CLEVELAND – LeBron James walked out of the night with a snarl curled on his lips, his angry words to Kevin Garnett still lingering in the raucous roar of a standing ovation. He is playing out of his mind, the best basketball in the world, and something about these Celtics inspired a rage to rise within him. Garnett has come to take James’ championship dream, and it wouldn’t be long until it was getting nasty on Tuesday night, until LeBron was barking back at Garnett for some slight, some indiscretion.
The thing is, James doesn’t want to be buddies with the Celtics. He refuses to call them the Big Three. Above all, LeBron isn’t interested in bowing before Boston and surrendering the Eastern Conference.
“Nobody in here is afraid of anything,” he grumbled in the locker room.
Around him at the Q Arena, there wasn’t so much talent Tuesday night, but he doesn’t care. The rest of the NBA wants perfect circumstances, rosters to make life easier for them. Yes, James has urged GM Danny Ferry to get him a point guard, but he has never belittled his teammates, only uplifted them. In a 109-104 overtime victory, James had 38 points and 13 assists, including a numbing barrage of baskets and passes and steals in the fourth quarter and overtime to beat Boston.
So far, he is the MVP of the season. For all the greatness coast to coast in the NBA, there still isn’t a close second. Across the past eight games, he’s averaging 38 points, 10 rebounds and nearly 10 assists. For the season, he’s going for 31, eight and eight. The Cavaliers have been largely living on the road so far, but they’re still 9-6 and the more you watch James, the more you come to believe: Besides Boston, he still makes the Cavs the next best team in the East.
There is too little talent surrounding him, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the beauty of LeBron these days, the staggering reality of his greatness. He keeps getting better and better and better. Anderson Varejao is still unsigned in Brazil and threatening that he’ll never play for the Cavaliers again. Larry Hughes is out until December. Donyell Marshall is done until January. The Cavaliers’ bench is dreadful. Only, it doesn’t matter.
“Whoever’s on my team will be successful,” James said.
This was a direct message to Varejao, the 6-foot-10 Brazilian whose contract negotiations have reached a nasty impasse. Varejao had been asking for $60 million, an irrational request out of a player whom James made look much better than is. Privately, Varejao keeps telling James that he still wants to play for the Cavaliers. Yet, Monday, Varejao’s agent, Dan Fegan, apparently set him up with a writer to say he wants a sign-and-trade out of Cleveland. He’s rejecting the reported $32 million that Cleveland has offered him, and he thinks there are bigger riches on the market for him.
Maybe there’s a few more dollars, but not much more. Fegan has his client talking tough and he’s committing career suicide. He’ll never have it as good as chasing championships next to James for years and years. Varejao is letting Fegan use him to get his reputation back after the Yi Jianlian draft debacle, and that’s a shame. To hear Varejao insist he wants out is troubling to James. As much as anything, LeBron seems offended that a teammate would no longer want to play with him.
“If he’s got a problem with the front office, then he’s young enough where he can go somewhere else,” James said.
Asked if he was resigned to going the season without Varejao, James responded, “It doesn’t look like I’m playing basketball thinking about Andy coming back, does it?”
Not so much, no. Listen, Varejao is a hustle player with limited offensive skill who makes his living off James’ generosity with the ball. For now, the rest of these Cavaliers are witnesses to James’ nightly barrage on the memory of Oscar Robertson. “He lives to get those triple-doubles every night,” Marshall said.
Most of all, he lives to perfect a game that is rapidly devoid of trouble spots. All summer with Team USA, he worked and worked and worked on his jump shot. The NBA finals embarrassed him. The sweep to the Spurs stayed with him much stronger than the sweet success of the season’s journey. When the rest of his teammates were still sleeping in Las Vegas on summer mornings in the FIBA Americas tournament, James trailed Jason Kidd down to the gymnasium for extra shooting. Along with defense, that was one of the two holes in his game. His jump shot has transformed, and his defense, Celtics coach Doc Rivers marveled, “is scarily different this year.”
Before Kidd and Kobe Bryant joined the national team this summer, James had been a part of American Olympic and World Championships failures in 2004 and 2006, respectively. He did little to endear himself to coaches, teammates and staff within USA Basketball. Truth be told, he was a major diva. Several sources say that USA coach Mike Krzyzewski initially had deep reservations about keeping James, but quickly discovered the NBA would never allow James to be anything but front and center in Beijing.
Yet everything changed this past summer. Perhaps it was the leadership of Kidd and Bryant, or perhaps just maturity, but James was a model teammate. “He’s a sponge,” Ferry said. “When you’re around someone like Jason Kidd, like Kobe, it had a positive effect on him.”
Between the holdouts of Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic, the injuries, and the inability of Ferry to make a substantive move in the offseason, James’ patience had every reason to be tested. Whatever frustrations James held private, he has largely funneled them into a ferocity to grow his game. The way he’s playing basketball right now, there isn’t a player on the planet who can touch him. Most frightening of all, he’s still 22 years old.
“It sounds crazy, but he can be playing better than what he’s playing,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “He has not reached his peak yet.”
He isn’t close and maybe this was the message to the Celtics on Tuesday night, to Kevin Garnett, the superstar who came East to take King James’ conference championship throne. They barked, and battled, and there were no plastic smiles or phony hugs when James’ deed was done at the end of overtime. God, it was great.
So sure, the Celtics are still the team to beat in the East, but James made it clear that he’s conceding nothing to the shiny magazine covers and gaudy press clippings of Boston’s new Big Three. He is bigger, stronger and better. After beating the Celtics, he walked out of the Q with a snarl on his lips and a chip on his shoulder. LeBron James surrenders nothing.