With injuries up and down the roster, his head coach taking a leave of absence and a tangle of teams all jockeying for position in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race, LeBron James knows the Cleveland Cavaliers need everything he can give them. So, on Monday against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, he once again gave them everything.
James carried Cleveland’s offense with 17 points in the third quarter and kept the Bucks at bay late, scoring a game-high 40 points on 16-for-29 shooting to lead the Cavs to a 124-117 win in their first game without Tyronn Lue, who announced Monday morning he’d be taking a leave of absence to address health problems that have plagued him this season. James also pulled down 12 rebounds and dished 10 assists in his 40 minutes of floor time, giving him his 16th triple-double of the season — second only to Russell Westbrook, and the most he’s ever had in a single season — and his third in the last four games for the Cavs, who have now won three of four to improve to 41-29 on the season.
That puts Cleveland in third place in the East, a half-game up on the No. 4 Indiana Pacers, a full game up on the No. 5 Washington Wizards, and 1 1/2 games up on the No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers, all of whom are looking to oust LeBron and company from the top half of the bracket so that they can ensure home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Indy, Washington, and Philly closing in and LeBron delivers 40-12-10. Man.
— M. Haubs (@mhaubs) March 20, 2018
James led six Cavs in double figures, including — and most notably! — center Kevin Love. The long-lost All-Star returned to the court for his first action since suffering a broken bone in his left hand on Jan. 30, and since disclosing that he suffered a panic attack during a game earlier this season, and has begun seeing a therapist, and he looked strong in limited playing time, scoring 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting to go with seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 25 minutes.
The Cavs led by eight after James’ phenomenal third quarter, which saw him pour in 17 points and knock in three 3-pointers, including one from about two steps clear of the half-court logo …
Let it fly, LBJ!
— NBA (@NBA) March 20, 2018
… and summarily discarding Thon Maker to throw down a vicious driving dunk that somehow doesn’t even qualify as his best one of the week …
… before capping it with a short fadeaway jumper that pushed the lead to 93-85 entering the final frame. In a pleasant surprise, his teammates repaid him in kind, extending the advantage to 13 with him on the bench at the start of the fourth behind a pair of long balls from noted paleontology expert Jordan Clarkson (17 points in 28 minutes off the bench) and some aggressive play from reserve big man Ante Zizic (13 points and six rebounds, four on the offensive glass, in 17 minutes).
“It did hurt us a lot,” Antetokounmpo said of the early-fourth stretch after the game, according to Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “They had the second unit in and that was the chance for us to get some easy points and make a run but we didn’t. They made the run and then you’ve got the starters coming back in, you’ve got LeBron coming back in, and it’s tough now.”
The Cavs needed that extra offensive juice from the second unit, as well as everything James could muster, to hold off a comeback led by the world-devouring, highlight-reel-stuffing Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak scored 19 of his team-high 37 points in the fourth, attacking and getting himself to the foul line time and again to try to chop down Cleveland’s lead.
The Bucks got within eight on a pair of Giannis freebies with 1:50 left, and had a chance to get within two possessions on their next offensive trip, but Eric Bledsoe’s 3-point try came up empty, and LeBron promptly raced through the entire Milwaukee defense and rammed the ball down the Bucks’ throats to push the lead back to double-digits: