LOS ANGELES — All the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to snap their season-long 12-game losing streak was to see old teammate LeBron James again.
Of course, James wasn’t in uniform for the final matchup of the season against Cleveland, dressed in a suit while his new squad continued to struggle without its star. The Cavs took advantage, beating the Lakers 101-95 on Sunday night.
The Cavs know all about the challenge of playing without James. They’ve dropped to the bottom of the NBA standings and already surpassed last season’s loss total. The Lakers are starting to learn, falling to 3-7 without him.
Up until late in the fourth quarter, when youngster Kyle Kuzma tried to shoot the Lakers back into the game, James’ new mates looked a lot like the Cavs once did, waiting for him to toss on his Superman cape and save the day.
Only there was no phone booth inside the Staples Center. James could only watch as he works his way back from a groin injury.
Perhaps it was fitting that Cedi Osman, one of James’ favorite teammates and one-time understudy, shined brightest in the city of stars.
Aggressive from the opening tip, Osman scored 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting. He led a balanced scoring attack, as all five starters reached double figures.
“It feels good to get off the streak,” Cavs head coach Larry Drew said. “Anytime you go through a stretch like this it can be a little tough on you. I know for the players physically and mentally. I just want to see our guys grow. I want to see growth every game we play. We’re not going to play well every game, we’re not going to shoot the ball well every game, but from a mistake standpoint I would like to see us grow past where we are making the same mistake over again.”
Rodney Hood, playing on a minutes restriction because of a sore Achilles, gutted through the pain en route to an 18-point night. Rookie Collin Sexton scored 17 points, including a snazzy drive to give the Cavs an eight-point cushion with 1:27 remaining.
The Cavs needed all of it, as the Lakers repeatedly made it a one-possession game late in the fourth quarter before Cleveland capped the win at the free throw line.
“I’ve said it before and said it in pregame, one of our problems has been we’ve been doing things in spurts. I thought we got out to a great start tonight and we hit a couple of bumps in the road, but for the most part, particularly in that second half, we were able to sustain and close it out,” Drew said. “Thought down the stretch we made the plays we had to make. Defensively, we probably made some mistakes as well, but we did close it out and executed and did what we had to do down the stretch to come up with a win.”
On a night when offense was tough to come by for both teams, Cleveland’s embattled defense was the difference.
The Cavs, who are statistically the worst defense in NBA history, held Los Angeles to just 95 points, the first team since Memphis on Dec. 26 to fail to hit the century mark against Cleveland. The Lakers went 36-of-91 (39.6 percent) from the field and 7-of-34 (20.6 percent) from 3-point range.
Which team is better without LeBron? On Sunday night it was the Cavs.
The Cavs finally got the start they needed.
Cleveland built a 15-point lead in the first quarter, the largest of the game, behind a crisp offense that hit 12 of its first 17 shots. By the end of the quarter, the Cavs had scored 32 points — their third consecutive quarter hitting the 30-point mark.
Play of the game
The Cavs’ offense was starting to wilt late. The Lakers were closing the gap. After a fourth straight miss, Tristan Thompson and Alec Burks battled for an extra possession. Eventually Burks ripped the ball away from Lakers center JaVale McGee before thundering down a dunk.
That kind of effort is what Drew has been demanding lately. It was missing against both New Orleans and Houston to open this lengthy road trip.
Burks’ offensive board and dunk ended a near-3-minute scoring drought and pushed the lead back to seven points.
The Cavs will make their fourth stop on this six-game trip, as they play the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.