CLEVELAND – LeBron James didn’t have to be superhuman against the New Jersey Nets, so he wasn’t.
With James doing just enough to help them maintain their flow before turning it on in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers cruised to a 104-97 victory over the Nets on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
The game pitted the the team with the best record in the league, Cleveland (42-11), against the squad with the worst mark in the NBA, New Jersey (4-47). Predictably, the Cavaliers now have a 12-game winning streak, the longest in the league this season, while the Nets lost for the seventh straight time.
The Cavaliers played without guards Mo Williams (strained shoulder) and Delonte West (fracture finger), while the Nets were minus guard Devin Harris (mild shoulder sprain).
Injuries played no role in the outcome, though, as Cleveland was simply the better team.
That starts with James, who seemed to have a hard time getting motivated against one of the teams that supposedly has a chance of signing him this summer – music mogul Jay-Z is a close friend and part owner of the Nets – but still wound up with 32 points, three rebounds and 11 assists.
The 6-foot-8, 250-pound small forward spent most of the night on cruise control, but turned his game up a notch in the fourth quarter, when he scored 13 points. Counting free throws made to finish a three-point play after a James pass or bucket, the seventh-year pro scored or assisted on 22 of his team’s 26 points in the fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers led by 17 in that period but never completely put New Jersey away, resulting in James not only playing the entire second half, but also padding his stats down the stretch on a night when Cleveland wasn’t great, but played well enough to beat an inferior opponent.
“A 12-game winning streak is impressive,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “You want to be greedy as a coach. You want to play better defense than you did the last game, but our guys have earned a 12-game winning streak.”
On a night when a decent supply of energy and effort was about all that was needed to assure victory, Anderson Varejao and Jawad Williams supplied it. Varejao hustled all over the court en route to 15 points and nine rebounds, while Williams scored a career-high 17 points.
The Cavaliers began to turn things up in the second quarter when Shaquille O’Neal (7 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks) pinned Brook Lopez’s shot on the backboard, then took a few dribbles to start the fast break before dishing to James, who lobbed to Varejao for a dunk.
Thirteen of Varejao’s points, including an old-fashioned hook shot, came in the first half, while 12 of Williams’ came in the second.
“It was good to see Anderson come off the bench and give us a lift at both ends of the floor. And Jawad,” Brown said. “It was fun to watch those guys.”
The Cavaliers actually trailed by eight in the first period, when James repeatedly left Jarvis Hayes (19 points) open for jump shots, but they cut the lead to one by the end of the quarter, then outscored the Nets by nine points during the 5:39 their superstar sat on the bench to start the second period.
From there, it was mainly a matter of staying interested, as the Cavaliers did enough right to stay ahead and enough wrong to keep New Jersey in the game.
Courtney Lee had 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Nets, who have better talent than their record indicates and are competitive most nights, while Lopez overcame a slow start to put up 23 points and 14 boards.
“We played tough again and we had a shot at the end of the game,” Lopez said. “That’s just probably the best team, the toughest team in the league right now.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.