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The NBA playoffs begin in 54 days.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, preparation began at the trade deadline on Feb. 8, momentum began to build with a four-game winning streak heading into the All-Star break and there were concerns the layoff could perhaps being to extinguish the spark that had been lit.
Then, LeBron James went out and almost put up a triple-double — 29 points, 10 boards and eight dimes — in winning Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in leading Team LeBron to a 148-145 win over Team Stephen on Sunday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“Listen, I respect the younger guys, and I love them. My boys love them. They play with them in the video games,” LeBron said. “I don’t really take it as a young guy, OK, I need to show him that I’m still able to do this. I need to continue to show myself, you know, because every night I step on the floor I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level.”
— NBA (@NBA) February 19, 2018
Consider the point proved… and reinforced.
James’ double-team trap with Kevin Durant on Team Stephen Captain Steph Curry along the right sideline denied the Golden State sharpshooter, not allowing him to get off a shot. DeMar DeRozan’s (21 points) 3-point desperation heave off a pass from the penned-in Curry, who finished with 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting, missed and came after the buzzer, anyway.
“K.D. and Bron, they double teamed me hard and pushed me to the sideline,” Curry said after the game. “Two tall giants out there not letting me shoot, I tried to make a play and it just didn’t work out. So that was a tough way for our team to end the game.”
— NBA (@NBA) February 19, 2018
James became the sixth player in league history to win the All-Star MVP award at least three times, joining Kobe Bryant (4), Bob Pettit (4), Oscar Robertson (3), Shaquille O’Neal (3) and Michael Jordan (3).
“It worked out for everybody — not only for the players, not only for the league, but our fans,’’ James said. “It was a great weekend and capped it off the right way. It had a real-game feel to it. Steph and I took it upon ourselves to change the landscape of the game.’’
The new format, which had captains James and Curry drafting teams playground style, was most definitely a slam dunk for the league. The final score last season was an embarrassing 192-182, which all but forced the format change.
“We wanted to make this a real basketball game,” Durant said.
“It was the right intensity,’’ Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, who coached Team Stephen said.
But, as is almost always the case, LeBron was the focus, thriving in the glare of the spotlight all weekend through political controversy and the game itself. In the end, he more than proved himself… again. Throughout the course of the game, he could be seen pushing, motivating and urging his teammates to get the job done.
Toronto’s Dwane Casey, who coached Team LeBron with his Raptors having the best record in the Eastern Conference, said as much afterward.
“I’m jealous of (Cleveland coach) Ty (Lue) being able to coach LeBron, ”he said. “He got everybody jacked up down he stretch.
“It’s something that we talked about yesterday in practice about how we wanted to change the narrative of the approach and the description of the All-Star Game,” Casey continued. “I thought tonight was a great one. My hat’s off to LeBron and [Durant] and all the guys that stepped up, and they reiterated exactly what we talked about after we said, hey, let’s change the narrative. Let’s make sure we change how people look at the NBA All-Star Game.”
Never one to miss an opportunity to show what and who are important, James made it a point to shake the hands of living legends Bill Russell, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, who were seated at courtside.
James said he simply thanked the four all-time greats.
“I thanked them for giving me the platform to do what I do today,” James said. “They did it in a time when people shunned them for it. I’m doing it in a time when people are trying to shun me for it, too. But it’s not stopping us.”
James scored the go-ahead bucket with 34.5 seconds to play off a feed from former Cavaliers teammate Kyrie Irving, then threw a long pass to a streaking Russell Westbrook to account for the final score, setting up the trap of Curry in the final seconds.
LeBron described the sequence that led to the go-ahead hoop off the feed from Irving.
“Two crossers at the top, just to get the defense moving, and then we wanted to get it to Russ. Russ being so dynamic in his ability to break down defenses, we wanted to get it to him, Russ was able to make one move, they switched and Russ was kind of left up in the air. He was able to hit Kyrie on the baseline.
“Playing with Kyrie for so many games, if I just make myself available, he’ll find me. He found me and I was able to make the left-handed layup over Draymond (Green).
“You have plays, but sometimes you have to improvise when the game breaks down and we were able to do that.
That’s the beauty of being on the floor with a bunch of All-Stars. It doesn’t work that way. When you have All-Stars with high IQs, guys that want to play the game and play the right way, it works out for the best.”
— NBA (@NBA) February 19, 2018
For his part, Irving, who had 13 points and nine assists, made the go-ahead bucket sound simple.
”I’ve played with him a few times before,” he said. “I cut back door. Russ was driving. I saw the opportunity even before Russ passed to me. LeBron was going to circle to the rim and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim. It was easy to drop it off to give us that lead. We’ve done it plenty of times before.
“This was fun… and it’s only gonna get better. I think we showcased it with an incredible competitive spirit. The game was getting away. But a few of us took it a little personal.”
James, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, said he enjoyed hooking up with Irving as teammates again. They played the last three seasons together, driving Cleveland to three consecutive Finals appearances, including the championship in 2015-16, before Irving requested and was granted a trade, being sent to Boston on Aug. 22.
“It was phenomenal,” James said of playing with Irving again. “Any time you’re able to get back and play with one of your old teammates, and as great as he is, we all know that.
“The flashiness, the ballhandling, the ability to shoot, it was just great to get back on the floor with him. It was a great moment, for sure.”
All which is well and good, but James knows better than anyone he and his teammates, including The New 4 of George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., have much to get done in what remains of the regular season, 26 games.
— 2019 NBA All-Star (@NBAAllStar) February 19, 2018
“Championships is what I play for… but I don’t want to think to far ahead,” James, who sat next to injured Cavaliers teammate and fellow All-Star Kevin Love (broken left hand) while he was on the bench in the second half, said. “I’m looking forward to get back to my guys.”