James’ superb first season comes to a close at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks get their final tuneup before their first playoff appearance since 2001.
James came into the NBA with some of the highest expectations ever, and he had no trouble living up to them.
In his first season after joining the NBA straight from high school, the No. 1 pick averaged 21 points per game. More importantly, he was the biggest reason Cleveland doubled its win total from last season’s 17-65 campaign and stayed into the playoff race until the final weeks.
“It’s a great start for me and the wine-and-gold,” James told the crowd after Monday’s 93-89 victory over Milwaukee in Cleveland’s home finale.
With the superb play of James—who is involved in a close race with Denver’s Carmelo Anthony for Rookie of the Year—and the improvement for Carlos Boozer, the Cavs figure to be a team that can challenge in the Eastern Conference for the next few seasons.
“Coming in we didn’t really have a (win) total,” Cleveland coach Paul Silas said. “But doubling our total from last season sends a message that we are going to be a team to be reckoned with in the future.”
New York seemed like it would be waiting for the future after a poor start to the season. But plenty of changes along the way helped the Knicks rally to gain a spot in the weak East.
The biggest was the firing of Scott Layden and the hiring of Isiah Thomas as president of basketball operations. Thomas made a number of moves that improved the team, bringing in an All-Star caliber point guard in Stephon Marbury in his most important deal, firing Don Chaney and hiring Lenny Wilkens to coach the team, and constantly changing the roster to help the Knicks end a two-year postseason absence.
The Knicks are currently seventh in the East, which would mean a first-round matchup with Atlantic Division champion New Jersey. But if New York wins Wednesday and New Orleans loses to Washington, the Knicks would jump to sixth and play Detroit.
Cleveland has won the last four meetings, including all three this season.