In this, LeBron James’ late period, his work projects an ominous element of expectation. As the Raptors battled again and again to push back against his Cleveland Cavaliers, as leads evaporated and then grew back, as the minutes ticked by, there was LeBron. That he didn’t actually hit the game winning shot — that was Kyrie Irving’s three, which gave the Cavs a 94-91 lead they would not relinquish — is besides the point. LeBron warps the entire game around him, affects its every moment; even when he waits three quarters to make it happen. LeBron always looms.
Much of tonight’s game again followed the same Raptors template: DeMar DeRozan took a lot of shots (more missed this time for 32 points on 12-of-28 from the field), Jonas Valanciunas looked powerful (if more underused — 10 points, 17 rebounds), Kyle Lowry still looked a tad out of sorts (though better tonight — 17 points, four assists). The bench was relatively fine — particularly Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph, as per usual. The rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl took turns looking overwhelmed and useful. This time it was Poeltl’s turn to get minutes, as coach Dwane Casey stuck with him in the fourth quarter to “buy time” and counter the Cavs small lineup with LeBron at centre. “Going up against a guy [LeBron] like him makes things a little bit more complicated on the court,” was Poeltl’s post-game assessment. It’s hard to disagree.
The Raptors didn’t exactly due themselves a ton of favours. They turned the ball over 12 times in the first half against a mere six assists. (They finished with 18 turnovers to 12 assists, which is bad.) They shot the ball poorly again from range, finishing this game 4-for-16 (as compared to Wednesday’s 3-for-18). More specifically, there was DeRozan jacking up a lot of shots, and often times ignoring the mismatches the defense gave him. He found shooters on kick-outs during some of his drives, but abandoned that plan when the team couldn’t convert. As is often the case with the Raptors, DeRozan shot Toronto into the game, but also shot them out of it at times. He did tie it up late though, and I mean, good lord:
There were other collective positives too: the Raptors out-rebounded the Cavs 51-40 — including 18 to nine on the offensive end — and held Cleveland to 41.8 percent shooting from the field (but 37.5 percent from deep). If it was exhausting to watch the Raptors hang around only to lose it in the end — which is the most Raptors thing — it was at least entertaining. The last second plays, capped by the unfortunate Patterson missed three (which he was certain was going in), kept the crowd lit up. Peak Toronto.
But of course, it comes back to LeBron, as it always does. “LeBron made a great play, drove, we all collapsed, he kicked out to Kyrie, and he hit a great shot,” said Lowry. This after LeBron spent three quarters grappling with DeMarre Carroll, who tried his best, and Patterson, who contained him as much as literally humanly possible. James would finish with 21 points, seven assists and eight rebounds. It’s just too easy for the man.
“Any time he drove I just tried to vertical jump straight up, just contest, and just hope that he passes it rather than shoot,” said Patterson, after spending many of his 34 minutes in LeBron’s mug. Did he feel like it had any effect, that he was maybe frustrating the best basketball player in the world? Anything?
“No, not at all.”
It remains LeBron’s world.