OK, so maybe there’s something to this whole “play LeBron a bunch of minutes, sweep the opposition and then get a week off” thing.
The Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t need much time at all to find their rhythm after eight days off following a first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers. They opened their second-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors with a 10-3 run, punctuated by a very loud and stylish off-the-backboard alley-oop dunk by LeBron James, and never looked back, leading by as many as 25 points on their way to a 116-105 win that gave them a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series.
They’d get close a few times. They tied the game on a pair of DeMar DeRozan free throws midway through the first quarter, got within two on an old-fashioned three-point play by Kyle Lowry midway through the second, and cut the deficit to seven after a pair of hooks by center Jonas Valanciunas three minutes into the third. Each time, though, the Cavs had an answer.
“It seems the same,” Lowry said after the game, according to Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star. “They get big spurts, and we fight back, and they do another big spurt. We gotta find a way to limit the spurts.”
Mostly, that answer’s name was LeBron James.
As was the case for the bulk of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals matchup between these two teams, which Cleveland won in six games, the Cavs’ overwhelming offense flustered Toronto’s defense throughout. James led the way, controlling Game 1 with a game-high 35 points on 13-for-23 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block and one beer (well, almost, at least) in 41 minutes of work.
“He’s the hub of everything,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said before the game. “He understands where everybody is. He’s a quarterback. He’s a point guard. He’s a power forward. He’s a small forward. He’s a shooting guard. He’s everything.”
When he doesn’t have to do everything, though, the Cavs get special, and LeBron had help in Game 1.
Kyrie Irving contributed 24 points, a career playoff-high 10 assists, two rebounds and two steals. Kevin Love chipped in 18 points and nine boards. Tristan Thompson added a double-double, with 11 points, 14 rebounds and some tough interior defense in 38 minutes for the Cavs, who knocked down 14 of 34 3-point tries, attacked their way into 29 free-throw attempts, hitting 24, and kept the ball moving en route to 26 assists on 39 made field goals.
More importantly, though, a Cavs team that has been raked over the coals for months over its inability to consistently get stops put the clamps on the Raptors for long stretches of Game 1. They limited Toronto to 7-for-21 shooting in the first quarter, forcing five turnovers that turned into eight Cavs points, as they built their double-digit advantage. After Lowry’s and-one capped a 19-3 Toronto run to make it a 41-39 game, Cleveland held the Raps to just three field goals over the final 6:41 of the opening half, a stint of stingy defense that allowed the Cavs to survive their own frosty shooting and head into halftime with a 14-point advantage.
With Cleveland featuring Love but his shots not falling, the Raptors chopped away early in the third quarter. They moved the ball and generated good looks for big men Serge Ibaka (who’d finish with 15 points, six rebounds and three assists) and Valanciunas (six points and six boards in just 21 minutes, as Casey again eyed smaller lineups featuring Norman Powell and P.J. Tucker) in a 10-1 run that cut the Cavs’ lead to seven at 65-58 with 8:55 left in the third.
And then … y’know … the Cavs happened.
First, LeBron canned a 3-pointer off the bounce to push the lead back to 10. Then, after the Raptors miscommunicated on a Cleveland pick-and-roll and wound up leaving Thompson alone for a diving dunk, Kyrie hit Love in the corner for a 3, and a cutting LeBron for an and-one layup. Then Kyrie fed LeBron, who flicked a no-look feed to Thompson, who spun through traffic to deliver the ball back to Kyrie in the corner for another triple, and the lead was back to 15.
Another LeBron long ball and a drive that ended just short of Miller Time highlighted a 17-5 late third-quarter run that put the Raptors down by 25 with less than a minute left in the third. The late-quarter kick rendered the final 12 minutes little more than what legendary play-by-play man Marv Albert would call “extended gar-bajj time.”
96-74 Cleveland after 3Q. Raps can't score with Cavs and can't really hold them either so …
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) May 2, 2017
Lowry turned in 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting with 11 assists in 40 minutes, while DeRozan added a relatively quiet 19 points on 7-for-16 shooting. Tucker, whom the Raptors imported along with Ibaka at the February trade deadline in hopes of adding veteran presence, defensive steel and 3-point shooting that would serve them well come the postseason, often looked like the best player in a Toronto uniform on Monday, chipping in 13 points with 11 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
The good news for the Raptors: they also started slow against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 before locking into their game and ripping off three straight wins, and they looked downright bereft in Games 1 and 2 of last year’s matchup with the Cavs before winning two in a row back home in Canada to turn it into a series. The bad news: the Cavs ain’t the Bucks, and Toronto didn’t take another game off Cleveland after getting level last year.
“We didn’t play to our game,” Casey said after the game. “They made shots. We didn’t. We made some mistakes, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘dominate,’ with that term. Someone said ‘disrespect.’ We did enough things positive, and I think we correct those [other] things and bounce back. All you’ve got to do is win one game on the road.”
That’s easier said than done, though, against a Cavs team that has dropped just one playoff game at Quicken Loans Arena to an Eastern Conference opponent in 16 outings since LeBron came home. Especially since, according to the King, the search for “rhythm and conditioning” after an eight-day layoff left the Cavs a bit less than themselves on Monday, despite what our lyin’ eyes might have told us about their performance.
“I feel like I’ll be a lot better [in Game 2] on Wednesday,” James told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow during a post-game interview.
The Raptors had better hope he’s wrong.
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