Lisa and I made a Wednesday night excursion on March 25th to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland to watch the NBA Cavs host the New Jersey Nets. The game carried potential historical significance for the Cavs as a win would set a new record for Cavs victories in a season of 58.
Two lovely but seemingly lonely Cavalier Girls insisted that I join them in a picture. Semi-tolerant Lisa snapped the pic below of the thorn between the roses.
The surging Cavs have lost only once the entire season at the Q, and the mediocre Nets did not figure to be a stumbling block. The Nets do sport capable players like Vince Carter, once considered a superstar, and rookie center Brooke Lopez, who showed some good moves in the post. But they have no one to match up with LeBron or the Cavs sterling backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West. We anticipated LeBron's signature pre-game move: clapping his talcum-covered hands high in the air thereby creating a mist of white powder. But prior to the clap. he augmented the skit by taking a phantom "family photo" of several of his teammates. When I first started watching basketball, guys like Jerry West, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson were the stars. All of them always kept a serious game face demeanor. None of them would have dreamed of engaging in pre-game theatrics or other tomfoolery. Indeed, the media would have criticized such behavior as indicative of a player's lack of focus and disrespect for the game. But times have changed, and perhaps for the better. Why not have a little fun to build team camaraderie and loosen things up a bit? What does it hurt to have good-natured competition between LeBron and other stars like Shaquille O'Neal over who has the best intro? And unlike the NFL, the silliness ends once the game starts. Properly confined to the pre-game, it adds some entertainment value for the fans, and does not detract from the game itself.
The game started in a predictable fashion with the Cavs racing out to an early 12 point lead.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Verajao dominated underneath, converting several easy baskets. In a theme that was to recur throughout the game, the Cavs coasted once they established a solid lead. The offense became sluggish, and the Nets cut into the lead. LeBron tried with some success to pull the Cavs out of their lethargy by distributing the ball rather than looking for his own shot. He often tends to pass the ball early in the game so his teammates get into the flow and don't just stand around. Players run harder without the ball when it habitually arrives at the moment they come open. The Cavs pulled ahead again in the second quarter and the outcome did not seem in doubt. Despite the Cavs six point halftime lead, it was not a big statistical half for LeBron who had a paltry six points at intermission.
The second half began with more of the same: the Cavs generally maintaining a working lead of six to twelve points but unable to pull away due to lackluster outside shooting. With the Cavs hitting on about two cylinders, the Nets again chipped away at the lead. Then having capitalized on a couple of careless Cavs turnovers , the Nets suddenly found themselves up a bucket with four minutes to play in the game. This was LeBron time! He knows that is the situation when he must find a way to win the game. So he did! He was the catalyst for the Cavs scoring on ten straight possessions. When he was not draining a three or driving with unsurpassed power and authority to the hoop, he was finding Verajao with a choice thread-the-needle pass for a reverse layup. He got the ball in the hands of West and Mo Williams for wide-open threes which they confidently knocked down.
The final tally was 97-88 Cavs! While the game was not the Cavs best effort, it did showcase their newfound ability to turn up the heat when that absolutely needs to happen. LeBron's performance seemed rather pedestrian until his late-game heroics but he still finished with 22 points and was only two rebounds short of a triple double! Superstars always find a way to get their points.
So who is the greater superstar - LeBron or Kobe Bryant? Let me add my two cents. Both are hyper-competitive types who will stop at nothing to win. But Kobe gives off the vibe that he would prefer to do so primarily through his own efforts instead of sharing the load with his teammates. And he is so good that he can sometimes accomplish that. LeBron really seems to care that his fellow Cavs personally succeed not just because that is the way to win more ballgames, but also because he really likes them, actually - dare I say it- loves them! Maybe Kobe with his unrivaled killer instinct is still the better player, but LeBron is clearly a better and more amiable co-worker. So naturally if it comes down to Kobe v. LeBron in the NBA finals, most of America will be pulling for the guy with the higher level of civility going for him - my man Lebron.
Will the Cavs win their first NBA championship? I still fear that the Cavs frontcourt will have difficulty in a long series matching up with the likes of Kevin Garnett of the Celtics or Lamar Odom of the Lakers. Odom humbled the Cavs big men in the Cavs lone home loss of the season a couple of months ago. If the Cavs are to win it all, LeBron is going to have to carry the Cavs on his back with a flurry of Michael Jordan-Tiger Woods style epic performances. I think he has it in him. He now has the leadership, experience and necessary will to do whatever is required to lift his team, and I have a high degree of trust that this April-June playoff campaign will be his time.