There have been casual levels of panic surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers at all times ever since LeBron James came back, emphasis on casual. We’ve been treated to recurring tumult, and the sideshow is just kind of accepted at this point. Why? Because the drama always revolves around LeBron whether he likes it or not. But there’s no better cure for drama than winning, and when it comes to said victories, there’s no better company than James.
LeBron helped Cleveland dodge a fifth straight loss with a sublime 57-point performance on Friday night against the Wizards, a result that should temporarily quiet at least some of the general sense of doubt surrounding his team. His points were the highest single-game total for any player in the season's early going and came in brutally, characteristically efficient style, and James added 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks while shooting 23-34 from the floor and a perfect 9-9 from the stripe. He rested for just six minutes. He gracefully bowled his way to the basket all night, always too strong and too intelligent in transition to be slowed.
James’ dominance is no secret, but part of the fun is that he never plays the same game twice. When he has everything working, it never gets old. But as gracefully as James has entered the back half of his career, and as much as his Cavs teams have ceded the spotlight to the Warriors, there’s still nowhere to hide from the criticism that accompanies the occasional losing streak. Performances like this though, well ... they help. Galvanized by a hot first quarter that included 13 points from Derrick Rose, the Cavs were shooting a blistering 66 percent at halftime. At that point, James had amassed 24 points and four assists and had become the youngest player ever to score 29,000 career points. It’s a lede that’s only acceptable to bury because we take these milestones for granted now. This was not a new game script, but it was the one Cleveland needed.
The Cavaliers’ defense was still leaky, and it also took a few strokes of vintage finesse from Rose, who enjoyed his first 20-point game of the season on a quieter note. Reliance on those variables doesn't bode well for this team as constituted. The Wizards shot 53.6 percent but struggled from the free throw line and ceded many of the game’s little breaks. They cut it back to single digits in the fourth, but James was indomitable down the stretch, popping up on the offensive glass, running the team and ushering in the result. He played the entire second half, a three-pointer with three minutes left putting him past the 50-point threshold for the first time since 2014. He approached and fell just short of his career-high 61.
The on-court issues with this Cavs team remain, but apex LeBron remains a special kind of salve. This type of workload in November is far from ideal, but Cleveland’s supporting cast still skews old, and Isaiah Thomas is still on the mend. Tristan Thompson should miss about a month with a calf strain, with Kevin Love sliding down Friday to start at center in his stead. They’re still able to space the floor—including James, eight different Cavs made a three on Friday—and sometimes that’s all you need to give him.
Until Thomas returns, there’s no consistent secondary shot creator to speak of, and until Thompson gets back, rebounding will be a liability. For the Cavs to be at their best, this version of LeBron has always been a necessity. The glaring difference at the moment is that Cleveland needs him at this level to simply stay afloat. It’s far from ideal for a 4–5 team admittedly still looking for an identity, a would-be contender forced to wait on clean health for a chance to mesh. So, for now, that identity is James. And at the very least, observers will enjoy their popcorn.