The Cleveland Cavaliers looked like they were going to get run out of Madison Square Garden on Monday night. Things got so ugly Tyronn Lue benched his entire starting lineup late in the third quarter after the New York Knicks surged to a 17-point lead. That deficit ballooned to 23 several minutes later before the Cavaliers closed the quarter on an 11-3 run to make the game respectable.
The score was 76-63 when LeBron James returned to the court with 10:51 to play in the game. LeBron was having an okay game up to that point (16 points, five rebounds, four assists, five turnovers), but overall his effort level wasn’t acceptable. The King is known to coast through some regular season games, especially defensively, and this was on full display through three quarters.
Slow or nonexistent defensive rotations, carelessness with the ball, and an apathetic overall approach marred LeBron’s performance and permeated through the rest of the roster. The Knicks took advantage of this and were energized by both Frank Ntilikina and Enes Kanter standing up to LeBron early in the game after the war of words in advance of the tilt.
This all changed in the fourth quarter when LeBron flipped the proverbial switch and woke up the bear inside him. With James setting the tone and everybody else following along, the Cavaliers completely erased that 23-point deficit and made it a wonderful day with a 104-101 victory.
LeBron’s biggest play of the game came on the offensive end when he stared down Kristaps Porzingis and drilled a 3-pointer in the big Latvian’s eye to give Cleveland a 100-97 lead with 1:23 left:
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) November 14, 2017
But some of LeBron’s most impressive work in the fourth quarter came on the defensive end against Porzingis. There were several occasions when James stoned Porzingis’s forays to the basket, with LeBron even blocking the big man twice.
The first featured LeBron using his strength and refusing to get backed down in the post, which forced a tough fadeaway jumper:
The second block occurred on the very next possession, and it led to a filthy LeBron and-1 on the other end:
The difference in effort by LeBron and Co. in the fourth quarter compared to earlier in the game was striking. (Dwyane Wade also deserves a shout-out after an awful start.) Some of it was aided by the Knicks’ own stagnation, but the Cavaliers can still play defense at an acceptable level when they’re going full-bore. It certainly helps when LeBron is taking the lead.
Actually knocking down shots also helps. Cleveland made just 7 of 28 3-point attempts through three quarters, with Kyle Korver bricking all four of his attempts on mostly great looks. Shooting poorly and constantly turning the ball over (20 turnovers in three quarters) can demoralize a team and lead to defensive problems.
The shots finally started falling in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers made nine triples in the frame, and Korver turned things around by knocking down five treys.
But, as usual, LeBron was the engine. He racked up eight assists in the quarter, with seven of those assists coming on 3-pointers. Four of Korver’s five fourth-quarter 3-pointers came off passes from LeBron, while Channing Frye hit two and J.R. Smith hit one.
The dime to Smith was a vintage LeBron drive-and-kick to the corner:
James nearly became a goat by missing two free throws in the final seconds that would have sealed the game, but another hustle play resulted in an offensive rebound and the victory. LeBron finished the fourth quarter with seven points, eight assists, four rebounds (three offensive), two blocks and zero turnovers. It capped a 23-point, 12-assist, nine-rebound night, giving him the last laugh after a drama-filled few days (though there was more yapping after the game).
The Cavaliers may have notable flaws, but a fully engaged LeBron James can mask some of them… and raise the performance of the entire team.