LOS ANGELES - LOS ANGELES (AP) — The yellow foam hands came flying in from every corner of the lower bowl, sailing onto the court in dozens of frisbee-style arches late in the Cleveland Cavaliers' dominant victory.
Despite that bit of surreality in response to the officiating of a physical game, the Cavaliers were hands-down better than the defending NBA champions in a 102-87 victory on Friday night.
"The only thing that you hope doesn't happen is one of the players getting hit or a referee getting hit, especially by a full water bottle," James said. "When that came on the court, it was coming pretty fast. You don't want that to happen because it could definitely hurt somebody. Luckily no one got hurt, and that's a good thing."
The fans were driven to throw up their hands — not the usual foam No. 1 fingers, but a representation of two puppet hands making the "LA" symbol in a tie-in to Nike's LeBron-and-Kobe Bryant marketing campaign — by Lamar Odom's ejection with 4:04 to play. After Bryant received the Lakers' fifth T with 3:45 left, more hands took flight — along with that water bottle.
"I've never seen an L.A. crowd react like this before," said coach Phil Jackson, whose bench drew a second T after Odom's ejection for failing to produce a substitute quickly. "I like their enthusiasm. I don't like their demonstrative manner. ... It wasn't a well-refereed game, it wasn't a very well-played game, so I think it was a reaction to that."
Mo Williams scored 28 points and James added 26, while Shaquille O'Neal had five dunks among his 11 points in his latest Los Angeles return. The Cavaliers dominated the Lakers with sharp shooting and physical defense, prompting several technical fouls and retaliation hits — and that was before the crowd lost its holiday spirit by returning their pregame presents.
"If you want to throw something, at least throw something that isn't going to hurt," Bryant said. "So I guess that (foam) was the best situation."
"It'll be interesting to see what happens in the future with the NBA, where that can't take place," Brown said. "I don't know what the roles are. When water bottles start flying, does it mean it's a tech, or what? But it's a scary thing when water bottles and other objects start coming on the floor like they did today."
Bryant scored 35 points for the Lakers, who had won 16 of 17 before Cleveland's decisive victory behind Williams, James and the Cavs' impressive interior play, which negated the Lakers' usual advantages down low.
"We know that we can match up well with anybody," O'Neal said. "I felt that it was going to be a good test for us. The Lakers are the best team in the league, they have won it before, and they have a lot of experience playing together. We're somewhat a new group ... but today we came out and stepped up to the challenge."
O'Neal's returns to Los Angeles, where he teamed with Bryant to win three titles in Staples Center's first three seasons, no longer include the obligatory questions about whether Kobe could finally win a title without Shaq, who got boos and cheers during pregame introductions.
"He definitely had a presence in the game," Jackson said. "I do know it was a factor on Kobe. (Shaq) knocked him down about four times without a call."
With Williams leading the way in his third straight impressive road game, the Cavs forced Bryant and the Lakers into their least impressive performance in six weeks. The loss dropped the Lakers (23-5) back into a tie with Boston atop the overall NBA standings.
If this was an NBA finals preview of the matchup that many expected to materialize last summer before Orlando crashed the party, the Lakers should be wary. Cleveland's big men — O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao — allowed them to neutralize 7-foot starters Andrew Bynum, who managed just four points, and Pau Gasol, who had 11.
Meanwhile, the Cavs are tough to guard when James' teammates hit their outside shots with Williams' accuracy. James wasn't omnipresent, but played well enough to force Ron Artest to foul out with 5:01 to play.
The Cavaliers made certain nobody will forget about them in the Eastern Conference race, where Boston and Orlando have dominated the discussion leading up to the Celtics' win over the Magic earlier Friday.
"It wasn't about sending a message to them," James said. "It was about sending a message to ourselves and seeing how we match up with the best team in the NBA at this point. It was a good road win for us. I think it ranks up there, just because of the caliber of the team and the caliber of the players they have."
Cleveland, which never trailed in the final 41 minutes, streaked to a 20-point lead in the second quarter during a run that included little help from James, sitting out while Williams sparked the Cavs. James had just two points and four assists in the quarter, which he ended with a half-court shot just after the buzzer.
Los Angeles got within six points in the third before Cleveland roared away again.
NOTES: Cleveland had beaten the Lakers five straight times before losing both matchups last season. ... Fans included Sylvester Stallone, Anna Kournikova, Danny DeVito, Snoop Dogg, Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and game show host Alex Trebek.