It had been more than two years since LeBron James played a game in Cleveland, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Los Angeles Lakers star certainly made up for lost time on Monday, turning in perhaps his greatest performance against his former team.
James scored a season-high 46 points in the Lakers’ 115-108 win over the Cavaliers, extending L.A.’s road winning streak to 10-0 to start the season, a franchise record, and he did it in style back in his home state of Ohio.
“Home cooking,” he said afterward on a videoconference with reporters. “It just felt good to be back in my haven, my rest haven, and that’s being home.”
For much of the trip, it was all warm and fuzzy feelings for the 18-year veteran. He spent time with his mother and uncle. He greeted former teammate Cedi Osman with a big hug during warm-ups, skirting the league’s health and safety protocols to show some love. He shouted out longtime Cavs employee Mark “Cobra” Cashman, dubbing him “the greatest equipment guy in the world.”
But heading into the fourth quarter trailing the Cavs 89-87 after he missed a turnaround shot at the buzzer that would have tied things up, James found a reason to quit the nice-guy routine and bury his former team.
After his 14-footer over Taurean Prince bounced twice on the rim and out, James noticed Jason Hillman, the Cavs’ basketball chief of staff, sitting in a group by the baseline with the rest of the Cavs’ front office and clapping to celebrate the errant shot, sources told ESPN.
“I felt like he was just a little bit too excited about seeing me miss,” James said afterward, declining to name Hillman when asked who caught his attention. “He was really excited about me missing that shot. A little bit more extra than I would have liked. But he’s got to root for his team, obviously. And he was, he showcased that.
“So I knew I had another quarter, and the fourth quarter’s my favorite.”
And what a fourth quarter it was. James single-handedly outscored his opponent — the team he once helped deliver its lone championship in 2016, mind you — 21-19 in the fourth to push the Lakers past a plucky Cavs squad that beat the Brooklyn Nets twice on their home floor just last week.
After the carnage was over, with James going 9-for-10 from the field, hitting a 3 from the Cleveland “C” logo at center court and a couple more daggers from the outside while adding two assists, two steals and two blocks, all his former team could do was acknowledge James’ greatness.
“Doesn’t take much to get Bron going,” one Cavs source told ESPN of the brief exchange James had with Hillman, with the four-time MVP shooting an icy stare in Hillman’s direction before making his way to the Lakers’ bench. “He was unreal tonight.”
Added Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff, “You take your hat off to him. There’s a reason why he is who he is and he’s accomplished all the things that he’s accomplished. If he’s making shots like that you pat him on the butt.”
It was the most points James has ever scored against Cleveland as he ran his career record to 15-1 in games played against the team he suited up for over 11 seasons. And he was as accurate as he has ever been by one measure — his 73.1% from the field on 19-for-26 shooting was tied for the best he has ever shot out of the 240 career games in which he attempted at least 25 shots (regular season and playoffs combined). The only other time he went 19-for-26? Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals in Boston, which many point to as the most important win of his career.
James, at 36 years and 26 days old, became the oldest Lakers player with a 40-point game since Kobe Bryant scored 60 at the age of 37 years, 234 days old in the final game of his career.
“I’ve just never put a ceiling on my potential,” James said. “I always wanted to continue to get better and better and better to a point where I also now can dictate [what] the defense can do. And the defense can’t dictate what I’m supposed to do.”
James finished 7-for-11 from 3, upping his shooting mark to 41.2% from the outside this season, which would be the best percentage of his career should he keep it up.
“The shot-making,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, “was just ridiculous, and just one of those nights for the ages for him.”