Fifteen years deep, LeBron James is still capable of breaking new ground. On Tuesday, for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, his team didn’t lead for a single second of the first four quarters of the game … and still managed to win.
James notched his 21st career playoff triple-double with 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds, sharpshooters J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver combined for 39 points on 10 made 3-pointers, and Tristan Thompson came off the bench to chip in his second straight double-double as the Cavs stunned the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, 113-112, in Game 1 of their second-round series. Cleveland trailed by as many as 14 points, never led in regulation, only got its first tie of the game on a LeBron turnaround fadeaway over the outstretched arms of rookie OG Anunoby with 30 seconds left in regulation …
… and held Toronto at bay in overtime to steal home-court advantage. And with it, perhaps, whatever belief the Raptors and their fans might have had that, after two consecutive postseason series losses to the Cavs, things really could be different this year.
After riding a hot start to a double-digit first-quarter lead, withstanding a blistering 38-point Cleveland response in the second and taking a five-point edge into the fourth quarter, the Raptors had a small army of chances to close the door on the Cavs. They blew them all.
Toronto went an excruciating 4-for-20 over the final 10 minutes of game time, with a slew of misses at the front of the rim and on quality 3-point looks — the kind of misses that haunt you, in the moments after the game, in the days between games, and possibly way, way longer than that.
Center Jonas Valanciunas, a monster during the third quarter when guarded by an overmatched Kevin Love, missed three point-blank shots that could’ve given Toronto a two-possession lead with 3 1/2 minutes remaining; he missed another layup a half-minute later, after a pair of Thompson free throws cut Cleveland’s deficit to one. Kyle Lowry, who’d been all but erased for the entirety of the fourth quarter when LeBron picked him up, finally created some space with a speed dribble and stepback, but missed a 17-footer that could’ve made it a four-point game with 47 seconds to go.
After James’ fadeaway equalizer, the Raptors had the ball with 18 seconds left and a chance to win it in regulation. They got five looks at it — an open 3 by reserve guard Fred VanVleet (who, admittedly, had just checked in after sitting for eight minutes of game time after reportedly tweaking his injured right shoulder) plus tip-in tries by DeMar DeRozan, C.J. Miles and Valanciunas — and couldn’t convert any of them.
That gave Cleveland back the ball with less than a second left on the clock and a chance for a game-winner of their own. They nearly got it …
Damn thought LeBron was going to hit that pic.twitter.com/sry8zHx9p7
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 2, 2018
… but James’ fading right-to-left jumper came up juuuust short, sending the game to overtime. Things didn’t get better for Toronto from there.
On the first possession of the extra session, Lowry picked up his dribble a beat early coming off a curl and tried to feed DeRozan, only to throw the ball straight to the Cavs’ Smith. On the ensuing Cavs trip, DeRozan first stayed with James off a screen, briefly leaving Korver alone at the 3-point arc, where James found him with a quick behind-the-back pass. DeRozan lunged to try to contest the shot he was sure was coming; Korver pump-faked, took a dribble, rose, fired and gave Cleveland both its first lead of the game — at the 4:23 mark of overtime — and one it would never relinquish.
After going down by six on a putback by Thompson with just over two minutes to play, the Raptors got one last burst of life. Lowry — pushing the ball off a LeBron miss in pursuit of an offensive possession on which he wouldn’t have to deal with James’ defense — raced down court and into a retreating Love before contorting himself and putting up a layup that went down, plus the foul, getting the Raptors within one point with 57 seconds to go.
The Raptors got the stop they needed on the next Cavs possession, as James passed out of what looked like a decent shot at a layup to set Korver up for an open 3 that missed … but neither Valanciunas nor Serge Ibaka could corral the rebound, giving the ball back to Cleveland with 40 ticks left. James drained the clock down, but again the Raptors were ready, as Anunoby and DeRozan trapped him into a late-clock scud that drew nothing but backboard for a shot clock violation that handed Toronto one more chance to win it with 16 seconds on the game clock.
Toronto worked out a switch, getting DeRozan the ball with a head of steam on the perimeter guarded by Thompson. DeRozan drove to his right, but the Cleveland center stayed with him stride for stride, beating him to the spot and forcing DeRozan to think twice before he tried a layup. Instead, DeRozan pivoted back out and kicked the ball out to VanVleet, once again open a couple of steps behind the arc. Once again, the reserve guard’s shot went awry, and with it, so did the Raptors’ best-laid plans for changing the tone and tenor of their relationship with the postseason, especially as it relates to meetings with LeBron James.
James shot 12-for-30 from the field. Love went 3-for-13 and looked like a shell of himself for most of the first 3 1/2 quarters. Cleveland continued to get next to nothing from midseason additions George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., who picked up a DNP-CD on Tuesday. And the Raptors still lost. That hurts, a lot, and it’s going to even if the Raptors can bounce back and even the series on Thursday, because now LeBron’s already got the game he needed north of the border.
“A lot of things we can clean up,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game, and he’s right. Fourteen turnovers leading to 21 Cavalier points. The fear of LeBron getting loose that led to over-helping in the second quarter, which James exploited by finding open men — chiefly Smith and newly minted small-ball center Jeff Green, who combined for 22 points on eight shots in the second as the Cavs chopped down Toronto’s lead.
Too many blown defensive assignments resulting in Korver running free, allowing him to find a shooting rhythm in the third quarter after a cold start. And, yeah, all those late misses, of which Casey could only say, “I don’t know if it was nerves, or yips, or what,” giving voice to the ghost that just always seems to haunt the Raptors come this time of year, and against this opponent.
The silver lining, such as there is one: Toronto shot 55 percent in the first half and generated plenty of quality scoring chances even as the Air Canada Centre was burning. Several of the youngsters — Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, who did yeoman’s work on LeBron, and VanVleet, who was willing to step into potential game-winners twice — looked ready for the moment, and DeRozan (22 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks) and Lowry (18 points, 10 assists, three rebounds) trusted the pass when the play dictated it.
Things might tighten up if Tyronn Lue opts to go with Thompson (14 points, 12 rebounds, tremendous energy on the glass and in the defensive half-court) at center alongside Love and James in a more traditionally big frontcourt, but the Raptors got a lot of the kinds of looks they want against the Cavs’ permissive defense, and can credibly believe they can do so again. That counts for something. It just doesn’t count as much as making them. Because when you come up short there, you get one leg chopped out from under you and find yourself staring up at a damning deficit to the absolute worst guy.
The Raptors have been in this hole before, have felt this pressure before, and have never been able to crawl out. Two months ago and two days ago, they believed things were different this time around. After a Game 1 that followed a new script but produced a familiar conclusion, they’ve got an off day to collect themselves before starting the climb on Thursday. LeBron already found what he needed in Canada. Now we learn if the Raptors can do the same.
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