NEW YORK -- The message embroidered on the front of LeBron James' baseball cap he wore after the Cleveland Cavaliers' 104-101 comeback victory over the New York Knicks on Monday night summed up the game -- and his talk -- perfectly.
"All good," the cap read in uppercase letters, followed by another line of text underneath: "Never better."
Sure, the Cavs have been better before -- they're currently 7-7 on the season, with the win over the Knicks giving them their first winning streak since they started the season 2-0. And James, while still dominating the sport, probably peaked as an individual player several years ago.
But the drama between Cleveland and its Eastern Conference counterpart in New York? That may very well be unrivaled in the two teams' shared history after all the off-court drama of the past several days.
With Phil Jackson resigning as team president in June, it seemed as if James lost the target of his Knicks-based ire. That is, until New York big man Enes Kanter stepped in to fill the void.
Over the weekend, James said the Knicks should have drafted Dallas Mavericks guard Dennis Smith Jr. with the No. 8 pick in the NBA draft instead of French guard Frank Ntilikina. Kanter took exception to James' take, coming to his rookie teammate's defense first on Twitter on Saturday night shortly after James made the comment that Smith "should be a Knick," and later at practice Sunday when he said James' words showed "disrespect."
James, in turn, laughed off Kanter's rebuttal at shootaround Monday.
"For Enes Kanter, who always got something to say," James said. "He says ... I don't know what's wrong with him."
Which all set the stage come game time, when James' and Kanter's war of words spilled onto the court, and once again, Ntilikina was stuck in the middle of it.
James converted an alley-oop with 40.2 seconds left in the first quarter to put the Cavs up by one. He immediately crowded Ntilikina, bumping his chest into the point guard while Ntilikina tried to free himself up to receive the inbounds pass, causing Ntilikina to shove his forearm back into James.
Kanter then intervened, and he and James barked at each other before referee Tre Maddox came in to separate the two. James and Kanter were both assessed a technical foul.
Said Kanter of the exchange with James: "He's a rookie. You call yourself 'King' or whatever. But you can't just mess with a rookie like that. If you're going to mess with [someone], go mess with the grown men. I'll die for my teammates. Whatever happens, I got my teammates' back because I see this team, this organization, like my family. Nobody is going to mess with it."
Kanter, who finished with 20 points and 16 rebounds but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter while Cleveland stormed back from 15 points down to win, illustrated his point on Twitter after speaking to the media.
I FREAKING LOVE MY FAMILY pic.twitter.com/rXLlbcpTUz— Enes Kanter (@Enes_Kanter) November 14, 2017
When James was asked about the incident, he brushed it aside.
"Nothing," he said. "We got the win. I'm not going to get, uh, I'm not going to say that guy's name again, anyway."
"Of course it was tough. We were up by 20-something I think and we gave up 40-something points in the fourth quarter," Kanter said. "I think if you look at it, we fight really hard. We played with a lot of energy. I'll tell you one thing, this team is really special. You ain't coming to my house and playing that water bottle flip game again.
"I don't care who you are. What do you call yourself, 'King,' 'Queen,' 'Princess,' whatever you are. We're going to fight. Nobody out there is going to punk us. We went out there and played our game. We're going to go out there and get better every day."
James replied, "Well, I'm the King, my wife is the Queen and my daughter's the Princess, so we've got all three covered."
James finished with 23 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds and five turnovers, just missing the chance to record his fourth triple-double in his last seven games against New York.
It appeared James grabbed a 10th rebound of his own missed free throw late in the game, but the rebound was awarded to Jeff Green after a postgame review because it was determined Green made a controlled tip of the ball to James, a league source told ESPN.
Last season, when Kanter was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, James and several of his teammates flipped water bottles at the end of the bench late in the Cavs' 126-94 blowout win over New York at the Garden.
After Monday's game, James couldn't resist getting in another shot at Jackson before the night was over.
"They're playing some good basketball," James said of the Knicks. "I think Jeff, the coach, Jeff Hornacek is finally -- with the release of the old fella, he's finally allowed to implement what he wants to do on the team and he's showing it's very effective."
The "old fella" he was referring to is the 72-year-old Jackson. James flashed a smile before he said it.
As for Ntilikina, he finished with 7 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 6 steals in 25 minutes off the bench, becoming the first Knicks rookie since Mark Jackson in 1987 to swipe more than five steals in a game.
"That's good," Hornacek said. "A young kid to stand up to the best player in the league. So I was happy for Frank to get an opportunity to get out there and play and show him, yeah, you can say whatever you want, but I'm going to still be here and be here for many years. Then you had his teammates backing him up. So that was great."
Ntilikina shrugged off the contact he made with James.
"He was in my way to get the ball, to get the ball out of bounds," Ntilikina said. "It could have been anyone, so I just pushed him to get the ball in. He was in my way. It could have been anyone."
"I don't care who you are. What do you call yourself, 'King,' 'Queen,' 'Princess,' whatever you are. We're going to fight. Nobody out there is going to punk us. We went out there and played our game. We're going to go out there and get better every day."Enes Kanter on LeBron James
James explained that his comment about Smith Jr. being a missed pick by the Knicks was a critique meant for Jackson and that he wasn't "throwing shade at Frank at all." Jackson fell out of favor with James last season when he referred to James' business associates as a "posse" in an interview with ESPN. James expressed that the term had a racial connotation behind it.
Kanter only focused on how James' words affected Ntilikina.
"I don't care who, I just cannot let anyone disrespect my family like that, because when I play for an organization, I see my teammates and that organization as like a family," Kanter told reporters Sunday. "And it doesn't matter if it's LeBron or whoever it is, I cannot just let him disrespect him like that. The coaches, the GMs, the president, this organization knows what they're doing. ... I mean, come on. That's a rookie. You cannot just say anything like that about him."
The chippy play between both teams continued in the second quarter when New York's Kyle O'Quinn blocked Green in transition and landed hard on the Cavs forward and no foul was called. Injured Cleveland guard Isaiah Thomas was so fired up by the contact he received a technical foul for his reaction on the bench. Dwyane Wade was also T'd up with 4:22 to play in the second quarter.
The Cavs amassed more technical fouls (three) than made 3-pointers (two) in the first half and fell down by as many as 23 points before mounting their comeback.
"It was a little frustration setting in, and I just told the guys, 'Stop feeling sorry for ourselves. Let's just play basketball. We had some good looks. Just continue to be good defensively, and we'll win this game,'" Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "So coming out in the third quarter it was kind of shaky, but I thought towards the end of the third quarter and the fourth quarter, it really got better."