By BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — LeBron James used to downplay winning division titles.
Not this time. Not after what these Cleveland Cavaliers have been through this season.
This one is worth appreciating.
“I’ve kind of like been a hypocrite of that because I’m always moving and trying to figure out how we can be better the next day or whatever the case,” James said. “So it’s always hard for me to be like, OK, another division crown after everything that’s gone on with our team and our ballclub this year, but it’s a pretty cool thing.”
James had 26 points and 11 assists, Kevin Love scored 28 points, and the Cavaliers got their 50th win along with that Central Division title by beating the New York Knicks 123-109 on Monday night.
The Cavs reached 50 wins for the fourth time in four seasons since James returned from Miami and the 11th time in franchise history. James has won a record 10 straight division titles in Cleveland and Miami.
Cleveland pulled within a half-game of Philadelphia for the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference, bouncing back from its loss to the 76ers on Friday and winning for the sixth time in seven games.
A division title and 50 wins would have been considered shoo-ins for the Cavs before the season, but after injuries, trades and a leave of absence for coach Tyronn Lue, nothing seemed certain.
“It’s been it feels like a number of seasons within the season, but it’s also gone by pretty fast,” Love said. “I know I was injured for a number of games, but it still feels like it was a little bit of a blur, so we got one more left at home and as we always say the real things starts.”
J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson added 16 points apiece for the Cavaliers, who made 19 3-pointers and won for the ninth straight time at Madison Square Garden.
Wearing black sneakers that read “I’m” on the left shoe and “King” on the right, James also had six rebounds and a few of his usual powerful dunks, including one where he broke in with a head of speed and Michael Beasley appeared in position to stop him before seeking safety and running by him out of the way .
Beasley scored 20 points for the Knicks in their final home game of the season, which opened a home-and-home series. Rookie Frank Ntilikina added a career-high 17 and Courtney Lee also had 17.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” Ntilikina said. “I’m feeling more comfortable.”
The Knicks remained without injured starters Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter.
The Cavs led by only six with under 4 minutes left, but James found Love for a basket, then followed Clarkson’s two 3-pointers with one of his own to put away the game.
“They’re a great team, and when LeBron’s out there it makes it very difficult on guys. You can’t guard him one-on-one,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “But, our guys didn’t quit, so it was good.”
Cavaliers: Cleveland nearly had its whole roster available, but Rodney Hood was ruled out with a sore left Achilles tendon. Guards George Hill (sprained left ankle) and Jose Calderon (sore left hamstring) both returned. … James can play in 82 games for the first time in his career if he plays Wednesday instead of resting for the playoffs, and that’s the way he’s leaning. “I’m healthy, so I’m playing,” he said.
Knicks: Hornacek said Hardaway and Kanter most likely wouldn’t play Wednesday, but didn’t rule it out. … Hardaway was called for a technical foul at the end of the first half.
Masters champion Patrick Reed was seated courtside, wearing his green jacket. Love and actor Chris Rock were among those to greet him.
COURTING THE KING
James said Monday morning he hadn’t seen the billboard that went up near MSG urging him to play for the Knicks next season, though he was aware of it. Similar billboards had already gone up in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland and his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
“Same reaction as I had to every last one of them this year,” he said of the newest entry. “I think it’s very humbling that cities and organizations want me to play for them, especially at this juncture of my career, so that’s it.”
The Knicks will try to win in Cleveland for the second time this season, after a 114-95 victory on Oct. 29.
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