cavs gave Pavlovic help whenever he needed it, which wasn't often.
"I know Vince is going to score because he gets a lot of touches," said Pavlovic, who also recorded postseason highs in points (15), 3-pointers (2), blocks (3) and minutes (36) in Game 1. "I'm just going to try and make it tough for him."
At 6-foot-7, Pavlovic is slightly taller than Carter, and although he's not as quick, he's no slow poke, either.
The 23-year-old, drafted by Utah in the first round in 2003, is certainly not intimidated by his assignment to check Carter, one of the game's premier scorers. He's spent the past three seasons going against James every day in practice, perfect on-the-job training Pavlovic can apply to any superstar.
On Sunday, Carter went 1-for-8 after halftime, including 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter. However, he wasn't ready to credit Pavlovic for causing any of the misfires. He said 7-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas may have altered a shot or two, but they were ones he should have dropped anyway.
"I was disappointed in myself because I missed easy layups," Carter said. "I was able to get to the basket, I just didn't make my shots. We're still encouraged by as up and down as we played it was still a four-point game."
Pavlovic was a nonfactor in Cleveland's postseason run a year ago, playing a total of four minutes. It was down time he was determined to make a one-time thing. He spent the offseason tightening his defense, working for three hours per day with his personal coach at home in Europe.
"I worked hard on my legs and quickness so I could play good defensively," he said. "I knew coach was going to give me a chance if I do that."
Brown inserted Pavlovic into the starting lineup in March following an injury to rookie guard Daniel Gibson. But he didn't make the move until he was convinced Pavlovic was committed to playing defense.
A year ago, Brown could not have imagined Pavlovic guarding a player of Carter's caliber in the playoffs. He did a nice job once, the trick is doing it again.