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LeBron James made his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers lineup on Tuesday after missing two weeks with left knee pain and a strained back. His overall form after the longest layoff of his professional career looked to be a matter of some debate in the early going — on the plus side, sweet dunk; on the minus side, not-so-sweet transition defense — but his facilitating game sure seemed to be on point.
Don't believe me? Just ask Cavaliers head coach David Blatt, who found himself on the receiving end of James' assistance in moving away from the referees so that he didn't get a technical foul while complaining about an offensive foul call on James during the second quarter:
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That's the way it seemed to me, at least — Blatt was furious and about to get himself T'd up, and James wanted to step in front to A) plead his own case and B) give his coach the chance to cool off. That was Blatt's explanation after the game, too:
Because of the nature of LeBron's action, though — literally pushing the first-year Cavs coach back toward the bench — and the context in which it comes, with Cleveland scuffling along, and folks' memories stretching back to that time that James bumped Erik Spoelstra in the midst of some early-season struggles during his first year with the Miami Heat, LeBron's physical suggestion that his coach take a load off raised more than a few eyebrows on Tuesday night.
Including, it seemed, new Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith:
That look you're seeing is J.R. wondering why he never thought of just moving any of his past coaches out of the way so he could do the thing he wanted to do. Can it be that it was all so simple, all this time?
While it's unlikely that James' push speaks to any larger beef broiling between Bron-Bron and Blatt, it's equally unlikely that this clip — divorced from the actual in-game context in which it occurred, natch — won't garner an awful lot of the wrong kind of attention for a Cavs team that's had more than its fair share of that this season.
If Cleveland can begin to right the ship and rack up some wins with James back in the fold, stuff like this will all fade to the far recesses of our minds, like the Spo bump in the aftermath of four straight Finals trips and two NBA championships. If the Cavs continue to flail, though, every little thing — every jolt, shove and bristle — will keep generating headlines and headshakes. And after yet another loss on Tuesday, the rain will keep falling for at least one more day.
Despite a strong offensive performance by James (33 points on 11-for-18 shooting, seven rebounds, five assists in 37 minutes) in his return and ex-Knick Smith finding his outside stroke (29 points on 10-for-19 shooting, including an 8-for-14 mark from 3-point land, plus four steals) to turn in his best outing in wine-and-gold, the Cavs lost their sixth straight game, succumbing to the Suns, 107-100, to fall to 19-20 on the season, their first trip below .500 since before Thanksgiving. It's the latest that a LeBron team has had more losses than wins since his rookie season, and it's not just that the Cavs lost in James' comeback game, but how they lost, that seems most galling.
They got outworked early, late and often by Phoenix, headlined by some big late-game hustle plays by P.J. Tucker. They gave up clean look after clean look through their still-porous defense, which allowed the Suns to shoot 52.6 percent from the field. They fell behind by as many as 19 late in the third quarter, thanks in large part to their failure to take care of the ball; they committed 19 turnovers that led to 27 Phoenix points.
They got next to nothing out of expected supplemental stars Kyrie Irving (nine points on 4-for-14 shooting, with eight turnovers obscuring his six assists) and Kevin Love, whose poor shooting (nine points, 3-for-11 from the field) and poor defense (routinely torched by Markieff Morris, who posted a game-high 35 points on 15-for-21 shooting) landed him a seat on the bench for the bulk of the second half, including all of the fourth quarter, as the Cavs clawed their way back into it before petering out over the final 3 1/2 minutes. (That Love's benching came hot on the heels of Blatt's "Kevin's not a max player yet" comments figures to only inflame an already dicey situation.)
The Cavaliers still have time to get their house in order, integrate new pieces like Smith, center Timofey Mozgov and the still-working-his-way-back-from-injury Iman Shumpert, and find some semblance of harmony in which Blatt can get James, Irving and Love all operating at a high level at the same time. But it's starting to get late pretty early in Ohio, and the longer the Cavs go without figuring things out, the harder it's going to be for James, Blatt, general manager David Griffin, owner Dan GIlbert and anyone else associated with the franchise to cast this season as something other than a disappointment … especially now that push has literally come to shove.
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