CLEVELAND — Editor's note: the video in the player above is from a previous story.
On Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted old friend LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a game that wasn’t quite a must-win for the Wine and Gold, but would have gone a long way for them in clinching a spot in the playoffs.
Instead, James showed up, and there was nothing that could be done to stop the best basketball player of all time.
Monday night was the 18th time that James has faced the Cavaliers in his career. He’s an impressive 17-1 in those games, with the lone loss coming back in 2011 while he was a member of the Miami Heat. This was, however, the first time that he stepped foot inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse -- or Quicken Loans Arena, as it was formerly known -- while playing for the team with the worse record. Every time that James has come back home to Cleveland, whether it be with Miami or Los Angeles, he’s been on the better team.
That’s no longer the case after Monday night, which makes his stellar performance against the Cavaliers available to be viewed through a different lens.
While sitting in the media section on Monday night, it was difficult to be anything but in awe of what James is still able to do on the court. He’s in his 19th season in the NBA and turned 37 years old. Guys that have those sorts of miles on them aren’t supposed to still be in the NBA, let alone put on the type of show that James did.
He took control of the game, just as he has done hundreds of times in Cleveland, to the tune of 38 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists, a block, and a steal in a 131-120 Lakers win. He was the best player on the floor during a game in which Cavs guard Darius Garland racked up 29 points and 17 assists, and there was absolutely no doubt about it.
Watching from section 104 inside the building on Monday created a few thoughts about James and what it was like watching him terrorize the Cavs in a different uniform.
It’s a shame the Lakers have surrounded him with the failure of a roster that they have. The Russell Westbrook experience in person is just as bad as it looks on TV. Every time he has the ball on the perimeter, opposing fans are screaming for him to shoot because of what the likely result is. There was a sequence on Monday in which Westbrook air-balled a three and then was stripped by Garland in the backcourt before fouling him to put the Cavs guard at the line for a pair of free throws. Westbrook actually had one of his better games lately on Monday, but it still felt sort of sad to watch a former MVP’s play deteriorate the way his has. The trade for Westbrook has to be one of the worst that’s been made on a James-led team in his entire career.
There’s debate out there about who the greatest to ever play basketball is. Some will say Michael Jordan and others, like this author, will say it’s James. Simply put, there has never been anybody that has been this good at every facet of the game of basketball, let alone being this good for this long. Over the weekend, James surpassed Karl Malone for second all-time on the NBA’s regular-season scoring list after claiming the top spot on the combined scoring list -- regular season and playoffs -- earlier in the year. On Monday night, he claimed the top spot in the NBA’s current scoring title chase. James is now averaging 30 points per game as he attempts to will this Lakers team to the playoffs. It’s just the third time in his illustrious career he's averaged 30 or more points per game, and he’s currently in line to win his second scoring title. Over his last nine games, he’s averaging 35.7 points per game on 54 percent shooting and 38 percent from 3-point range. Those things don’t happen in anyone’s 19th season. No one has ever come close to being this good for this long.
While watching James, it was also fun to dream a little bit and make jokes about James and "future teammate" Evan Mobley battling in the post. But behind every joke, there’s a grain of truth -- or in this case, hope -- that James one day could find himself back in Cleveland for one last trip toward an NBA championship. The Cavaliers certainly have built a young core that would be worth James’ time. If he doesn’t return to Cleveland, the Cavs are in a great spot for the future, but thinking about adding him to the trio of Garland, Mobley, and All-Star center Jarrett Allen currently in place has to make even the most pessimistic Cavs fan excited.
Lastly, while sitting there during the fourth quarter as James was surgically destroying the Cavs with turnaround jumpers and thunderous dunks, a text from an old friend popped up. It read, "it’s not as fun when LeBron is doing it to us.”
When seeing that text, it brought back memories of James ripping out the hearts of fans of various franchises over the years during his Cavaliers tenure, primarily from 2014-2018. The Toronto Raptors built some of their best teams in franchise history, just to be routinely embarrassed when May rolled around for three straight seasons. The Boston Celtics met the Cavaliers in the playoffs in three straight years, and James put to rest their season with punishment worse than he received when Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett teamed up before 2007-08 season. The Atlanta Hawks won a franchise-record 60 games and earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference in 2015 before James and a Cavs team that was already missing Kevin Love and only featured Kyrie Irving for 49 minutes, promptly dismissed them in a four-game sweep. The next year, James and a fully-heathy Cavs team swept the Hawks again, even after Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague yelled out, “not this year!” after making a jumper early in Game 1.
For a night, James’ performance against a Cavs team brought glimpses of what it must have felt like being on the other side of all of his legendary performances in the playoffs. The stakes on Monday were smaller, but they still existed, and James’ performance reminded everyone why he’s still the greatest.