Cleveland 102, Los Angeles 87

Excellent game by the Cavaliers, just… excellent. This is exactly type of effort you want to see from this team. LeBron made his presence felt but didn’t dominate the ball, the Cavs role players stepped up and their team defense was absolutely outstanding (crisp rotations, good double teams and they forced a lot of bad shots). They got under the Lakers’ skin and frustrated not only the Laker players (and coach Phil Jackson, who whined about the refs during a sideline interview- classy), but their fans as well (who threw their foam fingers onto the court in some kind of, um, ‘protest’). All in all, an absolute great Christmas present from the Cavaliers.

I learned two things today. Number One: Ron Artest cannot guard LeBron James. While James didn’t dominate Artest, he didn’t back down either. James moved extremely well without the ball and even posted up Ron-Ron for easy buckets. LeBron finished with 26 points on 9-19 shooting (but 2-7 from behind the arc) and 4 boards, 9 assists, 2 steals and a block. James even easily scored on Artest in the post (so if he can do it against a bulldog like Artest, he should have no problem against literally anyone else. I hope Mike Brown was paying attention). Think about this, the Cavs beat the Lakers by 15 and LeBron only took 19 shots. Yup, the Cavs sure are a one man team.

Number Two: Derek Fisher has no chance against Mo Williams. Williams put up a LeBron-esque 28-6-7 and schooled Fisher so often that, by the fourth quarter, a visibly frustrated Fisher resorted simply to shoving (classy, LA, classy). It actually wasn’t the first time Mo took a shot during the evening, as Kobe ran him over mid-way through the second quarter (no call, naturally). Williams went 8-13 from the floor, 3-3 from behind the arc and a beautiful 9-10 from the charity stripe. Williams even posted Fisher up, scoring three times off the block (let’s see more of this please. I’m all for any post play, whether it’s LeBron, Delonte or Mo).

Shaq passed his second test. Shaq played pretty well in his upteenth return to LA, notching 11 points and 7 boards in 22 minutes. Shaq dominated the matchup with Andrew Bynum (4 points, 6 boards) and he made the entire Laker team aware of his presence on the defensive end. Shaq used each and every one of his 5 fouls to let the Lakers know that there would be no easy buckets on his watch (heh, he got Kobe more than once). Shaq’s entire Cleveland tenure will be judged on how well the Cavs will do in the playoffs and thus far, they’re 2-0 against the Lakers and Magic. So far, so good.

The Cavs made Kobe work. Bryant’s final number are gaudy, 35-9-8, but he had to take 32 shots to get those 35 points. Kobe was hounded by both Anthony Parker (4 points, 3 boards, 2 assists, 2 blocks) and Jamario Moon (13 points, 6-7 FG) and it was obvious that their length gave him some trouble (he got tee’d up after Parker blocked his shot from behind). The Cavs bigs rotated well defensively (including Hickson!) and they didn’t commit any dumb fouls (when they did foul, they made sure he wasn’t getting an ‘and one’).

Cavs bench: 31 points. Lakers bench: 17 points. The Cavs got great contributions from a number of guys coming off the pine. Varejao and Ilgauskas both played excellent defense (Z frustrated Gasol and Varejao did a commendable job on Lamer Odom) and each grabbed 9 boards. Delonte West continued his strong play, going 3-3 from the floor for 7 points, 2 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals and block for good measure. Delonte simply makes smart basketball plays (his basketball IQ is off the charts); he saved one possession by cutting to an open space, bailing out Varejao (who picked up his dribble in the corner), and then made a quick pass to Hickson for an easy dunk.

There’s not all that much to complain about but there were some issues. The Cavs seemed to have trouble with the Laker press (LeBron forced a few bad turnovers), James missed his free throws (6-11 from the stripe) and Mo Williams still has trouble throwing entry passes to the post. I also thought Brown should’ve called a timeout to stop the bleeding when the Lakers made a run in the second quarter (cutting the Cavs’ 19 point lead to 9 before halftime) but these are just quibbles (Brown made a nice call by subbing in Z for J.J. to start the second half).

and finally…

Not a bad road trip, eh? My feelings about this team are night and day since that loss in Dallas to the Dirk-less Mavericks. The best part is, these were all good wins. These weren’t games where they milled around and had LeBron bail them out with some crazy three (like in Philly…). These were team wins. They beat the Suns by executing their offense and playing brilliant defense, they won in Sacramento by shutting out the Kings in OT and they topped it off by putting a whooping on the Lakers on Christmas day. Well done.

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