The great LeBron James homecoming ended unlike anyone anticipated. Most expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to tear through a New York Knicks team that lost its home opener by 24 points. Instead, James played like a Monstar stole his talent and the Cavaliers looked disjointed, eventually falling, 95-90, in stunning fashion.
James finished the game with 17 points, but shot 5-15 and committed an astounding eight turnovers. The Cavaliers as a team committed 19 turnovers, with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combining for 14 of them. Other than Irving, who scored 22 points on 15 shots, no Cavalier played well. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 25 points, including the baseline jumper that sealed the game with under 30 seconds remaining.
The Cavaliers got off to the fast start we expected, riding a big Love quarter and lots of transition opportunities into a nine-point first-quarter lead. It looked like the rest of the game would be a rout, with the tired Knicks struggling to keep up.
Instead, the Knicks slowed the game down, forced Cleveland to attack in half-court situations and got back into the game. And suddenly, the Cavaliers couldn't throw the ball to anyone. After a slow shooting start, James tried to settle down and find his teammates, but none of them were cutting to the right spots. The Knicks eventually found their form offensively and slowly moved into the lead in the third quarter, then extended to a nine-point lead midway through the fourth after a brief Cavaliers run.
Cleveland kept trying to rally, but its effort was sporadic. Each superlative individual effort from Irving, Love or someone else was answered with a defensive breakdown and a Knicks field goal. Cleveland ultimately got within three and had an open Love jumper there for the tie with a minute remaining, but it fell short. Two possessions later, Anthony hit a leaning mid-range jumper over James to seal New York's win.
3 Things We Learned
1. This will be LeBron's worst game of the season
Going out on a limb here, but we feel safe doing so. James started the game with some uncharacteristic misses, and it only got worse from there. He tried to force shots for a brief stretch in the second quarter, which ended up digging the hole even further. Eventually, he tried to facilitate for a stretch, but his teammates weren't cutting into the right spots and many turnovers were committed. Finally, he tried attacking again ... and things didn't go any better.
His final line: 5-15, 17 points, eight turnovers. Not all of the eight turnovers were his fault, but he and his new teammates were clearly out of sync.
The peripheral stuff was bad too. James so often switched his assignment defensively, displaying the same lagging effort he did at times with the Heat last season. Instead of dialing in on Anthony, he allowed too many easy shots and committed mental errors like fouling on a three-point attempt in the fourth quarter and setting an illegal screen with four minutes left.
The simplest conclusion is that he amped himself up too much for his first regular-season game back in Cleveland, which is entirely possible. The slow start clearly got to him; TNT caught him telling himself that "I got one" after he finally made a shot. But we've seen James start anxiously in many other big moments, only to rally later in the game. It's strange that didn't happen here.
2. The Cavaliers need to get their timing down
There will come a point where the Cavaliers' offense really takes off, but that's clearly going to take a little more time than expected. Cleveland initially ran most of its sets fine off the ball, but the passes were usually a beat off, leading to deflections that threw off the offense's timing. Eventually, Irving and James started forcing it, attacking at times when there was nothing there, getting themselves caught and throwing the ball away to invisible cutters. None of Cleveland's off-ball players were ready for anything they were doing.
There are all sorts of reasons this happened. Perhaps the players were too amped to perform amid a wild atmosphere. Perhaps the frantic start of the game, during which the Cavaliers initially built a big lead, worked against them later in the game. Perhaps the players struggled to adjust to defenders playing them significantly harder than in the preseason. Perhaps they were thrown off by James' own shooting struggles. Whatever the reason, it looked like the Cavaliers were thinking about making the pass before they made it, and that's too long in the NBA.
You'd think they'll figure it out, but the climb is steeper than most figured.
3. The Knicks had a lot of unsung heroes
Yes, Anthony was the leading scorer, but he had plenty of help. Raise your hand if you expected Jason Smith, Quincy Acy and Travis Wear to play that well. Now, please put your hands down. Yet it was those three and J.R. Smith, who made huge shots down the stretch, that sparked the Knicks in the second and third quarters. Jason Smith's mid-range jumper was going down, Acy provided great activity on the glass and Wear, an undrafted rookie from UCLA, was always in the right spots in the Triangle while somehow slowing down James. Without their quality minutes, the Knicks don't rally.
These are the kinds of players that need to get minutes given the rest of the Knicks' roster. If Derek Fisher is to foster a cohesive team environment, players such as Wear and Jason Smith deserve minutes even if they come at the expense of more expensive players that look for their own shot. (Yes, we're talking about Andrea Bargnani).
Fisher is surely preaching that the Knicks need to win as a team instead of relying too much on Anthony. This is exactly what he had in mind.
Play of the game
This is Anthony sealing the game with one of his patented baseline jumpers. Cold. Blooded.