An Off-Night For LeBron James and The Cavs in Sacramento, by Chuck Strom

LeBron James, like his predecessors Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, is a star whose appearance in any city draws fans to an NBA arena like pilgrims to Mecca, and like the latter, he is a sight to behold in person at least once in your life. Accordingly, there were a lot of LeBron jerseys among the fans at the Golden One Center last night for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ annual visit to Sacramento, and there were far larger multitudes of fans than usual waiting on the visitors’ end of the court, futilely as it turned out, for a glimpse of the King during pre-game warm-ups. Fortunately, LeBron had not chosen this night to take off–always a risk when investing in the higher-priced tickets for his games–and the crowd cheered accordingly when he appeared with the rest of the team for introductions. Even from the upper reaches of the arena where I sat, he stood out from the rest of the players on the court as the specimen that he is, a rare player with the physique of an NFL linebacker and the agility, shooting touch and ball-handling skill of the leanest of NBA guards. Still at his peak after fifteen years in the league and appearances in the last seven Finals, it might well be argued that LeBron might surpass even Jordan as the greatest player ever to step onto an NBA court. He has certainly done so in terms of longevity and durability–by those measures, the results aren’t even close.

LeBron didn’t exactly disappoint his fans that night, scoring a triple double, but overall the game demonstrated the deceptively small margin between success and failure in the NBA. Though the Cavaliers’ and Kings’ records before the game were virtual mirror images of each other at 24-10 and 11-22, the Cavaliers had just suffered a dispiriting Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors and were in the midst of an exhausting West Coast road trip. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, talked in an interview several years ago about the difficulties of performing in such games, suggesting that the main reason that the Bulls usually won was Jordan’s maniacal competitiveness and their fear of his wrath if they lost. This is not to say that LeBron doesn’t have those same qualities, but it was apparent early on in the game that the Cavaliers’ shooting, particularly from the three-point line, was off that night. The Kings, as they had done in the last four games I had seen at Golden One Arena, took a lead in the first half, but instead of collapsing in the third quarter as they had done on the previous occasions, they held off a charge by the Cavaliers and eventually won by a comfortable margin, 109-95. The Cavaliers’ frustration was visible on the court, particularly during one sequence in the second half where LeBron failed to draw a foul while shooting and, not thirty seconds later, got called for a defensive foul on the other end of the court. James, as he often does, gave the referee an earful as the crowd jeered. Kings fans left the building happy that night, and despite the Kings’ record, they now have bragging rights for their team having defeated both the Warriors and the Cavaliers, an accomplishment shared so far this season only by the Houston Rockets, the Warriors’ main competition in the NBA’s Western Conference.

LeBron’s future in the NBA has been the subject of wide speculation of late. His contract with Cleveland expires after this year, and there have been rumors that he might consider his promise to that city’s fans fulfilled and take his talents to yet another NBA city. Los Angeles, where he has his main off-season residence, has been mentioned as one possibility. So also has Houston, whose team seems most equipped to provide a supporting cast sufficient to compete with the Warriors for future championships. Wherever he decides to play, we can almost certainly expect to see him bring excitement to NBA arenas for years to come. LeBron may not have been at his best last night in Sacramento, but he is nowhere near done.

Chuck Strom

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