The Cleveland Cavaliers came to Washington in a state of crisis Friday. They had lost four in a row and five of six games — all to teams projected to miss the playoffs — and looked apathetic in doing so. There were questions about their effort level and ability to defend.
That left the Cavaliers on the brink of a truly bad place as they went on the road to face a healthy and motivated Wizards team anxious to prove itself against the defending Eastern Conference champions.
The Cavaliers didn’t lose again, of course, thanks to just the latest brilliant performance in LeBron James’s brilliant career. James spent 48 minutes toying with his would-be challengers Friday night, and it was a reminder that for all of the problems Cleveland has, and will continue to have, the mere fact the Cavaliers have him makes them head-and-shoulders better than the rest of the Eastern Conference.
“We obviously witnessed one of the best players to ever play the game,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said after James led Cleveland to a 130-122 victory at Capital One Arena. “He still has it, if you guys didn’t know that. We knew that.”
So should have everyone. But even knowing how great James remains — and he is still the game’s undisputed top talent, even as he is in his 15th season and approaching his 33rd birthday — it is hard to quantify just how great he was Friday night. While his stat line — 57 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks — was astounding, the way he did it was breathtaking.
James played 42 minutes 14 seconds Friday night and did not come out in the second half, refusing to give the Wizards even a moment to attempt to mount a charge while he was off the court. He again proved he is a physically overpowering force comparable only with Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal in NBA history. All three share a similar quality: When standing on a basketball court — even when surrounded by some of the greatest athletes in the world — they look like they come from another species.
That was certainly the case against the Wizards, as James put on the kind of dominant performance in the post that the NBA hasn’t seen since O’Neal’s prime. As the Wizards continued to leave James in single-coverage, essentially daring him to beat them on his own, James proceeded to do exactly that. No matter who Washington threw at him — and they tried virtually everyone (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris all taking turns guarding him) — James got what he wanted.
He finished the night 23 for 34 from the field, including making a remarkable 14 shots in the restricted area; both marks were career highs. Combined with the fadeaway jumper James repeatedly showed off, a shot he said he’s been working on, it was a glimpse into the next phase of James’s career when his otherworldly athleticism finally begins to fade.
Even better than James’ performance, though, was his decision to wear a specific pair of Nikes to and from Capital One Arena Friday night — ones with Velcro straps that were adorned with an unmistakable message: “Long Live The King.”
Like everything James does, it was clearly thought out and undoubtedly a reference to the nonstop talking the Wizards had directed at the Cavaliers, including on Friday, when Wall and Beal went on ESPN and made all kinds of braggadocious statements.
“I don’t really have a comment,” James said postgame when asked about the Wizards’ chatter.
Of course he didn’t — his game did the talking for him. If you come at the king, you best not miss.
James made sure the Wizards missed, and missed badly.
Even so, Friday’s loss did nothing to change the many weaknesses plaguing the Cavaliers. Cleveland has no chance to contend with the Golden State Warriors this season as the team currently stands — not with a roster full of bad defensive players that look the part of the league’s oldest team. Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, the team’s healthy big-name additions to the backcourt, remain largely ineffective. Wade played 14 minutes Friday, which is right where he should be, but did little. Rose, meanwhile, had a hot shooting first quarter, going 6 for 7 from the field, and then predictably cooled off after while continuing to provide little defensively.
Meanwhile, injuries remain an issue. Isaiah Thomas still has an undetermined timeline for return from a hip injury he suffered with the Boston Celtics last season. Tristan Thompson is out for a month with a calf strain he suffered in Wednesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers.
No team in the NBA has the firepower to contend with Golden State, including a full-strength Cleveland squad. If the Warriors remain healthy, they will win this year’s championship. But the Cavaliers can still accomplish the realistic goal of making a fourth straight NBA Finals, which would be James’s eighth straight, something only Bill Russell has done in NBA history.
Friday night’s performance was proof that goal isn’t just reachable, but seemingly inevitable. And the King’s reign doesn’t look like it’ll be ending anytime soon.
Read more on the NBA: