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CLEVELAND (AP) – The Cavaliers haven’t lost their holiday spirit.
Cleveland showed its Christmas Day win over the Los Angeles Lakers was no gift as LeBron James scored 37 points, including 12 straight down the stretch, and the Cavs, playing their first game without injured Mo Williams, beat Kobe Bryant and the NBA champions 93-87 on Thursday night.
J.J. Hickson grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds and Anderson Varejao made three free throws in the final 20 seconds as Cleveland swept the season series between the league’s top two teams. That could give the Cavs home-court advantage if they meet the Lakers in June’s NBA finals.
A lot can happen between now and then, but the win gave Cleveland confidence it might be able to survive despite losing Williams, their All-Star point guard who will miss at least one month with a shoulder sprain. Williams scored a team-high 28 in Cleveland’s Dec. 25 win at Staples Center.
Bryant finished with 31 points but was only 4-of-15 in the second half as the Lakers lost the opener of an eight-game road trip. Pau Gasol scored 13 for Los Angeles.
Bryant surpassed 25,000 career points in the first half, but he was unable to match James in the fourth quarter as both teams turned to their superstars.
With the score tied 80-all, James hit a 3-pointer from the left side, and after a miss by Bryant, the reigning MVP dropped another jumper to put Cleveland ahead by five. James then hit another shot to make it 87-80 with 2:48 left and the Cavs looked to be in control.
But Ron Artest hit a big 3 for the Lakers and Bryant made two free throws and a quick jumper to tie it 87-87 with 1:32 remaining.
James then blasted down the left side for a layup with 40.5 seconds to go, prompting chants of “M-V-P” from the raucous Quicken Loans crowd. After Gasol missed two free throws that would have tied it, the Cavs called a timeout and before play resumed, James was caught by cameras rapping to Eminem’s song “Forever” before the ball was inbounded.
James then split a pair of free throws, but Varejao grabbed the rebound on the miss and was fouled by Artest. Varejao, a 66 percent shooter from the line, made both attempts for a 92-87 Cavs lead with 20.7 seconds left. Bryant misfired on an off-balance 3-point attempt and James saved the long rebound, flying into Cleveland’s bench to make the save.
As Varejao went to the line again with 4.1 seconds left, James popped his maroon Cavs jersey, making sure everyone knew who came out on top.
James wanted this win badly. While trying to run down a loose ball in the third quarter with the Cavs down two, he leaped over the head of Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen and hurdled two rows of chairs before landing in the lap of an unsuspecting female Cavs fan, whom he hugged before returning to the floor.
Moments later, Cleveland took its first lead when Anthony Parker drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner with 4:42 left in the quarter.
James and Bryant both hit jumpers in the final 1:33 of the quarter, which ended with Bryant and Gasol exchanging in a somewhat heated conversation as they returned to the bench. Bryant would stay seated for the first 6:37 of the fourth, and when he returned the Lakers trailed 83-80.
Bryant went just 11 of 25 from the floor, not much of an improvement from his 11 of 33 effort against Cleveland last month.
Delonte West, who started in place of Williams, spent most of the fourth guarding Bryant.
Shaquille O’Neal scored 13 and Hickson, who had just two points in the first meeting with L.A., had 11 and was the difference inside.
While media members, fans and even the league have pushed to portray the Cavaliers and Lakers as a budding rivalry, Bryant isn’t buying it – not yet anyway.
“No,” he said coldly when asked if the team’s were adversaries before the game. “Not at all.”
He may now be warming up to the idea.
NOTES: Bryant is the 15th player to surpass 25,000 points. Up next for Bryant at No. 14 on the list is Lakers legend Jerry West (25,192). … Rapper ‘Lil Wayne sat courtside to see two of the game’s biggest stars match moves. …. James was the leading vote getter in fan balloting for next month’s All-Star game. He received 2,549,693, becoming the first player get at least 2.5 million votes three times. Bryant was second with 2,456,224, pacing Western Conference players. … Lakers G Jordan Farmar won $1,200 from his teammates in a half-court shooting contest at the conclusion of the morning shootaround.