NBA

Lakers, fans lose cool in Cavs' beatdown

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Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James reacts during the second half against the Los Angeles...
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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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LOS ANGELES

With 4:04 remaining and the Lakers on the receiving end of their fifth technical foul, a cascade of yellow foam promotional hands came down from the stands.

It was quite a departure for the famously laid-back crowd, not to mention a flagrant violation of the holiday spirit. Those who took comfort in the fact that foam projectiles aren’t usually fatal ignored a couple (or was it several?) water bottles also hurled from the gallery.

Then again, the well-heeled and usually groovy crowd was only emulating its heroes. As it happened, Lamar Odom was thrown out of the game while Derek Fisher threw a shoulder that Ronnie Lott would’ve admired.

“Not a very nice way to spend Christmas,” Phil Jackson said.

Actually, that depends on your perspective. Don’t let the afternoon’s ignominious conclusion fool you. In deconstructing the Lakers, 102-87, the Cleveland Cavaliers provided a great service for fans of professional basketball. The Lakers remain the game’s best and most talented team. But with Christmas Day now in evidence, they can be beat. What’s more, they can be beat down. That should be a source of solace through the dog days of February and March. If nothing else, the Cavs have preserved some suspense.

Truth is, having been so convincingly swept by the Lakers last season, no one expected too much from Cleveland. Now one is left to find explanations in effort — “They played harder than we did,”  Kobe Bryant said, “simple as that” — and statistics. It’s worth noting, for example, that 6-foot-1 Mo Williams scored 28 points. That’s what Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher scored — combined.

Still, Williams is a perimeter shooter. And as good as he was, the game was neither won nor lost on the perimeter. To my mind, the difference between this year and last was Shaquille O’Neal. He has been playing the fool for a couple of years now. Even with four championship rings, he might still go down as an underachiever. Finally, in his 17th season, he’s less than half what he was in his prime.

But that just may be enough for the Cleveland Cavaliers. O’Neal’s line in the box score was a modest one: 5-for-8 from the field, 1-for-4 from the line, seven rebounds, five fouls and 22 minutes. But those numbers do nothing to describe his outsized presence on the court. He has made himself small these past couple of years, rapping about Kobe and being so willingly miscast in the Phoenix offense. Still, you forget how big he is and how difficult he makes life for those who trespass into the lane.

Difference between this year and last? Simple, Cleveland coach Mike Brown said: “I think they felt us defensively.”

It began with O’Neal. With 4:48 remaining in the first quarter, he fouled Gasol. It wasn’t flagrant, but its purpose was unmistakable. “I fouled him hard,”  O’Neal said. “They fouled me hard. That’s how big guys play.”

True enough, but Gasol — who averaged 20 points against last year’s Shaq-less Cavs — would score only six more the rest of the game. Andrew Bynum, a formidably talented center now in his fifth professional season, went 2-for-5 while playing more than 26 minutes.

With LeBron James, the Cavaliers had long fancied themselves contenders. But even before they lost to Orlando in the playoffs, last season’s games with the Lakers — both double-digit losses — seemed to disabuse them of the notion. Brown admitted there was no way to match up with a pair of 7-footers like Gasol and Bynum and a 6-foot-10 forward like Odom coming off the bench.

“That’s part of the reason we got Shaq,” he said.

There was another part. Size and muscle don’t matter without the wherewithal to use them. “I’ve never seen him do anything dirty,”  Brown said. “But if he fouls you, you’re going to feel it.”

The game got out of hand in the third quarter when the Cavaliers built a 20-point lead. During that same stretch, Kobe Bryant shot 3-for-8 without being awarded so much as a foul shot. O’Neal, for his part, did a good job not to foul, or at least, not to lunge or leave his feet.

Bryant kept going to the hole. And as his frustration mounted, so did the fans’. It was the fourth quarter before O’Neal was whistled for a wincingly hard foul on Bryant. By then, it was over except for the hurling of the foam hands.

The reigning MVP would finish 11-for-32 from the field. But those are more numbers that miss the point. Whatever credit is due the Lakers belongs entirely to him. For Kobe Bryant was the only one willing to challenge his erstwhile teammate and eternal adversary.

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