Monday, March 20, 2006

Perking up

Sunday's LeBron James-Kobe Bryant matchup arrived with all the requisite LeBron-Kobe hype. The game was a nationally-televised matinee, the fact that the Cavaliers and Lakers are both treading water in the standings be damned.
To be any streakier, the Cavs would have to play naked. The .500-ish Lakers, meanwhile, might not even make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. At the outset, Sunday was most definitely all about LeBron and Kobe and not their semi-adequate supporting casts.
But that was early on.
Kobe went off for 38, LeBron for 29. Kobe was untouchable in the first half as the Lakers nearly melted The Q's support trusses by shooting 70 percent from the floor. LeBron hit his share of tough fadeaways, proving once again that he can rise to any challenge when he puts his mind to it.
It was Battle of the Network Superstars for three quarters. Then came the fourth quarter, and suddenly the game showed its true colors.
This wasn't an exhibition showcase for LeBron or Kobe. This was an ugly slugfest between two teams desperate to reach the playoffs.
The Cavs clamped down well enough on defense to muster a 15-0 fourth-quarter run sparked by Flip Murray, who is quickly becoming the best deadline acquisition by any team.
The 15-0 run erased a double-digit Laker lead that had existed for most of the game, putting Cleveland up 95-91 with two and a half minutes left. The Lakers fought back and tied the game at 95 with less than a minute remaining.
The deciding moment wasn't a poster photo for either superstar. It was a questionable reach-in foul Kobe committed on Murray with 3.4 seconds left.
Murray went to the line, clanged the first and hit the second. On the ensuing inbound pass, the Lakers responded with the type of late-game mental breakdown the Cavs have become famous for. Luke Walton had a timeout to call when the play wasn't developing, but instead forced a pass to Kobe near halfcourt.
Kobe drove and hoisted the type of long fadeaway three he has made many times in the past. This one, however, drew rim and nothing else, and the Cavs escaped with a 96-95 win.
LeBron gathered his teammates for a postgame huddle. Usually, wins over .500 teams in March shouldn't provoke unbridled relief, but this win, Cleveland's 38th of the year, might have finally convinced this team that they are indeed headed to the playoffs.
Kobe, meanwhile, was left to air out his frustration to the media. He called the reach-in foul on Murray "very clean," telling all the microphones that he touched nothing but ball.
This is March basketball in the NBA. Prettiness and poster dunks take a backseat to the dog-eat-dog reality of winning any way you can. To the Cavs' credit, that's what they did Sunday.

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