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Short-handed is the new normal for LeBron, Cavs

James turns in virtuouso performance in 104-100 win over OKC

POSTED: Dec 18, 2015 3:00 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Kevin Love threw a deep outlet pass to LeBron James in the fourth quarter Thursday that, as soon as James flushed down a dunk, had Love slapping hands with Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel in his courtside seat.

Minutes later in the final quarter at Quicken Loans Arena, it was James going gridiron on a different courtside seat. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Cavaliers star barreled across the sideline for a loose ball with 3:07 left and slammed full force into the wife of professional golfer Jason Day. Ellie Day was down for several nervous minutes, attended to by medical personnel through and beyond a timeout. Eventually she was taken from the arena on a stretcher, her head secured as a precaution, and transported to a nearby hospital for observation.

A half hour after the final horn -- Cleveland 104, Oklahoma City 100 -- word had filtered back to the Cavs' dressing room that Day's condition was much improved. So James was able to breathe easy and chirp about the experience NBA fans get -- up close and sometimes painfully personal -- in those pricey VIP seats.

"Our fans is why our game is so great," James said. "Sitting courtside is all part of the game. It's pretty cool. If I was a fan, which I am a fan, I would love to sit courtside and watch games."

That would have been fine with the Thunder, because whatever impact Ellie Day suffered from James' breathtaking collision, they got hit twice as hard in blowing double-digit leads in both halves.

Cleveland scored 30 points in the fourth quarter. It got a virtuoso performance from James, who finished one rebound shy of a triple-double with 33 points, nine boards and 11 assists (and seven turnovers). The Cavs beat one of the NBA's best and hottest teams (OKC had won six in a row), contained two of the league's top six players and did it all while missing their starting backcourt and most reliable scorer off the bench.

Our motto is the next man up. There's no excuses around here. Whoever's in the lineup is ready to go.

– LeBron James

No Kyrie Irving (recovery from knee surgery), Iman Shumpert (groin) and Mo Williams (thumb sprain) meant minutes and opportunities for others. No biggie for the Cavs, for whom short-handed is the new normal. You have to go back eight months and 44 games, to the postseason opener against Boston, for a game in which Cleveland had all its guys healthy.

"Our motto is the next man up," said James, who now has a 16-4 personal record head-to-head (regular season or playoff) against OKC's Kevin Durant. "There's no excuses around here. Whoever's in the lineup is ready to go."

While OKC was missing the playoffs last spring, done in by Kevin Durant's and Russell Westbrook's injuries, Cleveland was busy getting resourceful. The Cavs beat the Celtics, the Bulls and the Hawks, and pushed the Warriors to six games in the Finals, by leaning on the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson like never before. James at times seemed startled by how much those role players could handle, but by doing so they toughened up and built a bond.

That was evident again Thursday. Thompson gave the Cavs repeated extra chances by grabbing 15 rebounds overall -- 11 on the offensive end -- to go with 12 points. Dellavedova chipped in his own double-double with 11 points and 10 assists. Veteran Richard Jefferson scored 13 points and wild card J.R. Smith was big early, both scoring and making timely defensive plays.

This essentially was the crew that pushed Golden State to an extra level of great last spring. It's the team that, with Irving, Shumpert and Williams all due back soon, knows how to fold back in talented players because it did that over the second half of last season. It's the biggest reason Cleveland stands alone as a legit contender from the East, while the Thunder will slug it out with two or three rivals out West.

To play without three significant guards, you've got to have a guy like LeBron to beat a team like OKC.

– Cavs coach David Blatt

Durant and Westbrook combined for 52 points and Serge Ibaka added 23 more, but the OKC bench went from good enough in the first half to ghastly in the second. New coach Billy Donovan appeared to get caught in his rotations, asking the Thunder to survive too long with neither of its two scoring stars on the floor. Enes Kantner was a liability defensively and two-way mishap Dion Waiters reminded the sellout Q crowd why their team is better off without him.

James and the Cavs are playing chess right now relative to the Thunder's checkers. He knows what Cleveland needs to win a title because he's been there and done it so recently. The Thunder went to the Finals in 2012 but in this what-have-you-done-lately league, that's old news in a rapidly changing game.

Here it's not yet Christmas and James is demanding that the Cavs lock in. The Thunder might need until Easter to dial in at that level.

"I thought 'Bron was just fabulous," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. "Doing so many different things on the floor. Drawing as much contact and as much attention as he does and still being able to make plays. I know he's a tough guy to officiate, but I think he's dealing with a lot around and under the basket.

"To play without three significant guards, you've got to have a guy like LeBron to beat a team like OKC. That's the best way I could put it. And he did it, once again."

James threw himself into his work and came out of the collision fine. Forgive the Thunder if they've flinched.