There are a few benefits to having an NBA team in downtown Minneapolis.
The team is bound to win a playoff series every quarter-century or so.
A quality franchise is sure to keep nearby businesses such as Macy’s and Barnes & Noble around.
And once a year, LeBron James plays in your town.
Now that you can watch virtually every game on virtually every device, there aren’t many mysteries in the world of sports. You never need to buy a ticket to know what LeBron looks like, sounds like, thinks, endorses and how he performs.
There remain athletes who can awe regardless of familiarity and James is one of them. In person he looks more powerful, leaner and taller than he appears on any screen.
Tuesday night, James provided a routinely spectacular reminder of who he is, producing 25 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds in the Cavaliers’ 116-108 victory. After icing the Wolves, he dressed as if preparing for ice fishing, wearing a bulky winter coat and gloves even before leaving Target Center.
James has won three NBA titles and it’s not hard to envision an NBA Finals against Golden State this year, but the expected easy path to the rematch was complicated this week.
Former Timberwolf Kevin Love was playing his best basketball in his three seasons as a Cavalier before suffering a knee injury that will cost him about six weeks. That news was succeeded by the Toronto Raptors’ trading for Serge Ibaka. The Cavaliers look like the best team in the East but they will have to reprove that.
“One thing we can rely on is we’ve played without Kev before,” James said. “We’ve done it in the playoffs. As much as you don’t like to play without some of your big guys, sometimes it happens.”
Tuesday the Cavs started sluggishly. The Wolves led 15-6, and in the first four minutes of the game, James shot a fadeaway airball that would have gotten most players benched, gave up an inside bucket to Andrew Wiggins and confused a defensive assignment with Tristan Thompson that led to a Karl-Anthony Towns dunk.
The strangest aspect of James’ slow start? You couldn’t hear a jeer in Target Center. He didn’t hear verbal opposition until he went to the foul line in the third period. Meanwhile, former Wolves draft bust Derrick Williams heard a few profanities.
Once ridiculed for taking his talents to South Beach, James has earned a new level of admiration. Leading your hometown team to a comeback from a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the NBA Finals will do that.
Virtually every complaint ever pointed James’ way now looks silly.
Couldn’t win the big one? Not with bad supporting casts in his first stay in Cleveland, he couldn’t.
Starred in “The Decision”? Bad idea, co-starring with Jim Gray, but James drew more criticism than athletes who commit actual crimes.
Joined a superteam? That’s almost de rigueur now.
Deferred to teammates in the clutch? Worked for Magic Johnson and even Jordan.
Acted like a general manager? That might look bad if Magic hadn’t invented the move.
Even in the midst of another lost Wolves season, James’ arrival provided a reminder of why the NBA at its best is compelling. The joint got loud when the Wolves made it a game in the second half, forcing James to make typically winning plays down the stretch.
He proved strong enough to cover Towns in the low post and deft enough to act as a point forward, and his step-back three-pointer over Towns finished the competitive portion of the evening.
For the Cavs, playing a team such as the Wolves on a Tuesday in February is a pass-fail affair. They wanted to win, de-ice and flee.
“For me it’s been a good month, and for our team, after a not-so-good January,” he said. “The break is coming and we all can use it. Get ready for the later stage of the season and prepare for the playoffs.”