With the eyes of the world on Quicken Loans Arena for the first regular-season game of James' second stint in Cleveland — not to mention the Cavs' debuts of All-Star power forward Kevin Love, new head coach David Blatt, respected veteran forward Shawn Marion and more — LeBron and his new 'mates sputtered out of the gate. After all the pregame festivities — the live-to-TNT concert, the 3D video projection, the faux-chalk-toss and all the rest of it — the Cavs came out sluggish, allowing a New York Knicks team playing on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, after being destroyed on Wednesday by the Chicago Bulls, to not only hang around, but take a lead deep into the fourth quarter.
After a pair of dismal offensive possessions that resulted in 24-second violations and gave Cleveland new life, the Knicks found themselves holding the ball and a 90-87 lead with less than one minute remaining. An opportunity to ice the game in the balance, the Knicks abandoned the triangle offense — which, to be fair, they'd been doing liberally all night anyway — and just gave the ball to Carmelo Anthony, guarded by LeBron James. It's what the people paid to see — the best player on each team, one-on-one, just like they've been ever since high school.
This time around, 'Melo played Kingslayer.
Anthony moved as if he was going to set a screen for point guard Pablo Prigioni before flashing to the left wing, where the Argentine hit him with a behind-the-back pass. 'Melo collected the ball, faced up and went chest-to-chest with the four-time MVP; after a couple of short dribbles to the left and a bump to gain a bit of separation, Anthony faded, elevated and drained a 17-foot baseline jumper that gave the Knicks a five-point lead with 25.9 seconds remaining and forced Blatt to take a timeout to regroup.
A missed 3-pointer by Kyrie Irving and some free throws later, the Knicks escaped the Q with an impressive 95-90 win, leaving the Cavaliers — and the rabid fans who turned out for the King's coronation — stunned.
While it was Anthony's ability to create his own shot and make difficult contested jumpers over elite defenders that sealed the deal, it was his continued commitment to moving the ball and trying to work within the still-developing flow of new head coach Derek Fisher's triangle offense that stood out on Thursday. Anthony finished with a game-high 25 points on nine for 17 shooting, but he also chipped in six assists — a mark he matched just seven times last season — to go with a pair of rebounds in 34-plus minutes.
He wasn't the only typically sticky-fingered Knick to show a somewhat surprising knack for swinging the ball. Noted black hole J.R. Smith finished with a team-high seven assists (he did that only twice last season) against just two turnovers, adding 11 points — including a pivotal floater in the paint and two free throws in the final minute — and a pair of steals off the bench. The Knicks as a team handed out 30 assists on 37 made field goals on Thursday, one more helper than last season's single-game high.
With the exception of Love, who came out of the chute red-hot to the tune of 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists (including one noteworthy long outlet pass) in the first quarter, neither team looked especially sharp in the early going. James missed four of his first five shots and Anthony six of his first nine, as the Knicks' ongoing struggles implementing the triangle met with the derision of TNT announcers Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley, and the Cavaliers found it difficult to replicate the rhythm that led them to the league's top offensive efficiency mark during the preseason.
Fisher made some adjustments to his rotations in the second quarter, shelving starting center Samuel Dalembert in favor of reserve Cole Aldrich, who provided a more active and stable interior presence, and getting some surprising defensive contributions from end-of-the-bench undrafted rookie Travis Wear. Big man Jason Smith showed the midrange shooting touch that made him an intriguing fit in the triangle, while also flashing a bit of defensive physicality that seemed to bother the Cavs, especially James, who finished 4-for-5 at the rim and 1-for-10 from everywhere else, and committed an uncharacteristic eight turnovers, including some ugly ones:
On a night when Cleveland looked to celebrate both James' return and the presence of a potentially championship-worthy supporting cast, it was the Knicks' role players who made the biggest impact. Shane Larkin looked much more comfortable in his second start in place of the injured Jose Calderon than he did against Chicago, scoring nine points to go with five assists and five steals in 28 minutes. Iman Shumpert hectored the Cavs' guards, actually made some shots (4-for-7 from the field) and attacked the basket to get himself to the line (4-for-5 from the stripe) en route to a dozen points.
Aldrich pulled down six boards and changed multiple shots in his 14 minutes of work. Hirsute banger Quincy Acy, who started in place of Amar'e Stoudemire, snared 10 caroms, including six on the offensive glass, with a pair coming on a single possession that ended with an emphatic tip dunk:
Acy's putback seemed emblematic of an approach that worked well for the Knicks — keep working and make them prove they're as good as we expect them to be — and neither James nor the Cavaliers could live up to the immense hype.
Cleveland's defense, expected to be its Achilles heel coming into the season, allowed the previously moribund Knicks to shoot 53.6 percent from the floor and score at the sort of elite clip (110.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool) that leads the league over the course of full seasons. A Cavs squad expected to slice opponents apart with its ball movement racked up 19 turnovers, leading to 26 Knicks points.
Blatt seemed to get caught flat-footed at times during the second half, passing up opportunities to take a timeout and stop the bleeding in favor of keeping the game flowing, which allowed the Knicks to build their lead. Irving often looked good on the attack, scoring a team-high 22 points on 15 shots to go with seven assists and five rebounds, but he missed five of his six triple tries and gave plenty back on the other end, to boot. Neither Dion Waiters nor Tristan Thompson looked especially ready for prime time; vaunted veteran additions Marion and Mike Miller barely saw playing time.
At the heart of it all, though, was James, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds, four assists and those eight unsightly cough-ups in 43 minutes of disappointing homecoming, capped by getting dotted by Anthony on the dagger. These struggles won't continue, of course; as was the case when he got off to a rough start after joining the Miami Heat in 2010, rhythm, continuity and chemistry will come with time, and the world's best basketball player will be able to shake off the stink of a bad night out. After all, it was just one out of 82, right? On to the next biggest sporting event ever.
That comes Friday, when the Cavaliers head to the Windy City to take on Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and a division-rival Bulls squad that has been waiting for this game all summer long. We'll see if James and his pals are ready for that battle now that the pomp and circumstance are out of their system.
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