NEW YORK — A tumultuous week for the Cleveland Cavaliers — one that started with an embarrassing loss in Miami, included an even more shameful defeat in Brooklyn and stopped the basketball world dead in its tracks when LeBron James revealed that there’s another super team he’d like to play for — came to a stirring crescendo late in the third quarter at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
The New York Knicks were scrambling on defense, down double digits seemingly from the opening tip, when Lou Amundson saw James coming down the court. Amundson, a journeyman who was traded from Cleveland to New York in the Iman Shumpert–J.R. Smith deal last season, waved off a teammate who intended to defend the four-time MVP, declaring, “I got him, I got him,” a team source told ESPN.com.
What happened next was part highlight, part catharsis as James unleashed a furious two-handed dunk all over Amundson (Kristaps Porzingis caught some shrapnel, too). James then stared down his former Cavs teammate, earning a technical foul.
It was the defining moment of the Cavs’ 107-93 win over the Knicks, and as impressive as it was, paled in comparison to the totality of James night: 27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, two blocks and a steal while helping to hold his good buddy Carmelo Anthony to just 9-for-24 from the field.
It was James’ fourth consecutive stellar effort since the Heat beatdown and subsequent sit-down with coach Tyronn Lue to address his leadership after the way he gravitated toward Dwyane Wade. In the stretch, he’s put up two triple-doubles to lift his career total to 42 and is averaging 29 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists.
He is giving us LeBron in full, still the game’s most dominant player at 31 years old and in his 13th season, when he wants to be. And still the game’s most scrutinized soul who seemingly creates the drama that surrounds him.
He has honed this existence, never settling for the success he has enjoyed, still pushing, pushing, pushing to the point that the lines have been blurred as to whether the life he has built is truly a blessing or a burden for those who have to coexist with him.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Over the course of an 82-game season it can be overwhelming to be around him — the storylines, the speculation, the cryptic clues. But then, as quick as James attacked Amundson on the wing, it can all come back into focus.
“I feel like we’re ready to make a championship run,” James said Saturday morning before shootaround. “I’m confident in this team and I know we can make a championship run, and that’s all you can ask for.”
It was a reminder of why he makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s LeBron James saying he has that kind of confidence in us,” said Kevin Love, who put up 28 points and 12 rebounds against New York as James gladly fed him touch after touch with Kyrie Irving taking the night off to rest. “To hear that from him, he’s our leader. Everything at the end of the day starts and ends with him and we follow him. We all believe we can make something special happen here.”
How did Love react to James’ dunk? “I haven’t jumped out of my seat like that in a long time. I’m usually out of my seat, clapping and yelling. But I ran with J.R. [Smith] almost to the basket. That was impressive. That’s a strong man there.”
The slam sprung Irving out of his seat, too, with the replay showing the point guard rubbing his head with a delirious look of astonishment of what he just saw (or perhaps more appropriately, what he just witnessed).
There’s nobody quite like James in the league, nobody quite like him on the planet. There is a force-of-nature quality to his game, one that can turn Love from a low-post player to a floor spacer and Irving from a floor general to an off-ball threat, and all the uneasiness that disruption creates is understandable. But he can also turn Love and Irving into winners at the game’s highest level, and isn’t that the whole point in the end, anyway?
The playoffs start in three weeks and despite all the distractions that James has brought to his team, he has brought something else along the way: a level of play out of him that we haven’t seen since his extended excellence in the postseason last year.
“He feels great,” Lue said. “Getting stronger. As the season winds down, he’s getting stronger. That’s a big plus for us.”
It can feel like a big pain sometimes, of course, the whole LeBron James Experience. But when it comes down to it, unlike Amundson, the Cavs are incredibly fortunate to be able to say, “I got him.”