As he has often done in the past, LeBron James took the Cavaliers on his back and put on one of the best shows that NBA fans have seen in quite some time. With the big ticket Los Angeles Lakers coming to town and both teams owning 32 wins, James converted key possessions and led the Cavs to a 93-87 win – sweeping the Lakers series for the season and sending Kobe Bryant home to question his team’s toughness.
“The mentality has to change a little bit playing against these teams,” Bryant said. “These teams are physical, tough-minded, hard-nosed types of teams. That’s not part of our DNA. We have to step up and match that and still play skillful basketball.”
Skillful basketball it was. James finished with 37 points (13-25 shooting), nine rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot. Bryant, on the other hand, scored 31 but needed 31 shots to get there as he was a woeful 4-15 in the second half. James took the opposite side of the coin by rattling off 12 straight points during a huge stretch in the fourth quarter.
On the cover, it was looking to be a bleak result on a national stage. The LeBron-Kobe rematch, the Lakers wanting revenge after being embarrassed in their own home, Mo Williams’ shoulder injury… Many said “Now the Cavaliers have an excuse.”
Not needed. Not last night.
The Lakers storm out to an early lead, the Cavaliers find nothing but iron and are being out-hustled on every rebound. But that was early on. Very early on. From the second quarter on, the Lakers-Cavs contest was one of the best basketball games of the season. It was one of those games, especially in the fourth quarter, where it seemed like the teams were simply exchanging shots. Delonte West hits a three, Lakers come right back and drain one of their own. LeBron drains a jumper, Kobe Bryant comes right back and does the same thing.
But here’s the thing – the Lakers were held under 90 points on the night. They average 103.5 points per game. The Cavaliers held L.A. to a field goal mark of 39 percent – and 33 percent in the final three quarters. The Lake show compounded their issues by shooting only 15-24 from the free throw line including two huge misses by Pau Gasol that could have tied the game.
Following the missed free throws, the Cavaliers were fouled and took the ball out of bounds where the Lakers would again foul to send the Cavs to the free throw line while up two points. While there were plenty of in-game moments that helped aid this win, it was the moment where James awaited the inbound pass and was so energized that he decided to rip off an entire verse of “Forever.”
This is most excellent for a bevy of reasons. One, the track is the lead single off of the “More than a Game” soundtrack. Two, the Eminem verse in said song – the one that James is rattling off – may be the best verse in any hip-hop song from 2009 (with apologies to Lil’ Wayne, who was sitting courtside). And three, the crowd was absolutely loving it; James had that look. The one where where his team is only up by a few points, against the best teams in the NBA, and he isn’t nervous in the least. He knew what his team had to do – and what he had to do – to bring home the win. And he did just that.
While it will be James’ totals that stand out in the box score, he was not alone in this win. JJ Hickson had one of his best games with the Cavaliers, finishing with 11 points, career-high 14 rebounds and a team-high +6 on the night.
That mark is shared with Delonte West who was forced to play nearly 43 minutes of basketball with the absence of Mo Williams. While West did not do much in terms of scoring, he was relatively mistake free and added four rebounds, three assists, a huge late-game three-pointer and two of the best defensive plays of night by blocking a Shannon Brown jump shot with the Lakers up one with six minutes left and coming up with a loose ball about one minute later. He reportedly injured his finger in this one, but managed to make it out to the afterparty at the Barley House. I’m sure there will be more on this in the coming days.
Shaquille O’Neal went for 13 points (3-4 FT!) and six rebounds with much of his produccioncoming in the second half. His biggest impact, however, may have been neutralizing the Laker bigs as both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum experienced fould trouble for much of the night. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Anderson Varejao’s 11 points, eight rebounds and three huge free throws to end the game.
Phil Jackson may not have been happy that Ron Artest was called for a foul at that stage in the game. Simple solution: Don’t foul at that stage in the game.
As it stands, the Los Angeles Lakers are 5-7 against the top 10 teams in the NBA. Before last night, the Cavaliers had wonmore road games than the Los Angles Lakers had even played. As it was mentioned repeatedlyfor LA, the loss to the Cavaliers is the first game of an eight-game road trip that will also findthem matching up with the Boston Celtics before games against Denver, Portland, San Antonio, Utah and again versus the Celtics.
The Cavaliers will welcome yet another superstar into their house with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant coming to town on Saturday.
What are other’s saying?
One thing is certain, this has the potential for a great NBA Finals matchup. That is what it will take for the Cavaliers and Lakers to meet again, and what a meeting it could be. The two teams didn’t play a beautiful game Thursday night, but it was every bit the playoff-style war expected when the top two teams in the league square off. – Brian Windhorst
“I find the Cavs’ sweep of the Lakers — beating L.A. on Christmas Day and, again, last night — to be less than revealing. Let’s see Cleveland do it in June, when it actually counts.” – Dan Shanoff
“Clearly, this was LeBron in his element. When the outcome was decided, he was right back to entertaining and preening, pumping his fist and standing before the crowd while clutching the “CAVS” logo on his jersey andthrusting it out for all of northeast Ohio to see. The victory gave Cleveland a 2-0 season sweep of the Lakers, which will have giant implications if it breaks a tie for homecourt advantage in the playoffs. More importantly, it gives James’ teammates some confidence that they can carry on without Mo Williams — and a psychological lift that they can whip the Lakers in the Finals, should the ongoing LeBron fairy tale reach that point.” – Jay Mariotti
This one hurts. It hurts bad. Much more than the 15 point blowout in Staples Center. Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers came to play, and they still got beat. They came out focused, and still got manhandled. Put simply, they were put down by a better team. It hasn’t happened in a long time, probably not since the 2008 Finals, but it happened tonight, and there’s no way to dress it up. [...] I can’t discount this result as just another game, because, for the 2ndstraight game, I saw Cleveland shut the Lakers offense down, and for the 2nd straight time, I couldn’t think of a rational way the Lakers could adjust. If Cleveland isn’t required to double on one of the Laker big men, our offense isn’t going to work, and we’ve seen ample evidence that neither Pau nor Drew can efficiently score in one on one situations against that team. Aas these two games have shown, Cleveland has proven to be a bad, bad match-up for L.A. If the two teams meet in the Finals, and my life were on the line, I’m ashamed to admit which way I’d bet. - Silver Screen and Roll
(Photos by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images and Tony Dejak/Associated Press)