“In time, you [Toronto] will know what it’s like to lose,” said LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, after crushing the Raptors, 128-110, in Game 2 of their second round series. “To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail, all the same. Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.”
This, after LeBron snapped his fingers and erased the very idea of the “Toronto Raptors, Eastern Conference Champions” from our universe. There will be no comeback from this, no hope; there may not even be another single, solitary win for the Raptors — though that’d be nice, if only to save face. The series is 0-2 for Toronto, but it may as well be 0-4; it certainly feels like it’s 0-400.
In just over 40 minutes, James scored 43 points, grabbed eight boards, and dished out 14 assists against just one turnover. He shot 19-of-28 (68 percent) from the field, 1-of-3 from three, and, revealing that there is in fact a way to pierce his armour, a mere 4-of-8 from the free throw line. He added a steal for good measure. This is galaxy level stuff, and LeBron, now 34, has been doing it now for eight straight seasons — rending teams’ strategies apart, destroying their will to compete, and moving on.
For most of the first half (to say nothing of Game 1), things felt a little different for the Raptors. It’s their third year in a row taking on LeBron, but through those six quarters — unlike the last two years — Toronto was actually putting up quite a fight. (Yes, I know they won two games in 2016, but they got blown out the other four.) On this night, powered by 18 and 11 first half points from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, respectively, they were staying level with the King. The danger was ever-present of course; but the team, and we, could believe.
Staring at the final result though makes us all feel foolish — to even think the outcome could have been different! The third quarter was when things finally exploded. The Raptors started the half with a turnover, then an and-1 lay-up for JR Smith (19 points), and just like that, their lead was gone, never to be seen again. Smelling blood, the Cavaliers kept attacking. First Kevin Love (30 points, 11 rebounds, 11-of-21 shooting) went to work, and then LeBron truly flexed his muscles. What followed was an 18-5 run, then some truly vicious and inspiring shot-making from James, and a thorough bludgeoning of the spirit.
I’d love to try and highlight some good things here, a strong performance or sequence that could be built on by the Raptors. But it doesn’t really feel right. Despite that relatively strong half, Toronto never looked like themselves. Yes, Lowry was excellent (until he picked up his fourth foul early in the third), finishing with 21 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) plus eight assists. DeMar DeRozan got to 23 points and generally did his thing. Jonas Valanciunas kept plugging away, dutifully carrying out the principles of Toronto’s culture reset to the tune of 16 points (on 8-of-11 shooting) and 12 rebounds. But the rest of the team? “We were searching,” said coach Dwane Casey afterwards; a fitting word, since the team did indeed look lost.
Serge Ibaka is the main culprit here, the frontcourt lodestone that crumbled at the worst time. His 12 minutes tonight amounted to 0-of-5 shooting, two points, plus six rebounds. In fact, Ibaka’s presence was such a negative that Casey opted to lean on C.J. Miles (8 points) to try and guard Love, which didn’t work (to understate it). Meanwhile, no one — not Pascal Siakam, not OG Anunoby — could do anything about LeBron (which is impossible to overstate). Those two tore the Raptors apart into the fourth, until the game was firmly out of reach.
As for the Raptors’ supposed strength — their depth — it was nice to see Fred VanVleet out there with 14 points (on 5-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-7 from three), plus four assists. But the rest of the Bench Broskis looked in turns ineffective, overwhelmed, or both. That they couldn’t outplay the Cavaliers bench (namely Jeff Green and his annoying 14 points), speaks volumes as to the direction of this series.
OK, I’ll come clean: that’s not an actual quote from LeBron in the lede paragraph. It’s from Avengers: Infinity War. You probably heard it spoken in one of the trailers by Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin). Setting aside his penchant for galactic genocide, there’s a solid point of comparison to make here with LeBron. They both can be slowed for a time, maybe even outsmarted for a moment, but they ultimately win because that’s the way the story is supposed to go. (Though we’ll see what happens to Thanos when Avengers 5 comes out.)
“We’re down two, but it’s first to four, we’ll just take it one game at a time,” said DeRozan optimistically. Still, it sounded like the belief was seeping out of his voice. What else could he say?
The Raptors head to Cleveland on Saturday for Game 3. And it feels like destiny is coming once again.