Commentary

Lakers hand Cavs first home loss

Originally Published: February 8, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- The defining moment of the Lakers' road trip, according to coach Phil Jackson, didn't come here at The Q, where the Cavs' 23-game home winning streak came to an end, or in Boston, where the Celtics' 12-game win streak bit the dust, too.

So we'll get back to Phil in a moment, and instead focus first on the defining moment of this particular late afternoon victory near the frozen shore of Lake Erie -- and on the player who made that game-defining play.

He's the same guy who, when this road trip began, had never publicly uttered the words "Laker for life," whose expiring contract was more a focus than what seemed to be his expiring usefulness, and whose place in the Los Angeles Lakers' pecking order, at least in terms of importance, was somewhere between Derek Fisher's and Vladimir Radmanovic's.

That defining play came midway through the fourth quarter, after Lamar Odom had pretty much single-handedly turned this game around by scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds during a third period in which the Lakers turned a 61-51 halftime deficit into an 82-77 lead.

The Lakers' lead had grown to 10, but the Cavs had cut it to five by the time Pau Gasol missed a 15-footer and Odom grabbed the offensive rebound and laid the ball in. The lead was back up to seven, the Lakers had their mojo back, and Odom wanted to make sure everyone on the end of the Cavs' bench got an earful of what he was thinking.

"There was a couple guys there getting a little testy, which I don't mind if it's hard or physical play," Odom said. "I'm not going to say they were cheap shots or whatever, but fouls after the whistle and things like that, I don't think they're necessary. I didn't mean to offend anybody, but I was caught in the moment a little bit."

Odom continued to yap at Anderson Varajao after he checked back in moments later, Cavs coach Mike Brown searching for someone who was able to put a body on Odom and keep him off the offensive boards.

By then, however, it was already too late, and Odom's seven offensive boards among his season-high 17 rebounds and 28 points made the Lakers' newest starter the main catalyst in a 101-91 victory Sunday that sent the Lakers back to Los Angeles sporting a 6-0 record off an epic road trip in which they lost their best big man, traded a guy who started every game of the NBA Finals last June, and then had to finish off the journey with their best player, Kobe Bryant, slowed by the flu.

"These are the kinds of games we live for, especially coming off last year," said Odom, who planned to finish off his successful Sunday by attending Russell Simmons' Grammy Awards party after the team flew back to Los Angeles.

Just a guess, but it might have been a keen idea for someone at that party to pass along some kind of a trophy to Odom, telling him it was his award for "Best Comeback by a Performer Who Lately Has Been Challenging Michael Jackson for Hollywood Irrelevancy."

Odom's putback with 4:43 left was the beginning of the end for the Cavs, whose fans streamed toward the exits in the final minute with the outcome already certain.

"There was no boxing out," one woman complained to her pals as she made her way up the steep steps from Section 128.

"If you ask me, LeBron got nervous and let it get to him," another female fan was overheard saying.

James disagreed with the notion that the Cavs had slipped defensively, saying the Lakers had simply exploited certain matchups (Odom vs. J.J. Hickson above all others) in posting 30 first-quarter points and 31 third-quarter points. "We definitely never want to give up 30 points in two quarters in the same game. We've played some great basketball before tonight, I don't think defensively we were bad, it was offensively we weren't good."

That shortcoming started with James, who missed 15 of 20 field goal attempts and half of his eight free throws, and extended to All-Star snub Mo Williams, who followed up a 17-point first half with just two second-half points.

And while the Cavs were left only slightly reeling by their 10th loss of the season, the Lakers were about as gleeful of a road-weary team as you'll ever see -- especially given the fact that they haven't been in their own beds, much less their own time zone, since Jan. 27.

That was back when Andrew Bynum was in the latter stages of what was his best month as a pro, when Luke Walton was still sitting on the bench behind Vladimir Radmanovic at the start of games, before Bryant electrified Madison Square Garden and a nation full of Lakers fans by going off for 61 points in New York on the same day the Lakers got the bad news that Bynum would be out for 8-12 weeks with a knee injury.

By the time the Lakers were just two games into this 11-day voyage, long before they'd go on to become StreakBusters in Boston and Cleveland -- that was the time when the defining moment of this trip happened, Jackson said.

"There were two things. One, obviously, was Andrew going down and the immediate shock of one of our best players being on the floor, and the subsequent review of almost the same thing happening at the same time. The other thing was the subsequent game, Kobe coming out and [scoring 61], having the big, pick-me-up type of game that infused the energy of this club."

The Lakers finish the pre-All-Star Game portion of their schedule with a back-to-back set of a home game against Oklahoma City and a road trip to Utah.

Win 'em both, and they'll be boasting of a 43-9 record when the entire NBA gets together for a three-day party next weekend in Phoenix.

But even if they lose 'em both, there aren't many out there who are prepared at this point to shoot down the Lakers' status as the favorite to emerge from the West, Bynum or no Bynum. Not after a trip like this, a trip in which a hallowed arena scoring record, a 12-game winning streak and a 23-game winning streak all became their victims.

So let there be no doubt, at least as we stand here on the first full weekend of February looking ahead to the final 10 weeks of the regular season, who the best team in the NBA is right now.

It is the Los Angeles Lakers, and you'll have a hard time getting anyone in Boston, Cleveland and all points in between, and beyond, to disagree.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.