LOS ANGELES -- The game was long over -- a sometimes thrilling, sometimes sloppy, always nostalgic 120-108 win for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Los Angeles Lakers -- and the muffled tones of singing could be heard seeping out of the Cavs' locker room and out into the hallway at Staples Center.
It’s not uncommon for a Cavs win to be followed by LeBron James pumping music on his speakers, but this sound was human, not digital: an a cappella rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" featuring Kyrie Irving and Jordan McRae.
It was a joyous scene, with James, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and rest of the lot of these supposedly underachieving, overrated Cavs acting as an audience for the impromptu duet.
There was no flag to salute at the end of the song, but perhaps the better way to honor the performance would have been to bow down to "Bean."
The volcano of good vibes was caused by Kobe Bryant, after all. The league’s third all-time leading scorer might have ball-hog tendencies, but his assist could lift the Cavaliers far after this early March meeting.
The Cavs came on the road this week reeling from an embarrassing loss to a short-handed Memphis Grizzlies team, and all the criticism building up around the Cavs seemed to be sticking. From claims of an ill-fit roster to rumors of players wanting out to condemnations of new coach Tyronn Lue’s limited impact to consternation about the social media habits of its star player, Cleveland’s state of being seemed touch-and-go at best.
However, after back-to-back wins in Sacramento on Wednesday and L.A. on Thursday to start the four-game jaunt 2-0, there was a reminder of what these guys can do when they are completely engaged.
The night, of course, started with James and Bryant, the last of their 22 meetings before Bryant calls it a career next month.
"We’re two sportsmen, sportsmanlike guys, and we love the lights," James said after putting up 24 points and seven assists to Bryant’s 26 points and five rebounds, the pair often being matched one-on-one. "We get up for the best moments, and for us to give the fans and give our beautiful sport one last opportunity to watch us both on the same floor and give them a show, it was great."
It evolved to be about what Cleveland is capable of. The style was James catching an alley-oop with his left hand off the backboard and throwing it down and Irving putting up a line of 26 points and nine assists to produce a hybrid James/Bryant-like effort. But the substance was the way the ball moved, finding open shooters all night and the Cavs converted nearly 50 percent of their long-range looks (16-for-35). All five starters scored in double digits, punctuated by 21 points in 25 minutes from Channing Frye, who filled in for Kevin Love (sprained left knee). Frye shot 8-of-10 from the floor and grabbed seven boards.
"Tonight if you weren’t locked in and excited [you don’t belong in the sport]," Frye said. "There was lot of energy in there. It didn’t hurt that it was on TNT. I haven’t been on TV in two or three years."
Like McRae, who didn’t log a minute but had something to sing about as he went from being a D-League player just weeks ago to securing a deal with the Cavs through the end of the season, Frye brings a much-needed sunny outlook for a team too often clouded by claims of what it isn’t rather than praise of what it is.
"I’m excited every day," Frye said. "I get excited because of the selection of soaps in the hotels we stay at. I’m easygoing. I enjoy playing on a good team, playing with a bunch of veteran guys. They make the game fun. For me it’s a unique opportunity to play for this type of team."
It was a perspective unlocked by not only the new faces in McRae and Frye but also in an old one in Bryant.
It will all be gone for Bryant pretty soon: The chance to compete. The packed arenas. The camaraderie of teammates. The celebrities spotted in the front row, from Jack Nicholson to John Legend to Cam Newton in a Smokey the Bear hat, to Stedman, yes, Oprah’s Stedman, sitting right next to the Cavs’ bench.
This Cleveland team could live with nights like Thursday with regularity if it keeps it together.
"We just don’t take it for granted," Irving said, using the very phrase that some have said the Cavs have been doing with James this season. "We obviously know what was happening today. The stage that we were on. But as a Cavaliers team, knowing that the talent [we possess], we’re going to be tested every single time."
Those tests will keep coming, from the challenge of finishing No. 1 in the Eastern Conference to the obstacles that will surely show up along the way to a potential Finals repeat to what should be the biggest battle of them all, the way Bryant sees it, for James and the Cavs.
"If I was him, the thing I’d be obsessing over is dealing with those boys up in Golden State," Bryant said. "So, from a leadership perspective, how you can construct the team and the personality of the team, you have to make sure that you’re ready to do battle for that if you’re fortunate enough to get there, and Golden State is fortunate enough to get there. That’s the problem. From that standpoint you have to figure that out. You can’t leave it to chance ... you have to really study. Hopefully his mind is focused on that. He’s not focused on where he is in his career and how far he is, you have to focus on the problem."
The beauty of where the Cavs stand right now is that if they approach it with the right mindset, they could be in store for a heck of a ride while they try to solve it.