SAN ANTONIO • Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and left to a standing ovation on Monday, as the San Antonio Spurs humbled the NBA champions Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 with less than three weeks left before the start of the play-offs.
The late-season glamour match-up in San Antonio fizzled out as the Spurs took control in the first quarter thanks not only to stars like Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge but also to stellar play from their reserves.
Adding to the misery for Cleveland, their superstar LeBron James took an elbow just above the shoulder blades from Spurs' David Lee in the waning seconds of the third quarter that sent him slumping to the court.
He stayed there for several scary minutes before making his way to the bench and, with the Cavs trailing 58-81 going into the fouth quarter, did not return to the court.
"I'm fine," he said after the game, vowing to be ready for the Cavs' next game tomorrow at Chicago.
James scored 17 points before departing, but the Cavs endured their ninth defeat in 15 games this month.
The team connected on just 37.3 per cent of their shots from the floor and for the first time since November 2015 fell out of first place in the National Basketball Association's Eastern Conference, as their record fell to 47-26.
The Boston Celtics now lead the East at 48-26.
It is the first time since the 2007-08 season that the Celtics are in sole possession of first place in the East this late into the season. It is also the first time since Nov 17 that the reigning champions have not sat atop the conference.
James said the seeding for the play-offs was not a major concern.
"I want us to be playing better basketball," he said after the Cavs were held to a season-low points total. "That's what it comes down to.
"San Antonio is a well-oiled machine and they exploit anything you are not doing well. At this point in the season we just aren't playing good basketball.
"It's frustrating right now, but we are a veteran ball club and we will work through this and get things together. We've been like a roller- coaster all season long and we have to get things right."
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue admitted his team looked flat and tired. "The crazy part about it - we start off the right way, but teams are so much faster than us," he said. "They just look so much faster than we are. I mean, damn. It just looks like - just beat us on the dribble, transition, just looking faster."
This is not the first time he has said other teams seem to be playing faster than the Cavs. Asked whether his team are hobbled by tired legs or a lack of athleticism, he said it was probably both.
"We do have slow guys," Lue said. "And guys are tired. Games that we would normally try to get those guys some rest, it just hasn't been happening.
"But I promise, we're going to be fine. I'm not pressing. They know that, we know it. We just have to play better."
The Spurs posted their fifth straight win and at 57-16 pulled within two games of the Golden State Warriors in the race for the best record in the league and the Western Conference lead.
Pau Gasol scored 14 points and Manu Ginobili chipped in with 12 for the Spurs, who host the Warriors today.
While the San Antonio crowd was geared up for a play-off-calibre contest, the Spurs soon took all suspense out of the proceedings, using a 17-8 run over the final half of the first quarter to take a 28-18 lead.
The Spurs' bench were big contributors, out-scoring Cleveland's bench 15-0 in the first quarter and 28-0 in the first half.
Cavs star Kyrie Irving scored just eight points and saw his run of 21 straight games with at least 20 points end.