Put your MVP arguments for Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Brandon Roy or anyone else aside. Yesterday’s matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers featured the NBA’s two biggest stars. They are LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and neither one has won an MVP award—yet.
LeBron’s Cavs won back in December when they met the Lakers in Cleveland. With no football on TV, Sunday’s center stage was all set for the rematch, and the game lived up to the hype.
The Lakers led 26-24 after one quarter. The Cavs rallied back to take a 49-40 halftime lead. Then the Lakers dropped 31 points in the third to reclaim a 71-69 lead. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers extended that lead to 84-75 with just over eight minutes to play and it looked as if the Lakers would ride the momentum to split the season series with the Cavs.
Instead, LeBron led the Cavs back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 98-95, making a bold MVP statement in the process. View extended game highlights here.
Kobe was good, but LeBron was better. Kobe scored 33 points on 10-of-21 shooting. LeBron netted 41 on 16-of-32 shooting. Kobe may be missing Andrew Bynum, but LeBron’s supporting cast includes no one as skilled as Lamar Odom or big game tested like Derek Fisher.
I had made some “Kobe for MVP” claims to friends in recent weeks, but after watching LeBron’s Cavs beat Kobe’s Lakers twice this year, my MVP vote today would go to LeBron, hands down.
What stood out most of all in this one was crunch time. That’s usually Kobe time. He’s made a career out of late game heroics. But LeBron outperformed him on Sunday. After Luke Walton split a pair of free throws to give the Lakers a 93-92 lead with 1:28 to play, LeBron shined while Kobe fizzled. Just look at the play-by-play breakdown.
1:15 – LeBron James makes driving layup (94-93 Cavs)
1:07 – Kobe Bryant offensive foul
0:54 – Larry Hughes misses 6-foot jumper
0:53 – Ronny Turiaf defensive rebound
0:42 – Lamar Odom misses layup
0:40 – Ira Newble defensive rebound
0:20 – LeBron James makes 22-foot jumper (96-93 Cavs)
0:20 – Los Angeles full timeout
0:15 – Derek Fisher misses 26-foot three point jumper
0:14 – Ronny Turiaf offensive rebound
0:13 – Ronny Turiaf makes layup (96-95 Cavs)
0:13 – Larry Hughes bad pass (Luke Walton steals)
0:13 – Larry Hughes blocks Kobe Bryant’s layup
0:12 – Kobe Bryant offensive rebound
0:11 – Kobe Bryant lost ball (Daniel Gibson steals)
0:10 – Cleveland full timeout
0:09 – Kobe Bryant personal foul (LeBron James draws the foul)
0:09 – LeBron James makes free throw 1 of 2 (97-95 Cavs)
0:09 – LeBron James makes free throw 2 of 2 (98-95 Cavs)
0:09 – Los Angeles 20 Sec. timeout
0:00 – Lakers fail to get off shot before time expires. Game over. (98-95 Cavs)
In the final 1:15 of the game LeBron scored six points, including a long step-back jumper in Kobe’s face and two critical free throws. In that same span, Kobe was called for a charge, missed a layup, lost the ball and failed to get off a shot as time expired.
Is LeBron flat out better than Kobe? LeBron will tell you no. He still says Kobe is the best player in the NBA. But Kobe was only the second best player on the court on Sunday, and that’s unfamiliar territory for him.
It’ll be interesting to see if these two match up against one another in the all-star game. Unless they meet in the NBA Finals—a marketer’s dream, albeit an unlikely one—the all-star game will be the last time they share the court this season. Basketball fans have to be disappointed by that.
There is no better one-on-one matchup in the game today. And it may go down as one of the all-time best. Rarely do two players go head-to-head while playing at such an elite level.
Early in his career, Shaquille O’Neal was dominated by Hakeem Olajuwon. Similarly, in his younger days Michael Jordan routinely came up short against Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. But neither Shaq nor Jordan had a worthy adversary during the prime of their careers. You have to go back to Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain or Bird vs. Magic to find a superstar matchup that rivals Kobe and LeBron today.
Kobe is 29, still in the prime of his career. And he does have three rings to his credit. But if he doesn’t get the MVP this year, his chances of winning one are only going to decrease. As for LeBron, whose age matches his jersey number of 23, there’s no telling how good he can become. His prime is likely still in the future, and he hopes championship rings are in his future as well. But by beating the man he calls the best, LeBron is already making a claim—even if only on the court—to be the best player on the planet and win this race between two greats a first MVP trophy.
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