LeBron James is aware of the psychological grip he is capable of possessing on opposing teams. During his reign of terror on the Eastern Conference, he’s broken many a team and many a core, often making it seem as if he’s never given anyone but his own team and whoever waited in the West a moment of thought. That’s inaccurate. The casualness with which his dominance is often trademarked is a part of the strategy, an ego-deflating Don Draper air of I-don’t-think-about-you-at-all that stands to render any hope or confidence seem foolish in retrospect. He is thinking, though, and he occasionally opens a tiny window into his process.
“Two points ain’t two points. That’s a lie. Two points is not two points. I’ll explain it to you later,” he said at shootaround. “But I get coaches have said that for years, but two points is not two points.”
In this case, he was referring to Game 2, where he sunk the Toronto Raptors in a blowout with an other-worldly, record-setting performance from the mid-range. It turned back the clock on NBA dogma, invited irony given how the Raptors have tried to change their own offensive identity, and left a sense in its wake that there is no good option to defend him, because the one thing left the book says to do to him is obsolete.
He may well have been making a prediction with those words, too. Because two points – his biggest of the series, and on a shot that immediately slots near the top of his personal career highlight reel – just extinguished any last flicker in the Raptors making a comeback against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Game tied, final seconds ticking off the clock, James went left and unleashed an unthinkable floater that banked off backboard – teammates assure you he called it – and flushed through the rim. To that point, the Raptors had tried everything, switched every wrinkle, mixed every lineup, and finally found a resolute toughness that would define a near-epic second-half comeback. And therein lies the unfortunate enormity of James, where the Raptors have to try everything under the sun to come back and everything for Cleveland is just so, so simple with the game on the line.
“You just get the ball to ‘Bron at the end of the game,” Ty Lue said.
Things aren’t that easy on the other side. To try to find a spark initially, the Raptors switched up their starting lineup, shifting a struggling Serge Ibaka to the bench in favor of Fred VanVleet. The intention to get an extra ball-handler and shooter on the floor made sense even if it didn’t address the issue of Kevin Love, and Toronto having maybe its five best players out to start each half was a reasonable approach. They would press a bit more, play more physical, and try whatever they could to force more turnovers and make Cleveland uncomfortable. It was almost a disaster out of the gate – VanVleet opened the game with a charge, the Cavaliers continued to get looks they liked and Love mismatches with ease, and defenders just flew by Kyle Korver in transition – and a 16-4 hole seven minutes into the game looked like the end of Toronto’s season.
Quickly, Toronto found the resiliency they’d spoke about all week. Ibaka and Pascal Siakam entered and the defensive identity shifted, with a great energy on that side of the ball helping slow Cleveland enough for the Raptors to begin chipping away. A C.J. Miles three capped a 13-4 run and sent Cleveland to a timeout, the Raptors took a three-point edge in the short window James sat, and were it not once again for turnover issues (five in the quarter), the Raptors may have already completed the early comeback in earnest. Dwane Casey rode with an Ibaka-Kyle Lowry-bench group at the top of the second, and there were more positives. VanVleet nailed a triple, Miles had a three and-one, Siakam did well to get into James and make things tough, and the Raptors hovered within a possession for half of the quarter.
DeMar DeRozan’s struggles stuck out here amid the solid run, and a 1-of-7 start from the floor would eventually end with an eight-point night, a minus-23 mark, and a benching for the stretch run. Here, he made a small handful of poor decisions, and the Cavs began pulling away again with their corner offense scoring at will around a personal 5-0 run for OG Anunoby. Eventually, Cleveland’s started snowballing, the Raptors got back to making a few of their earlier mistakes, and a number of plays where minus-defenders like DeRozan and Miles had great defensive possessions, Cleveland ironically scored anyway, sucking some of the wind out. The lead hit 12, and then a questionably overturned call on a would-be Ibaka and-one resulted in a Love three the other way, a crucial part of a 16-2 run that was capped with Jeff Green getting the easiest of buckets to end the half and go up 15. Casey and Masai Ujiri both appeared close to technical fouls for arguing the Ibaka over-turn, and while the Raptors had done well on their own glass and forced a few Cavaliers turnovers, the outcome of the story was largely the same.
Series on the line, Toronto looked like a new team again out of the half, quickly going on a 12-0 run that would cut the lead to five. As unlikely as it seemed, the Raptors were right back in it, and Cleveland’s only counterpush was for James to fight through some intense physical play. He did, of course, because he’s James, and his game took on the same Game 2 look where he seemed intent on sending a message. Toronto answered a fair amount initially, but a turnover out of a timeout and a couple of tough breaks on otherwise good defensive stands had them reeling again. Love then had another takeover stretch, scoring seven consecutive points exploiting Siakam and Ibaka in the post (an aside: Delon Wright is a heck of a post-entry denier, even with a size mismatch). With Love cooking, the Cavaliers survived a stretch without James, and the lead was comfortably at 14 entering the fourth. It wasn’t over.
“Kyle was not about to let us go out without a fight,” Casey said.
Again, the Raptors responded. With James back on the floor, the Raptors found something with a lineup of Lowry, VanVleet, Miles, Anunoby, and Ibaka that had played one minute together all year. It was hard to buy in initially. An Ibaka traveling call falling down in the post seemed to send a certain message. Threes change things quickly, though, and Anunoby, Miles, and Lowry all hit them in short order to show one more flicker. When James hit a step-back three to push the lead back to double-digits, it once again seemed over, and once again the Raptors responded. Despite a number of questionable switches and a George Hill back-door cut, the Raptors chipped. Anunoby banked in a three. Korver lost the handle on a swing pass. Lowry attacked relentlessly to get to the line. James hit another tough fade-away, and down three with under a minute to go, the Raptors botched an out-of-timeout play with five seconds on the clock.
Dire, again. Again, a response, with a Lowry drive, an intentional foul, and a chance to tie with 15 seconds to go. In transition the other way, Anunoby canned a three without so much as a thought, the steely resolve that’s come to define his rookie season and personality in general on full display. The Raptors’ rookie, a steal outside of the lottery, a starter on a 59-win one-seed, has spent the entire postseason so far declining to so much as flinch at the moment, even as James rained down impossible jumpers around him. He is unflappable, and a player still that young hitting that big a shot should be a watershed moment for a franchise core that needs exactly what Anunoby is becoming.
Instead, there is James. Eight seconds to go, he drives the floor, avoids a potential trap in the middle to go left, sees no strong-side help, and unleashes an impossible floater.
“The level of difficulty of that shot is very difficult. Don’t try it at home,” James said.
It sends Quicken Loan arenas into a frenzy. It appears to momentarily kill Jonas Valanciunas on the Raptors bench. It has teammates speaking after like it didn’t actually happen, because telling the story of such a shot, performance, and player can’t help but sound mythical. It very likely ended the Raptors season, as they’re now faced with a series hole no team has ever climbed out of and James would appear to have no intention of throwing them rope for. Lowry, meanwhile, spoke for everyone.
“I thought there was some time on the clock left. I didn’t want it to be real,” he said.
It was real. It feels different. At least a little bit. Two years ago, the Raptors were blown out four times and won two games the Cavaliers didn’t seem particularly interested in or lucid for. Last year’s sweep was about as unceremonious as they come. There is at least the specter here that things could have been different, that two games came down to the whims of the winds or the gods or The God or just small lapses in execution. Were there more time left for it to matter, losing two very close games with a ton of low-hanging fruit for improvement moving forward would be genuinely encouraging. They don’t have that benefit, though, and it now seems very likely that the end of this season will feel no different from the last two despite the existence of important visceral context.
That’s the playoffs, where the sample is limited enough to render margins for error tiny and where small factors – over-switching, missing a tip-in, not employing the best player in the world, struggling to find working lineups, a poorly timed off-night from a star – mean everything. The Raptors have done some good in this series and showed great fight in a Game 3 comeback, but they’re down 0-3 because they’ve lost every one of those small battles at the margin. This is at least the way you want to go out, fighting as the version of yourselves you’ve claimed to be. Fighting is always better. A fight’s not always enough when two points ain’t two points.