WASHINGTON: LeBron James liked what he saw on Friday (Saturday in Manila) as the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back from a disappointing defeat with a hard-fought 112-105 win over the Hornets in Charlotte.
James just missed a triple-double with 32 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds, and the others in the Cavs’ Big Three also had big nights as Kyrie Irving scored 26 points and Kevin Love finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
Most importantly, to James’s thinking, was Cleveland’s intensity and defensive effort, something he felt was lacking in a 126-113 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.
“I liked our disposition tonight,” James said after the Cavaliers held the Hornets to 42.2 percent shooting from the field. “We came in with a physical mindset and basically that helped us win the game because it was physical from the start right down to the finish.”
Late in the second quarter, the Cavs’ J.R. Smith was knocked down by a Cody Zeller pick. Love got his right arm and shoulder tangled with the arms of Marvin Williams going for a rebound in the third quarter, and James received a poke in the eye in the third as he drove for a layup.
After the game James was diagnosed with a corneal abrasion, which could see him miss Saturday’s game against the Washington Wizards.
But Cleveland toughed it out for a victory that, coupled with the Indiana Pacers’ 125-117 loss to the Nuggets, saw the Cavaliers clinch the Central Division title.
They stayed one game ahead of the Boston Celtics for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
“The effort was definitely there,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “The guys took the challenge. We helped, got back out.
“That team shot 42 percent from the field. So the effort was great. That’s how we’ve got to play. That’s who we are.”
The right buttons
The Cavaliers led by as many as 12 in the first half and never trailed in the second.
Charlotte pulled as close as 100-99, but the Cavs responded with a 7-0 run on a three-pointer from J.R. Smith and baskets from Love and James.
“I think coach did a great job of pushing the right buttons tonight,” James said. “Every lineup that he had out there did a good job of trying to play the way we want to play.”
He was encouraged by the performance of the unit on the floor late — the team’s star trio along with Smith and Kyle Korver.
“The lineup at the end is going to be a very good lineup if we can continue to get stops and be physical defensively and rebound the ball,” he said. “If we can do that, we’ll be pretty good.”
James was 9 of 14 from the field and 14 of 16 from the free-throw line on a night when the Cavs finished at 55.4 percent from the field and 21 of 24 from the line.
The Hornets saw their three-game winning streak end, a blow as they scramble for a playoff berth.
They remain 11th in the Eastern Conference and are now three full games behind eighth-ranked Miami.