- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Kevin Garnett scored nine points the first time he started an NBA game. Kobe Bryant scored 12 as a first-time starter. Tracy McGrady scored 13 points in his first start, after following KG and Kobe in going straight from high school to the real world.
None of those kiddies, of course, started in their very first NBA game.
Much as I would prefer not to dredge up a Michael Jordan comparison, a mere 48 minutes into James' career, I can't help it.
Jordan, after three years of college, scored 16 points in his 1984 debut.
James had 12 points after a quarter Wednesday, 25 points by game's end and the distinct told-you-so pleasure of flashing an array of memorable moves -- dashed with poise -- that impressed you more than the stats.
"I like criticism," James said, well aware that his spotty preseason play had the doubters lined up.
"Makes me stronger."
Maybe the hype is unfair and ridiculous. Maybe the expectations are unreachable. Maybe you're already sick of LeBron-A-Thon, one game in. Fine. Just don't blame the teenager, who didn't ask for the obsessive coverage and can't stop the machine when he shows up at the league's loudest arena and does all this.
The stats were indeed spectacular in Cleveland's 106-92 defeat, as James added nine assists, six rebounds and four steals to his 25 points. Truth is, though, the moves were better than the stats. James' dunk in the first quarter wouldn't crack his personal top-10 for the night.
He drilled his first three jumpers, improvised in midair for a wondrous lefty scoop shortly after halftime, lobbed alley-oops and ran the fast break with precision and, as the evening wore on, started drawing Jordan calls. James earned a trip to the free-throw line late in the third quarter on a touch foul as he hoisted a desperation 3-pointer to beat the shot clock. Even more impressive, he drew a fourth-quarter charge against the league's flop master.
"He's the real deal," Vlade Divac said.
Of greatest importance, James dragged his team back into the game when it looked as though the Cavaliers would concede 100 points in three quarters. Cleveland allowed 14 first-half layups or dunks, seemingly all of them on backdoor cuts, largely because -- as coach Paul Silas feared -- Cleveland's youngsters were gripped by nerves. James, who already knows a little something about playing in front of a media mob, was one of the few Cavs who wasn't shaky early, but James alone could not prevent a 61-42 deficit.
Instead he kept driving Cleveland until it erased all of the deficit. First Silas had to tell his team to relax, James aside. James then spent most of the second half showing off what Silas has loved about him since summer league. That would be James' special ability, at 18, to know when to push the ball on the break and when to pull it back and set up the offense. It's why he's back at point guard after Silas briefly took the ball away from James, trying (in vain) to lessen some of the pressure on him.
"Those seven [exhibition] games we had him play were so important for him," Silas said. "He learned that he can do what he can do out there.
The last couple games, he said, 'I think I got it.' "
Nothing went terribly wrong for James until the final three minutes, when, trying to keep Cleveland in it at 100-92, he drew a charging foul as he found Carlos Boozer underneath for a dunk. The Cavs didn't score another point, but that was James' first turnover. He wound up with only two turnovers in 42 minutes.
"You saw how it was," James said. "I just felt great tonight.
"I'll be here all night if I talk about how happy I am to be here."
James can even be happy with his preseason now, even though his shooting was widely questioned. Just having a preseason is valuable, as Bryant can attest. We speak not of what's happening with Kobe this October; Bryant lost court time straight away as a rookie with a hand injury.
Either way, it took some resolve to recover so quickly from those recent struggles, like when he shot 4-for-18 in a nationally televised exhibition against the Lakers.
"His first four games were stellar by no means," Silas said beforehand. "I wondered how he was going to react to that."
Well, let's see.
His first assist was a perfect lob to Ricky Davis for a dunk. His first shot, a baseline jumper, swished through. After another baseline jumper, he took -- and swished -- the first bad shot of his career, raining in a looper over Brad Miller.
He had the Kings purring, too. All that stuff about how veteran players can't wait to go right at him and show the kid up? On this night, strangely, Sacramento's veterans were almost rooting for him, offering sympathy for the scrutiny James faces daily.
Divac went to the Lakers as a 21-year-old from Europe, speaking no English, drafted to replace Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ... and says James has it harder as a rook.
"It's too much," Divac said. "They don't do anything for kids any more. It gets worse and worse. I'm sure the next guy will be [a junior in high school] and it will be bigger [hype] than this.
"I went to a veteran team. All I had to do was learn. I wish him luck. I hope he'll be the best player in the league. But everything [in Cleveland] is on his shoulders."
Good thing, along with Wednesday's historically big numbers, that James has that sculpted man's body. As Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy recently joked: "I want to see a birth certificate."
One more thing: James isn't going to score 25 every night, like Jordan did with ease as a rookie. He's going to shoot 4-for-18 in a game, and the next time it will count. There are going to be lots of rough nights, like Garnett and Bryant and McGrady all had before him starting out.
Still, if there' s a conclusion to be sifted from Game 1's numbers and highlights, it's this. That Rookie of the Year trophy is going to Cleveland, not Denver.
Kevin Garnett scored nine points the first time he started an NBA game. Kobe Bryant scored 12 as a first-time starter. Tracy McGrady scored 13 in his first start, after following KG and Kobe in going straight from high school to the real world. None of those kiddies, of course, started in their very first NBA game. LeBron James did, and excelled.