After each topped the headlines for their performances at Madison Square Garden, Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers beat the defending champions on the same day James criticized the league for disrespecting a teammate. If that wasn’t enough, James also was stripped of his rare feat at the Garden.
To cap off this extraordinary week, the league’s two most dynamic players get the opportunity to square off Sunday when James’ Cavaliers (39-9) and Bryant’s Lakers (40-9) meet at Quicken Loans Arena in a matchup featuring the best team from each conference.
Bryant, the league’s reigning MVP, opened this week by setting a Madison Square Garden record with 61 points in Los Angeles’ 126-117 win at New York on Monday.
Not to be outdone, James, a front-runner for this season’s MVP, scored a season-high 52 points while adding 11 assists and 10 rebounds in Cleveland’s 107-102 win at MSG on Wednesday.
“I don’t go out there for the numbers, I just play my game,” James said. “You guys seen every phase of my game, the scoring, the rebounding, the assists and defensively just trying to attack the opposing team.”
That triple-double lasted for only two days, though, as the NBA stripped James of one of his 10 rebounds after reviewing game tape on Friday.
If his triple-double had stood, it would have been the first 50-point game in a triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975. Instead, it was the second time the Cavaliers were upset by a league decision in as many days.
On Thursday, commissioner David Stern selected Boston guard Ray Allen to replace injured Orlando guard Jameer Nelson instead of Cleveland’s Mo Williams at next week’s All-Star game in Phoenix. Williams, who is averaging 17.1 points and has become James’ sidekick, was originally left off the All-Star roster in a vote by Eastern Conference coaches.
“That’s how they always treat us,” said James, a five-time All-Star averaging 28.5 points. “They wouldn’t take me (as an All-Star) if they didn’t have to.
“You look at all the teams with some of the better records in this league. Look at the Lakers, they have two All-Stars. Orlando, two (initially three) All-Stars. Boston, two (now three) All-Stars. San Antonio, two All-Stars. All the good teams in the league that have really good records and you look at us with just one All-Star. It’s a total smack in the face.”
Cleveland, which has won eight of its last nine games, boasts the top record in the East and can take over the league’s best record by defeating Western Conference-leading Los Angeles.
The Lakers, who have won nine of 10, already defeated the Cavs 105-88 on Jan. 19, and would own the tiebreaker for home-court advantage in the finals - if they both make it - with a victory Sunday.
Winning at Cleveland won’t be easy, though, as the Cavs have won all 23 games at Quicken Loans Arena this season. They’ve also won four straight home games over the Lakers since a 111-106 overtime loss on Feb. 4, 2004.
Neither James nor Bryant had stellar performances in their meeting at Staples Center three weeks ago. James had 23 points on 9-of-25 shooting, nine rebounds and four assists, while Bryant finished with 20 points on 9-of-22 shooting, 12 assists and five turnovers. Bryant, an 11-time All-Star averaging 27.5 points, suffered a dislocated right ring finger, but stayed in the game
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles’ other All-Star, led the Lakers with 22 points and 13 boards in the win over the Cavs, and has stepped up his game since center Andrew Bynum was lost for eight to 12 weeks to a knee injury.
Gasol had 24 points and 14 rebounds in Thursday’s 110-109 overtime victory over Boston, snapping the Celtics’ 12-game win streak in a rematch of last season’s NBA finals. The 7-footer is averaging 28.7 points on 70.8 percent shooting and 14.3 boards in three games since Bynum got hurt.
“(Gasol) was huge,” said Bryant, who had 26 points and 10 rebounds. “He played strong. He played physical. That’s what happens. A team against you is playing physical with you, so you have to play physical right back.”
The Lakers snapped a five-game losing streak to the Cavs with the win three weeks ago, and have not swept a season series from them since 2003-04 - James’ rookie season.