After rolling an ankle, LeBron James overcame the pain. That was the easy part. His toughest challenge was to find a way to win the game while his supporting cast was collapsing and his coach was rendered clueless.
It’s obvious the Cleveland Cavaliers are a mess, with one exception. The best player on the planet can clean up all of their mistakes and possesses the strength to cover up for all of their weaknesses.
In a strange season such as this, James as a one-man gang might be enough to win a championship.
“I would say there are five teams with a legitimate shot at the title, which is almost unheard of in the NBA,” Sportsmemo.com handicapper Erin Rynning said. “I think everything is pretty much wide open.”
The Cavaliers are as good as any bet out there. James made that statement Sunday, when he buried a long jumper at the buzzer to beat the Bulls 86-84 in Chicago. James was not wide open on the shot, but it was the best play he could draw up.
With 1.5 seconds remaining, Cleveland coach David Blatt, playing the role of Paul Blart the Mall Cop, designed a clumsy play that had James throwing the inbounds pass. That, of course, would not even be an effective way to use James as a decoy. So James overruled the Mall Cop, scratched the play and drew up his own.
He flashed to the corner and hit a 21-foot jumper over Bulls defender Jimmy Butler to trigger a wild celebration. James had a toe on the 3-point line, preventing some bettors from launching into their own wild celebration.
The Cavaliers opened as 1½-point favorites in a Game 4 they needed to tie the series at 2-2. Bettors were lining up to back Cleveland in a so-called must-win situation, so the point spread inflated to 2, 2½ and closed at 3 at most books.
It initially appeared James’ shot might be a 3-pointer. It was a game where betting the best number made all the difference. I was able to get the best number (plus-4½ in live wagering after the third quarter) on the Cavaliers.
“That was about the biggest shot I’ve seen LeBron hit,” said Ed Salmons, Westgate Las Vegas sports book manager. “He’s not usually known for making that shot.”
Early in his career, James often passed with a game on the line. But he’s more accountable and more mature now, and he basically needs to carry this Cavaliers team while coaching it, too.
The loss of forward Kevin Love to a dislocated shoulder was a setback for Cleveland. As a long-range shooting threat and slick passer who spreads the floor on offense, Love was the third scorer that is needed in a long playoff series. With point guard Kyrie Irving, the team’s No. 2 option, hobbling on an injured foot Sunday, James ran the point on critical possessions.
And with no timeouts left, Blatt the Mall Cop tried to call a timeout in the final minute. He was lucky the refs missed his signal, and James bailed him out by hitting the last shot.
James finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, but he shot 10-for-30 and had eight turnovers. He got help from big men Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, and J.R. Smith sank three key 3s.
The Bulls also helped the Cavaliers by suffering through long stretches of inept play on the offensive end. All four teams in the East are mess. Atlanta has no go-to scorer and trails 2-1 in its series with Washington, which has a point guard, John Wall, with a broken hand. Chicago played Game 4 without injured forward Pau Gasol.
“Cleveland played terrible for the most part and won the game,” Rynning said. “It’s the nature of the beast for a Chicago team that just can never show that consistency to be an NBA Finals-caliber team.”
Rynning’s list of title contenders includes Cleveland, Chicago, Golden State, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers, who closed as 6½-point home favorites in a 128-95 blowout of Houston on Sunday night. The wiseguys who zig-zagged and took plus-7 with the lifeless Rockets were wearing dunce caps.
“I would still favor Golden State, but not by much,” Rynning said.
On the Westgate’s futures board, Golden State entered Sunday as the 7-5 favorite to win the NBA championship, followed by the Clippers (4-1), Cavaliers and Bulls (each 5-1), Hawks (12-1) and Grizzlies (15-1).
“I still think Atlanta can come out of the East,” Salmons said. “Essentially, you’ve got eight teams and none of them know how to win a championship. And you’ve got LeBron playing for Cleveland.
“It’s definitely an interesting year. It’s really unpredictable. I don’t see how the Cavs can win a championship with essentially one guy. But you can nitpick all of the teams.”
The Cavaliers look as good as any pick to win it because they have the best player, and this time James does not have to go through San Antonio.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.