LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers can relax a little. They haven’t lost their touch, despite a rough start to this experimental season.
Determined to get the Cavaliers to play a complete game, James had 24 points and nine rebounds in Cleveland’s first victory of the season, 104-87 over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday.
“If they continue to play hard like they did tonight and move the ball like they did,” coach Mike Brown said, “we’re going to get some wins while we’re going through this process.”
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James took most of the fourth quarter off, finishing with six assists in 34 minutes and avoiding his first 0-3 start in five years. He shot 10 for 18 from the field while the Cavaliers used the renovated Timberwolves to revive their defense, which allowed an average of 98 points in defeats by Boston and Toronto this week.
They were better offensively, too, thanks to that crisp ball movement.
Mo Williams added 20 points with six assists and no turnovers, after a mutual effort to get him going. Zydrunas Ilgauskus had 11 of his 15 points in the first half to help make up for some early lulls, and Daniel Gibson drained three 3-pointers during a 3-minute stretch of the fourth quarter to end any faint hope the Wolves had of repeating their rally from two nights earlier.
Shaquille O’Neal picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter, which let the Cavs briefly revert to their pre-Shaq look.
“We kind of know how to feel off each other and go off each other,” James said. “When Big Fella got into some foul trouble, that cohesiveness that we’ve had in the past regained itself.”
That’s the challenge for Brown, James and the rest of the team — figuring out how to incorporate O’Neal into the lineup without slowing it down.
“It’s hard for new guys, with the offense that we’re running and defensively. We do things different than most teams,” Ilgauskus said. “So it’ll take a little while for Shaq to get comfortable, and it’ll take a while for us to get to know where he wants the ball. He’s a force in the middle. Obviously when he’s out there we need to use him.”
Al Jefferson, working his way back into form from knee surgery in February, had a quiet 12 points and eight rebounds with O’Neal jockeying for room with him underneath. Jefferson wished aloud beforehand he hadn’t lost those 30 pounds during rehab, because of this matchup with the behemoth O’Neal, who had six points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes.
The Wolves have an even bigger experiment in the works, trying to learn the “triangle” system under new coach Kurt Rambis. He’s taking a patient approach toward this young team.
“The Cleveland Cavaliers can go out there and play with teams. … No matter what’s going on, they’ve got somebody who can create opportunities and get anywhere he wants on the floor,” Rambis said. “We don’t have players like that, so we’ll have to fight, scratch and claw from the opening tip on.”
Jonny Flynn had 17 points for the Wolves, who again missed Kevin Love’s rebounding ability. They overcame that deficiency to turn a 16-point deficit against New Jersey on Wednesday into a buzzer-beating victory.
“Of course you’re going to struggle a bit with a new offense, an offense we never ran before,” Jefferson said. “The only time we ever ran this offense is preparing to play the Lakers in shootaround or practice.”
During the 12-2 run the Cavs used to stretch their lead late in the second quarter, James was the picture of cool.
He spent the first part of the period on the bench, watching the Wolves take a pair of one-point leads with their subs in, but shortly after re-entry he finished a fast break with a determined drive and spin dribble for a layup, foul and three-point play.
Then after a steal by Anthony Parker, James raced to the hoop again and threw down a dunk from a foot or so inside the free throw line. His pull-up jumper gave the Cavs their biggest lead of the half, 51-38.
NOTES: Delonte West was inactive again for the Cavaliers. He hasn’t played yet because of personal issues. … Rambis was given permission from the medical staff to stretch Jefferson’s playing time. Bothered by a sore Achilles’ tendon this month, Jefferson has played 25 minutes in each of the first two games. The key will be how he feels the day after. “During the game he’s probably going to feel fine,” Rambis said. “We just don’t want to stress him too much that we send him backwards.” … Vikings offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie, who could probably post up Shaq at 6-foot-8 and 335 pounds, sat courtside. He posted a picture on his Twitter feed and exclaimed: “I’m so close I can trip the ref!”