CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Cavaliers had the Big Three back in the lineup, rested after missing Wednesday’s loss against the Memphis Grizzlies.
With that controversy behind them, the Cavaliers got off to a slow start and had a hard time putting away the pesky, upstart Los Angeles Lakers in the fourth quarter — until LeBron James entered takeover mode, ending any chance of a Lakers comeback.
Here are five observations:
Putting imprint on the game – James spent most of the first three quarters trying to get his teammates involved.
That approach changed in the fourth, as head coach Tyronn Lue put him in with four members of the bench, necessitating more of a scoring role.
“I just think the game was close,” Lue said. “He had been making the right plays and the right passes the whole game. Kyrie (Irving) and Kevin (Love) went to the bench. I brought Bron back by himself in that fourth quarter and they were able to score the basketball and get guys open shots. He reached down and took control of the game with his scoring, which we know he can do.”
James scored 16 points on 6-of-10 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range in the final period.
“They got a lot of talent over there and Luke (Walton) got them playing the right way and I just want to try to put an imprint on the game,” James said of his personal takeover. “In the fourth quarter I was able to make some plays.”
James capped his brilliant fourth quarter with a transition 3-pointer. Clinging to a five-point lead after the Cavs had just dodged a Nick Young triple attempt, James sprinted out in transition and pulled up for the dagger, one that some might’ve considered an ill-advised shot.
“I was just in rhythm in the fourth quarter and that’s the time when the defense is at its relaxed point — me bringing the ball up in transition and they don’t really think that you’re going to take that shot,” he said. “And for me, I was in a great groove and I felt it and I was able to let it go and able to knock it down and they were forced to call a timeout.”
Bench boost – The Lakers entered the night with the league’s highest-scoring bench. The Cavs had the fourth-lowest. It’s unfair to expect Cleveland to hang with Los Angeles in that department.
But they needed some kind of lift from the second unit, especially with the usual rotation back. That’s exactly what happened.
“Huge. We didn’t start the game like we wanted to and when that second unit came in they were able to get close to if not a double-digit lead and I think that helped spark us going into that second quarter and starting that second quarter,” Love said. “Just continuing to give us good momentum throughout the game.”
Richard Jefferson, mocking the second unit’s usual production while hovering over Love during the Q & A session, scored nine points on 4-of-7 from the field, including 1-of-2 from beyond the arc.
Iman Shumpert added eight points in 29 minutes while Channing Frye tallied eight in 14 minutes.
The Cavs’ second unit scored 25 points. The Lakers, meanwhile, got 34, well below their season average of 51.5.
Magic assist number – With fresh legs following a week-long break, Irving looked fast and explosive. His primary role on offense is to score. But he did his best James impersonation, matching a season high of 12 assists.
“Just staying aggressive and realizing where other opportunities are available,” Irving said. “Like I said, sometimes roles can change different from night to night. Tonight it was just coming off pick-and-rolls and making the best decisions. Just had that aggressive mindset the whole entire game and knowing that in order to get our team’s wheels going it was going to start with the passing and everyone getting a great feel for the basketball.”
The Cavs finished with 30 assists on 46 made shots, which is a promising sign given the slippage they’ve had in that department recently, recording 31 over the last two games. Of course, one of those games was with the Big 3 resting, showing how much of a role they have in the entire offense — not just scoring.
James, Irving and Love accounted for 25 of the 30 helpers.
Over the last two years, Cleveland is 45-4 when recording at least 23 assists.
3-point defense – While the Cavs have cleaned up their defensive issues during a season-long 3-game losing skid, they could still do better defending the arc. They entered the night allowing foes to connect on 35.5 percent, ranking in the bottom half of the league.
On Saturday, the Lakers drilled 16 triples, one away from the opponent’s season high.
“It was an emphasis coming into the game,” Lue said. “Nick Young made eight 3s, and he can get it going. We talked about that. Some of them was tough shots. We were right there to challenge, and some of them we were just unaware. They were able to get what they wanted offensively. Made a tough game for us.”
Young scored a game-high 32 points on 12-of-19 from the field, including 8-of-14 from beyond the arc.
“When he gets going and feels good he can be a really, really effective player,” Love said of Young. “I think you saw that out of him from the start. Hit a couple threes and started feeling good. Tough to stop a player when he has a lot of confidence.”
Timo’s moment – The minutes prior to tipoff belonged to Timofey Mozgov. Having a special video presentation and receiving his championship ring were both part of the original plan. But getting mobbed by his former teammates? That wasn’t.
“That right there just shows you how important Timo was to us and how the guys liked him,” Lue said.
“It was fun. It was good to see Timo,” Smith added of the pregame moment. “I’ve known Timo for a while. We go back to the Denver days and stuff like that. It was fun to celebrate something like that with a guy, even though he’s not still on our team, he’s part of our brotherhood.”
Not every player was involved in the jostling. James was in the back using the restroom.
And in case they didn’t have their share of run-ins during the game, Mozgov, well-dressed in a blue blazer, came walking into the locker room after the game to greet his former teammates.
The first player in sight: DeAndre Liggins, who wasn’t part of last year’s team. Mozgov looked confused trying to identify him, making for a funny moment. Then he made the rounds, dapping up Love, Smith and a handful of others.
It sounded like he finally found James in the trainer’s room.
“I mean, anytime you get an opportunity to see a former teammate with the run we had — a championship run — it was great to see him,” James said.