What we learned from LeBron James' 57-point outburst

WASHINGTON – You keep waiting for him to fade and he hits you with another turnaround fadeaway. You try to be cute and predict the decline and he continues to attack the rim like a scud missile, destroying everything in sight and making you gaze up in awe. You take him for granted and he makes you appreciate him again. You could probably count on one hand the number of times in recent years that LeBron James was supposed to cede control of the title of the game’s best player but he keeps adjusting, keeps evolving and keeps finding new ways to confuse and amaze.

James went supernova again, on a night when his team would’ve failed if he had done anything but explode against the Washington Wizards. But these moments become more admirable as he grows older, because you know this brilliance will eventually come to an end. With his 57-point performance in a game the Cleveland Cavaliers had to have, James was able to calm, for at least 24 hours, the panic that has suddenly surrounded a team that is realizing the difficulty in making four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers have had losing streaks since James returned but never against four straight mediocre teams and never in such lopsided fashion. They were in their ninth game of the season and desperately needed a win.

“Like an old lady needs soft shoes,” Dwyane Wade said after the Cavaliers’ 130-122 victory.

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That they needed James to uncork one of the best games of his already legendary career hinted at the severity of the problems the Cavaliers have encountered this season, problems that feel different and won’t be fixed as easily as in the past. But before breaking down the flaws of the most vulnerable team that James has led since returning home, his performance requires more appreciation.

LeBron James gestures after a basket during the second half of his 57-point performance against the Wizards. (AP)
LeBron James gestures after a basket during the second half of his 57-point performance against the Wizards. (AP)

James has been so good for so long that his milestones are often greeted with yawns. No matter the outcome, James was bound to make history on Friday because he needed only eight points to become the youngest – and seventh overall – to reach 29,000 career points (remember when he entered the league and he wasn’t expected to be much of a scorer? Probably not). He waited until he was nearly two months shy of his 33rd birthday to have his highest-scoring game in a Cavaliers uniform, tying a franchise record set by Kyrie Irving, the former teammate whose offseason departure necessitated a monster performance. He also became just the second player in NBA history to score at least 50 points in his 15th season or beyond. The other was Kobe Bryant, who scored 60 points in a shoot-it-until-the-arm-falls-off 20-year-career finale that carried little significance for either team on the court.

The Wizards fancy themselves as a darkhorse contender but one play in the third quarter seemed to encapsulate how helpless the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference have felt over the past seven years in which James has refused to surrender control. Bradley Beal missed a driving layup and fell on his backside when James snared the rebound and started to lead the break. Beal reached up as high as he could. But James turned into a 110-meter hurdler and cleared him with ease, without even getting touched.

James has been tormenting fans in this building since most members of this Wizards team were in middle school. And the Wizards didn’t help themselves by going single coverage with a wee-bitty lineup, which James brutally exploited. “I guess they figured at some point I’d miss. I did. I missed 11 shots,” said James, who made the same number of field goals as his jersey number.

The Cavaliers’ problems didn’t end with James leaving another reminder that he didn’t leave his best scoring efforts behind during his South Beach sojourn. They remain a terrible defensive team that will struggle to keep teams out of the paint with Tristan Thompson sidelined for at least the next month with a strained left calf. They will need another player, possibly two, to relieve James of the playmaking and scoring burden. Former MVP Derrick Rose did his part, depositing his first 20-point game of the season, and Jae Crowder had his best game since coming over from Boston. But they’ll need another special player to emerge, and James said, “We still have a 30-point scorer, All-Star point guard that’s coming soon. That’s exciting.”

Isaiah Thomas’s return won’t help the Cavaliers on the defensive end but he will add another dynamic offensively that will spare James from having to bail out his team by playing 43 minutes. The Cavaliers still need more from J.R. Smith and Wade, who admitted that he would’ve never envisioned himself playing in Cleveland before this season. They are a team with recognizable names, but the pieces still have to find a way to become a cohesive group with lineups that actually make sense on the floor. They are older, so they won’t be able to just out-talent teams as they’ve done in the past.

If the Cavaliers learned anything from their win over the Wizards, it’s that there is generally a reward waiting for teams that play harder than their opponents. They also discovered what they already knew: James isn’t done being special by any means, and this latest challenge – with a team that elicits some doubt – will continue to inspire those moments of greatness than can only be authored by the best player of his generation.

“Got to figure out a way to motivate yourself to get back to that top level of the game,” James said. “I know where my mind is. I’ve done it for seven straight years, so I know how to get back in the flow of things. I know how to mentally prepare myself for the long haul, so it’s going to be challenging but I think we should be up for it.”

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