Friday night in the fourth quarter in New Orleans LeBron James looked every bit the guy who has worn the crown of “best player in the world.” On one level, his 23 points in the fourth quarter felt like a message to the anointed next best player in the universe Anthony Davis, a reminder that LeBron still can play at a level few could ever match, and he will not give up even an early December game without a fight.
But more than that, that dominance was what LeBron had to do to get the Cavaliers near a win — Cleveland had trailed by 13 midway through the fourth and LeBron single-handedly dragged them back and into the lead.
It wasn’t enough. Jrue Holiday drained a three tie it, then in overtime Davis had six points (31 for the game) while LeBron went scoreless, the result being a Pelicans upset win. Cleveland coach David Blatt summed it up well, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.
“We needed to give him a little bit more help,” said Cavs coach David Blatt.
LeBron, as do all true competitors, would have none of that.
“I hope we don’t think that way,” James said. “It’s never that way. When you get your guys back, you prepare just as you prepare before. It’s only one guy in the world, ever, where everything will be all right when he comes back, and that’s Jesus Christ. Other than that, you can’t bank on nobody … .”
But the Cavaliers should be able to bank on the returns of their starting backcourt, Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. The cavalry is coming. In Irving’s case, he’s been cleared to practice and is likely just a few weeks away from a return.
Bringing back an All-Star point guard will change the dynamic for the Cavaliers, as will the defense of Shumpert when he returns (likely after the first of the year). They need those two, the Cavs have questions to answer. From the last three games of the Finals last season through Cleveland’s loss to Washington this week, the team has struggled against small ball lineups (Washington went basically five out against the Cavs, and it worked). But if that remains the case when Irving and Shumpert are healthy, when the Cavs could play a front line of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson together to counter, remains to be seen.
What LeBron has worked to bring to Cleveland the past year plus is the mentality he learned in Miami — the one evident so long in San Antonio — and part of that is they can grind you down and win no matter who is on the court. It doesn’t always work, but when the Spurs rest a star (or when LeBron’s Heat teams did) nobody assumes a loss. Someone else will step up. That has not held the same way in Cleveland, the consistency is not there from the role players. So LeBron is calling a team meeting after a loss in Toronto, he needs to get these messages through to a younger team and show them the way. Miami taught LeBron how to win as an organization; he’s trying to instill that in Cleveland. Right now the Cavaliers feel more like a collection of individuals and not a team.
There is an urgency with LeBron because he knows the Cavaliers are the best team in the East (despite Chicago being ahead of them in the standings as of this writing), but he looks up at Golden State right now and they have that mentality — Harrison Barnes is missing time, Klay Thompson is battling injuries, Andrew Bogut missed time, it just doesn’t matter. Golden State’s swagger is undeniable. If LeBron wants to bring a title to Cleveland this season he sees where the bar is set and realizes right now his Cavaliers can’t clear that. He’s got until June to change that.
Getting Irving and Shumpert back is part of it. But it’s not all of it.