CLEVELAND — Two teams headed in completely opposite directions met Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena and the trend continued.
The Cavaliers recorded their 11th straight victory and handed the Memphis Grizzlies their 11th straight loss, a 116-111 decision in front of 20,562 fans that was more difficult than it needed to be.
The Cavs (16-7) needed LeBron James (34 points, 12 assists) to score their final 13 points in this one, and that’s exactly what the four-time league MVP did.
“When it’s winning time in the fourth quarter, (my teammates) want me to step up and do what I do best,” James said.
Down 19 with three minutes left in the third period and playing without Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons, the Grizzlies (7-15) tied the game at 109 on a 3-pointer by Dillon Brooks with 2:10 to go.
Then James completely took over.
First, the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder scored on a back-down move to put the Cavs up two — after holding the ball for nearly the entire 24-second shot clock — with 1:22 left.
Then he held the ball again before scoring on a powerful drive to the hoop, getting fouled and making the free throw to put Cleveland up 114-109 with 34.9 ticks on the clock, prompting “MVP” chants from the crowd.
After two free throws by Brooks, James capped the scoring with a long jumper with 5.3 seconds remaining, again after holding the ball for most of the shot clock.
“I knew something was going to happen,” said Cavs big man Channing Frye, who dislocated his right middle finger but could have returned if needed. “He was pretty locked in. When he’s like that, I have no doubt in my mind.”
James’ performance ruined a solid effort by the struggling Grizzlies, who got 31 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists from point guard Tyreke Evans and 27 points, six boards and four assists from center Marc Gasol.
Kevin Love had 20 points and 11 rebounds and J.R. Smith made 4-of-5 3-pointers en route to 17 points for the Cavs, while Dwyane Wade had 16 points off the bench and reserves Jeff Green and Kyle Korver added nine apiece.
“We had some disarray on offense, but we kept our composure and kept playing and LeBron took us home down the stretch,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.
The third quarter was a seesaw affair that saw the Cavs extend a 14-point half-time lead to 18, get it cut to 10, push it out to 19 and have it slashed to 11 again, 93-82, at the end of the period.
The highlight of the quarter was a Wade spike block against a driving Andrew Harrison, after which the 15-year veteran softly head-butted the padded stanchion under the basket as play continued.
“They junked it up a little bit,” James said of the Grizzlies putting big players on smaller Cavs and smaller players on some of the bigs. “I saw the momentum changing, so I knew at some point it was going to be a game.”
Down 28-16 and sleepwalking early, the Cavs got a tremendous lift from their bench and outscored the Grizzlies 38-20 in the second period to go up 66-52 at halftime.
Cleveland reserves had 29 points in the first half — Memphis bench players had eight — as Wade, Korver and Green provided some much-needed energy.
“They were huge for us,” Love said. “Everybody was really big.”
The Grizzlies scored on their first seven possessions to go up 16-9 just four minutes into the game and eventually led by 12, but the Cavs woke up and closed the quarter on a 12-4 run to cut Memphis’ lead to 32-28.
That and Cleveland’s inability to put the Grizzlies away set the stage for James’ heroics down the stretch.
“They dared me to score,” the small forward said. “That’s when I’ve got to step up.”
In two statistical oddities, Love had seven rebounds in the first half, while Cleveland’s other starters had none in a combined 53 minutes.
James, who finished with two boards, didn’t get his first until early in the fourth quarter, but he more than made up for that with 15 points in the final period.
“LeBron just kicked it into another gear,” Love said. “He’s been like that for us, especially in the fourth quarter, all year long. It was a special performance.
“The only thing that surprised me was I’ve never seen him go into the fourth quarter with not one rebound,” he added. “And he was still by far the best player on the court.”