NBA: Cavs, Lakers to get reacquainted
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — Seconds after LeBron James and his Cavaliers teammates dismissed the Toronto Raptors, one excited Cleveland fan began a solitary chant.
“Beat L.A., Beat L.A.,” he screamed.
Dude, chill. It’s January.
But maybe not too early to dream about June.
After all, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are coming.
In possible NBA finals preview Thursday night, Cleveland will host the Los Angeles Lakers, who have a score to settle after being embarrassed 102-87 by the Cavs on Christmas Day. It was a lump-of-coal-in-the-stocking-loss that ended with irate Lakers fans tossing foam fingers — and a few filled water bottles — onto the Staples Center court in anger.
With Mo Williams scoring 28 points, James adding 26 and Shaquille O’Neal acting as their enforcer, the Cavaliers bullied the defending NBA champions, whose frustration level led to them retaliating with some cheap shots and being slapped with several technical fouls.
“We didn’t like that Christmas game,” Lakers center Pau Gasol said. “It was very disappointing on our part. We’ve got to try to get that ballgame when we play them again. We need to do that. You never want a team to get the confidence they can beat you, especially when it’s somebody you might see down the road in the playoffs.”
The stop in Cleveland begins a demanding, eight-game road trip for the Lakers (32-9), who have the league’s best record in part because of a favorable schedule. They’ve played just 15 road games — compared to 25 for the Cavs — and the imbalance has helped Los Angeles open a five-game lead over Dallas in the Western Conference.
That could change depending on how the Lakers handle a stretch of eight games in 13 days, including three sets of back-to-backs. Last season, Los Angeles went 6-0 on a similar Eastern trip that helped propel the Lakers to a title.
First, though, they want to erase the memories of an unhappy holiday that was particularly hazardous for forward Ron Artest.
“That Christmas game was tough, and then that whole day wasn’t too good for me, anyway,” said Artest, who suffered a concussion in a fall at home hours after the loss to Cleveland. “We feel like we’re a better team now than when we played them before.”
The Cavaliers believe they are better, too.
At 32-11, Cleveland has the best record in the East, and with 23 of their final 39 games at home, the Cavs have a chance to run away from Boston, Orlando and Atlanta, their closest competitors in the conference. They just returned from a West Coast trip, where they displayed some bad habits — a tendency to rely too heavily on James — and also some new offensive wrinkles with O’Neal on the floor.
In Tuesday night’s win over Toronto, O’Neal was the difference maker on both ends as the Cavs beat the improved Raptors for the 10th straight time at home. It’s taken longer than expected, but Cleveland coach Mike Brown may have finally figured out how to best utilize the super-sized center, whose offensive game isn’t what it once was but whose defensive presence remains unmatched.
O’Neal hammered Raptors guards Jarrett Jack and DeMar DeRozan with hard-but-clean fouls in the third quarter that ignited Cleveland’s defense, which gave up 60 points in the first half.
“He’s a guy from the old school,” Brown said of O’Neal, who also surpassed 28,000 career points in the win. “He’s not going to give up anything easy around the basket.”
That was the case when the Lakers and Cavaliers met last month. Bryant scored 35 points, but few were easy and he finished just 11 of 32 from the field. And, on more than one occasion, he ran into O’Neal, his former, formidable teammate.
“He definitely had a presence in the game,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “I do know it was a factor on Kobe. (Shaq) knocked him down about four times without a call.”
Down the stretch against Toronto, the Cavaliers ran their offense through O’Neal, who couldn’t be stopped by any of the Raptors. Brown ran four consecutive plays to O’Neal in the low post and he produced two assists and a dunk in a 9-2 spurt to put the game away.
“It is great to have that luxury,” James said. “Shaq is an unselfish guy and it is great to have that interior presence.”
Jackson doesn’t want his team to get too caught up in Thursday’s matchup or the Lakers’ upcoming trip, which will take the club to New York on Friday and won’t conclude until Feb. 1 in Memphis.
“Last year’s road trip jump-started our season,” he said. “I’m setting a low bar for this team, though. We don’t need to put too much emphasis on the entire trip as a whole. We just need to play good, solid games and avoid injuries, starting in Cleveland. We don’t assign a whole lot extra importance to that game, even though it is an interesting game.”