MINNEAPOLIS — LeBron James scored 24 points to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first victory of the season, 104-87 over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.
James took most of the fourth quarter off, finishing with nine rebounds and six assists in 34 minutes and avoiding his first 0-3 start in five years. He shot 10 for 18 from the field while the Cavaliers used the renovated Timberwolves to revive their defense, which allowed an average of 98 points in defeats by Boston and Toronto this week.
They were better offensively, too. Mo Williams added 20 points, Zydrunas Ilgauskus had 11 of his 15 points in the first half to help make up for some early lulls, and Daniel Gibson drained three 3-pointers during a 3-minute stretch of the fourth quarter to end any faint hope the Wolves had of repeating their rally from two nights earlier.
Al Jefferson, working his way back into form from knee surgery last February, had a quiet 12 points and eight rebounds with Shaquille O’Neal jockeying for room with him underneath. Jefferson wished aloud beforehand he hadn’t lost those 30 pounds during rehab, because of this matchup with the behemoth O’Neal, who had six points and seven rebounds.
Jonny Flynn had 17 points for the Wolves, who again missed Kevin Love’s rebounding ability. They overcame that deficiency to turn a 16-point deficit against New Jersey on Wednesday into a buzzer-beating victory.
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown discussed his team’s “bunker mentality” before the game, touting the importance of blocking out external expectations and criticism and joking that some of his relatives are afraid to call him because he’s so focused on the job.
James — “The King” as his new extra-large teammate has simply called him — usually doesn’t break a sweat. If the stress of a losing streak to start this critical season, which could be his last in Cleveland, was getting to James, he wouldn’t show it.
During the 12-2 run the Cavs used to stretch their lead late in the second quarter, James was the picture of cool.
He spent the first part of the period on the bench, watching the Wolves take a pair of one-point leads with their subs in, but shortly after re-entry he finished a fast break with a determined drive and spin dribble for a layup, foul and three-point play.
Then after a steal by Anthony Parker, James raced to the hoop again and threw down a dunk from a foot or so inside the free throw line. His pull-up jumper gave the Cavs their biggest lead of the half, 51-38.
At one point, a whistle stopped a transition and a couple of teammates faked like they were going to follow through on an alley-oop. James joined in and pretended to dunk the ball backward over his head, flashing a big smile.
Delonte West was inactive again for the Cavaliers. He hasn’t played yet because of personal issues.