LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's two marquee rookies, played each other for the first time as pros Wednesday amid much talk that their rivalry could rescue the NBA from the doldrums the way that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did nearly a quarter century ago. A national TV audience tuned in, 20,562 people packed Gund Arena and the media crush was playoff-like.
And then a 5-5 journeyman bundle of energy named Earl Boykins took over the game, scoring all 18 of his points in the second half and leading Anthony's Denver Nuggets over James' Cleveland Cavaliers 93-89.
If the NBA's future is dependent on this rivalry, the NBA's in trouble. Fortunately for all concerned, it isn't.
James played 41 minutes and had seven points on 3-for-11 shooting, picking up 11 rebounds and seven assists. Anthony played two fewer minutes, scored 14 on 6-for-19 shooting and had six rebounds and two assists. They each had a highlight-reel moment or two. James came up with the loose ball that resulted from his own lazy pass and knifed to the basket for a dunk, and he made some nice passes as well. Anthony pulled down a rebound and hit Andre Miller in stride downcourt with an outlet pass, and he drove the lane and scored a few times.
But it was hardly the obvious dawning of a new era. James spent long stretches standing around, not involved in the Cavaliers' -- I use this word for lack of another -- offense. Anthony sort of disappeared at times.
That had to be a disappointment to the folks hoping to see the two teenaged stars dazzle as they went head to head. People don't pay scalpers $300 for courtside seats to watch Earl Boykins and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the 7-3 Lithuanian who led the Cavaliers with 23 points. Guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay-Z and Phil Knight don't make special trips to watch two teams that last year combined to go 34-130. For that matter, you and I generally don't tune in to ESPN to watch a game like that, partly because ESPN usually doesn't show it.
I don't think we'll look back on this one the way we might look back on the first matchup between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain if we're old enough to remember it. This isn't going to be that kind of rivalry.
For one thing, they're not similar enough. Russell and Chamberlain, or Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, were centers. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, though they played different positions, were both the slick-passing focal points of their teams' offense. James and Anthony are different. James has an all-around game, but may be most effective as a point guard. Anthony will grab a rebound here and there, but he's basically a scorer.
Also, the two are only considered rivals at the moment because Anthony, already so smooth and poised, is closer to his full potential than James is. Look at the players each is most often compared to. For James it's Magic Johnson. You don't develop a full Magic Johnson game by the age of 18, even if you're Magic Johnson.
Before Wednesday's game Cavaliers coach Paul Silas became the latest basketball person to say that Anthony, who is 19, reminds him of Glenn Robinson. I think Anthony will end up being better than Robinson, but still, it's a long way from the Big Dog's neighborhood to Magic's. Five years from now, when it's likely that Anthony will be a very good player and James the superstar of the league, it's probably going to seem funny that they were ever thought of as rivals.
And besides, great rivals don't play for the Nuggets and Cavaliers. They play for the Celtics and Lakers. I'm sorry about that, but it's true. Why doesn't anyone talk about that great David Robinson-Hakeem Olajuwan rivalry? Because they played for the Spurs and Rockets. Good teams, but not glamour teams.
The Cavaliers, no doubt for merchandising reasons too sophisticated for this column to understand, wore their road uniforms for their home opener. The joint was rocking. Watching, you had to remind yourself that these are two teams unlikely to be in the playoff hunt this year. By the fourth quarter, with the Cavaliers down by double figures and the thinning crowd raining boos down on them, it was easier to remember.
Cleveland has LeBron now, but you don't stop being the Cavaliers overnight. Boykins, the guy who beat them, was a Cavalier once. He's also been a Net, Magic, Clipper and Warrior. Last year he wanted to play for the Cavs again but they weren't interested, so he went to Golden State and helped that franchise show life for the first time in ages, averaging 8.8 points and 3.3 assists in only 19 minutes.
And Boykins is a backup for the competent Andre Miller, who also used to be a Cavalier. He was traded to the Clippers for Darius Miles, who has been a model of consistency since coming into the league straight out of high school three years ago. That's a nice way of saying he still plays like he did when he was fresh out of high school, and he wasn't exactly LeBron James then.
And so it goes. The Cavaliers are 0-4, and it's not like they're getting beat at the buzzer. Their first three losses were by an average of 14 points, and the four-point loss to the Nuggets Wednesday was a lackluster blowout until a rally in garbage time made the score respectable.
James, in his first two games, and Anthony, in his first three, got off to good starts, and now both have had two rough games in a row. The Pacers held Anthony to 1-for-13 shooting, no rebounds, no assists and no foul shots Tuesday night, so he's seven for his last 32 from the field. James is six for his last 23 after Wednesday's 3-for-11 and Saturday's 3-for-12 in Portland.
Even without the crush of attention and expectations these two are under, the NBA is an almost unimaginable grind for rookies coming out of college, never mind high school. The season goes on and on, nearly three times longer than a college or high school season, and that's before the playoffs, which can go for two months. The opponents are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. The physical pounding is relentless. James told a media scrum Wednesday that he was tired and needed to sleep before the game, even though he hadn't played in four days.
And the losing is another part of that grind. James' teams lost six times in his entire high school career. He'll have that many losses by the end of his second week as a pro. Anthony is coming off a national championship at Syracuse, and before that a dominant high school career. The Nuggets are 3-2, but the absolute best they can hope for this year would be to scuffle for the last playoff spot.
By the end of this year these two will be regulars on the highlight shows. Under Silas' guidance, James will become the centerpiece of the Cavaliers' offense and he'll start taking them places, though even in the weak Eastern Conference I don't think he'll take them to the playoffs this year. But anyone who's watched him at all can see that, barring injury or off-court calamity, he's likely going to be a monster of a player, the kind of transcendent star who can carry a league, even without a great rival.
If James wants one of those, he's eventually going to have to do what all the hip superstars are doing these days: Sign with the Lakers.
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