Some people considered Tuesday night’s Cleveland-New York game to be a chance for the Knicks to showcase why LeBron James should sign with them in two years but it rapidly turned into a good demonstration of why the NBA’s leading scorer should think long and hard before leaving his current team; the Cavaliers led by as many as 34 points en route to a 119-101 victory and they controlled the game so thoroughly that James did not even play in the fourth quarter. James finished with 26 points, four rebounds and one assist in 30 minutes. Six other Cavs scored in double figures, including Delonte West (16 points), Wally Szczerbiak (15 points) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (11 points, 10 rebounds), who was the early focal point of the offense as Cleveland pounded the ball inside against the smaller Knicks. Quentin Richardson led New York with 22 points, while Chris Duhon added 14 points and six assists. Two of the Knicks’ three newly acquired veterans played: Tim Thomas came off of the bench to contribute 16 points, six rebounds and four assists and Al Harrington had 13 points and nine rebounds but shot just 5-16 from the field and looked very rusty, which is not surprising considering that his playing time in Golden State had been slashed this year due to a conflict with Coach Don Nelson.
Garbage time skewed the final team numbers a bit but Cleveland shot .527 from the field, won the rebounding battle 48-43, enjoyed a 50-28 points in the paint advantage and held the Knicks to .414 field goal shooting. Those statistics are the direct result of Cleveland being the bigger, more physical and more defensive-minded team. Many people have understandably praised how deep and versatile the Lakers are this year but the Cavs also have a deep and versatile roster, though for some reason the national media acts as if the team is wholly dependent on James. The truth is that to be a good defensive team you have to have all five players on the court working together “on a string”; the Cavs demonstrated that kind of effort throughout this game, while the Knicks rarely exerted much energy at that end of the court. New York Coach Mike D’Antoni has definitely brought his free flowing offensive philosophy with him from Phoenix but the Knicks do not have enough talent to execute it as effectively as the Suns did—and their defense, at least on this night, is even worse than Phoenix’ was during his tenure. The larger issue here is that even if/when the Knicks upgrade their talent level it has been demonstrated that in the NBA defense wins championships; you can win with a variety of different offensive styles but you have to have a commitment to playing solid defense on a nightly basis.
The Cavs smartly attacked the Knicks in the paint early in the game, repeatedly posting up Ilgauskas on the left block against Wilson Chandler. Ilgauskas scored seven points in the first quarter and set the tone for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, James’ sporadic outside shot looked good early on as he drained back to back three pointers; he finished 3-7 from three point range, tying his second best three point shooting performance of the season (he had made just 11 of 43 three pointers—25.6%–in the 13 previous games). Color commentator Walt Frazier said, “Those shots illuminate how strong he is, barely flicking his wrists.” Indeed, both of those shots were set shots but when James went for three in a row he missed and Frazier noted, “That time he jumped and it threw him off.”
The Cavs led 34-22 by the end of the first quarter and then they blew the game wide open in the first two minutes of the second quarter, extending the margin to 42-22 with James on the bench. After a Daniel Gibson runner made the score 48-24, the New York fans began booing. When James returned to action the Cavs led 55-31 and he immediately hit a turnaround, fadeaway jumper from the left baseline. On the next possession, James looked like he was playing “Around the World,” attempting exactly the same shot from the right baseline but failing to connect. One of the intriguing things about James is that his shot selection is questionable at times and yet he shoots a good field goal percentage, largely because he scores so many easy shots in the paint; if he either attempted fewer three pointers or shot a better percentage from that distance and then eschewed fadeaway shots for strong post moves he could increase his shooting percentage to well over .500, which would be a remarkable figure for a small forward in this era.
James had one dunk in this game; it looked like he would have an opportunity to catch a fast break lob from West late in the second quarter but when defender Harrington kept retreating West took the ball to the hoop himself and threw down a two handed slam, causing Frazier to exclaim, “West was 6-3, 180 pounds of fury that time.” Coach D’Antoni received a technical foul after that dunk as he complained about the two Ben Wallace blocked shots that created the transition opportunity for Cleveland. After the replay was shown, Frazier acknowledged that both blocks were clean. James missed the technical free throw but he shot 9-11 from the free throw line overall, improving his career-high percentage to .784, a most welcome development for someone who draws as many fouls as he does.
Getting back to the issue of shot selection, during the Cavs’ second to last possession of the first half James dribbled the shot clock all the way down before firing up a three pointer that glanced off of the side of the rim. That is a bad shot not only because he missed and because he is not a good three point shooter but also because there was absolutely no ball or player movement; those are the kinds of possessions that can be costly against a good team but against the Knicks it did not matter: Ilgauskas rebounded the miss, scored, drew a foul and made the free throw to put Cleveland up 67-36. The Knicks added a David Lee layup right before halftime.
James opened the second half on a strong note, ripping the ball away from Chandler, going coast to coast, drawing a foul and making both free throws. Play by play announcer Mike Breen talked about how much James has improved defensively since he came into the league. Frazier added, “Most people feel that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league and I’m sure that James wants that honor. He’s getting there.” Mo Williams ended New York’s run by making a jumper and the Cavs began to pull away again as the Knicks showed little effort defensively and took poor shots on offense. By the end of the third quarter Cleveland led 95-66. New York pulled to within 104-88 after a four point play by Thomas at the 4:13 mark of the fourth quarter but the Cavs soon pushed the margin back over 20 and then cruised to victory.
NBA TV broadcast this game as part of its “Fan Night” promotion, the weekly opportunity that the network provides to fans to vote for which game they would most like to see. The Lakers versus anyone has been the most popular choice this season, but NBA TV personalities Ahmad Rashad, Gary Payton and Chris Webber lobbied heavily last week for the Cleveland-New York game, citing James’ 50 point performance last season in Madison Square Garden. By halftime, Rashad, Payton and Webber openly expressed their regret about the lopsided nature of the game. Payton looked right into the camera and said, “I’m sorry fans. My bad.” Knicks fans may have been discouraged, national fans may have been bored and James watchers may have wanted to see more highlights but for the Cavs this was a solid road win as they begin a stretch of four games in five nights.