Lonzo Ball, Lakers Crush LeBron James, Cavaliers as Isaiah Thomas Gets Revenge

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, tries to get past Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

If the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to reach the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season, they need to learn how to play defense.

Even a typically dominant performance from LeBron James—24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists—wasn't enough Sunday at Staples Center, as the 30-36 Los Angeles Lakers faced little resistance during a 127-113 victory. The Cavaliers didn't have an answer anywhere, especially in the post where Julius Randle flirted with a triple-double with 36 points, 14 boards and seven assists.

As a result, Cleveland dropped behind the Indiana Pacers and into the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

James and the Lakers offense thrived in a game rife with storylines, including the Cavaliers' leader facing a potential suitor, Isaiah Thomas earning a win against his former squad and Lonzo Ball's further development against one of the worst defenses in the league.

            

LeBron Impresses Against Potential Suitor

James is a focal point in any game, but that is especially the case when he plays against a team that figures to pursue him as a free agent this summer should he opt out of his deal.

Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer cited sources who said the Lakers, Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers are the four teams James has on his list of potential destinations, and the four-time MVP owns multiple houses in the Los Angeles area.

That set the stage for the marquee star to play in front of the fans who may cheer his name next season, and he didn't disappoint with an effort largely mirroring his numbers from his first five games in March—30.0 points, 9.2 assists and 8.8 rebounds.

James was aggressive in looking for his own shot in the early going, notably overpowering Ball and other Lakers in the lane.

With the Lakers focused on his initial scoring, James unleashed multiple jaw-dropping passes and demonstrated his ability to facilitate like a point guard while also leading his team in points. One of his no-look passes had the entire defense fooled, while another went through Ball's legs in transition.

Not even the best player of his generation could save Cleveland, though, as Larry Nance Jr. (16 points and eight rebounds against his former team) was the only other Cavalier to score more than 15 points.

            

Isaiah Thomas Thrives

James wasn't the only one under the spotlight, as Thomas faced the team that acquired him via trade from the Boston Celtics this past offseason for a package that included Kyrie Irving.

Thomas struggled in Cleveland (36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from deep in 15 games) and was traded to the Lakers before the deadline. Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com reported James was disappointed Cleveland didn't land a young playmaker such as Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum along with Thomas—who was bouncing back from a serious hip injury.

With the chance to exact some revenge on Cleveland, Thomas played one of his best games of the season with 20 points, nine assists and five rebounds behind 7-of-16 shooting from the field. According to ESPN.com, he was plus-18 when he was on the floor.

Thomas gained more confidence as the game progressed and was a driving force in the third quarter when Los Angeles seized control by slicing through the defense off the dribble and creating looks for himself and others.

Cleveland had nobody who could consistently stay in front of him in a performance that resembled the MVP candidate Thomas was in Boston.

            

Balanced Lakers Attack Overwhelms Cleveland

Cleveland may presumably be an NBA Finals contender, but few defenses in the entire league are more exploitable for a young core like Los Angeles' looking to gain confidence.

The Cavaliers are an abysmal 28th in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com, and a Lakers group missing Brandon Ingram (groin injury) and Josh Hart (broken hand) had no trouble from the start.

They ran the early offense through Brook Lopez, and he finished with 22 points and eight boards while leading the home team to 33 points in the first quarter. He was one of five Lakers to score at least 14, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (20 points), Kyle Kuzma (14 points and 10 rebounds) and especially Randle all impressed.

Even Ball had seven assists despite shooting 2-of-11 from the field and scoring five points.

Cleveland's defense resembled a revolving door leading straight to the rim throughout the contest, especially when Los Angeles took control with a 22-6 run to end the third quarter.

Kevin Parrish Jr. of USA Today summarized the proceedings:

The Cavaliers will look to clean up their issues Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns, while the Lakers will turn their attention toward a matchup with the Denver Nuggets the same day.

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