CLEVELAND -- There they stood next to each other in the back corner of the Cavaliers' locker room Saturday: one with aspirations of being known as the G.O.A.T., the other narrowly avoiding becoming the goat for the night, thanks to his ambitious friend hitting a game winner that absolved his defensive sin in the previous possession.
For James, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about his final stat line of 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists or anything too outlandish about him hitting the clincher; he has done it plenty of times before. But it was the nature of his final shot -- an eight-foot, driving hook shot over the 7-foot Brook Lopez -- that made it unique.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made a game winner off one of those,” James said. “I’ve made layups. I’ve made pull-ups. Obviously I’ve made step-back jumpers. I’ve probably never made one of those for a game winner. So, I might go to the skyhook next time. ... Brook, he did not think in his wildest years that I was going to shoot that one.”
For Smith, unfortunately, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about his ill-advised foul on Joe Johnson's 3-point attempt with 15.2 seconds left and the Cavs leading by three. Smith has committed mental mistakes by fouling in inappropriate situations before, be it Friday night against Charlotte on a Nicolas Batum 3 or the mountain of miscues he had late in Game 2 of the Finals. But it was his overall defensive effort -- a career-high four blocks, three steals and the primary defensive assignment on Johnson to begin with -- that warrants mentioning.
“I know as long as I can bring that enthusiasm and toughness on the defensive end, then we will have a better chance of winning than if I’m just making shots,” Smith said. “I have to be a two-way player.”
It could be seen as troubling that Cleveland needed the double-rainbow-like performance to win a home game against a Brooklyn team that’s now 3-13. There could be legitimate points made about Cleveland’s big-man trio of Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov -- making a combined $28.7 million this season -- combining on the court for just 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting, 20 rebounds and six turnovers against the Nets. There certainly has been a bit of hand-wringing among team observers wondering when the on-court product would actually look as good as the Cavs’ 13-4 record is.
The flip side to that: You have developments such as Smith becoming a key cog in Cleveland’s fourth-quarter, switch-everything defensive lineups and encouraging quotes such as James crediting coach David Blatt for the “designed play.” However, Blatt passed the praise to his star player, saying, “Just the way I drew it up. ... Give it to No. 23.”
Like James and Blatt’s relationship, or Smith’s commitment to something other than taking contested jump shots to James putting in so much time in practicing a specialized shot such as that running hook that he would actually feel confident enough to use it in crunch time, Cleveland’s season goals are all about growth.
With the major injuries to Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert to start the season, and the smaller injuries that followed to others on the roster, the Cavs were never going to come close to looking like a finished product through the first month of the season.
But here they are, 17 games played in 31 days, and they’re finding a way to win while still doing the things they’ll need to do if they want to be the team they hope to become from April through June.
“Credit to the players, who just decided, ‘We’re there, we’re going to will ourselves to this win,’” Blatt said. “That’s pretty much what we had in us: the will.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s just that the way on Saturday looked a little different than what we’ve seen before: James breaking out his best Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to save Smith, who become a little overzealous by breaking out his best Gary Payton.
“Everyone thinks he’s just a 3-point shooter and a guy who shoots 3s in transition. But for our team, he guards the No. 1 perimeter player every night and he takes the challenge, and he did it again tonight,” James said of Smith.
And now the challenge for the Cavs continues. Night after night, they're making complete-game efforts.