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Cavaliers follow LeBron's lead

With LeBron James doing all sorts of LeBron James things, Cleveland has overwhelmed Toronto through two games

POSTED: May 20, 2016 11:57 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Raptors vs. Cavaliers: Game 2

LeBron James scores 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as the Cavaliers defeat the Raptors 108-89 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

— Follow him.

That's what it comes down to at this time of year for the players fortunate enough or clever enough to be playing with LeBron James. It's not just a matter of being in the presence of greatness, it's the experience of being inside that greatness, of feeling the heat and feeding off the opportunities it cracks open.

James scored 23 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, passed for 11 assists and had three steals Thursday as his Cleveland Cavaliers took a 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference finals series against Toronto with a resounding 108-89 win. He did all sorts of LeBron things -- scoring or assisting on 20 of Cleveland's first 22 points, charging full court to finish with a contest-quality, two-handed reverse power dunk -- and generally played a level above the other guys on his team, and two or three levels about the sagging Raptors.

LeBron Steals and Finishes

LeBron James picks off the pass and slams in the nasty fastbreak dunk.

It's nothing new, but it isn't getting old, either.

"He has a skill set where he can attack the game in every facet," said Cavs reserve James Jones, who has been James' teammate for the last six seasons. "Offensively, defensively, passing, shooting, in the paint, from the perimeter. More importantly, he does a really good job of putting his teammates into position to succeed.

"When we succeed, that makes the game easier for him. That gives him lanes to get to the basket, that allows him to play at his tempo and his space, and that gives him space in transition where he can drive."

Again, this stuff isn't new. James is bearing down on his sixth consecutive trip to The Finals, something only the old Boston Celtics ever have accomplished. He has inflicted pain on 11 of the East's 15 teams in the process, beating them at least once (and poor Chicago, Indiana and Boston three times each). With Miami and Cleveland excluded for obvious reasons, only Washington and Orlando have avoided taking LeLumps from LeBron in the postseason during this run of June appearances.

You make one mistake, he'll find it and make you pay. That usually has a snowball effect when it happens, where he's able to leave his imprint on the game.

– James Jones, on LeBron James

Think of him as a year-round nemesis. He looms large from July through September when teams are assembling their rosters, forever in search of strong bodies and reckless souls willing to serve as primary defenders against the guy. He dictates decisions in October when teams set their strategies to face him. Then from November through April, he shows up on their schedules circled in red and in dread.

The playoffs bring a special kind of hell for opposing coaches. They craft intricate defensive game plans for coping with James and all that he might unleash and then, when that fails, they're left scrambling even to contain his third- or fourth-best teammate. Never mind his first (Kyrie Irving) or second (Kevin Love).

They might as well be building houses out of cards. The King's gonna do what the King does, and generally that means all the other cards come tumbling down. Not to be blasphemous, but it's like a hoops variation of an old saying: coaches plan, LeBron laughs.

LeBron's Triple-Double

LeBron James has 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as the Cavaliers defeat the Raptors 108-89 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

"Teams don't want to give our shooters great shots, but the force that LeBron plays with forces teams to react," Jones said. "You make one mistake, he'll find it and make you pay. That usually has a snowball effect when it happens, where he's able to leave his imprint on the game.

"Strategically, he's trying to dissect and break a team down over 48 minutes. A lot of people think that what he does, he's just playing with tremendous force and thinking about that play. But everything he does is like a chess game. It just builds and over 48 minutes, he's able to get to what he wants. Which is to make the entire team unguardable."

Even Cavs coach Tyronn Lue knows how it feels to be on the other side. He was with the Celtics when James was in Miami, and all the brainstorms coach Doc Rivers' staff concocted got swept aside in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics were up 3-2 in the series, only to have James score 76 points and grab 27 rebounds to have the Heat snatch it back.

"I think he made six or seven threes when guys say he can't shoot or whatever," Lue recalled late Thursday. "But when the occasion rises and he has to be geat, he's always been great. Kind of broke our hearts ... having a sixth game at home and he comes in your building and scores 45 points. It was just devastating to us."

Coach Dwane Casey and his Raptors are on the hurting end of the devastation now, their counters shot down, answers in short supply. He already had enough to think about when asked one time too many about the guy wreaking all this havoc.

"Look, you know, he's a great player," Casey said. "I don't know how many more adjectives I can give him. ... We're not here to increase his legacy or anything like that. We're trying to take his legacy. We're trying to win."

As far as legacies, James snagged another milestone Thursday, passing Shaquille O'Neal for fourth on the NBA's all-time playoff scoring list. His triple-double was his first this postseason but 15th of his career, leaving him behind only Magic Johnson.

That's a lot of NBA history and some sizable stats piles, achieved by players as they wound down in their careers. James, 31, is blowing past them.

"You know he has a large gas tank. Probably one of the greatest gas tanks," Jones said. "Like an 18-wheel semi truck, he has two or three of those gas tanks where [other] guys have one. But he's not concerned about pacing himself. He's playing hard, he's playing fast, he's playing ferocious every possession. When you play like that, it allows you to reach levels.

"He's been preaching all year, 'We have another level, we have another level.' He's been taking that challenge personally, trying to push himself to another level."

In 2015, James shouldered most of the burden for the Cavs, nurturing along bit players such as Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson thrust into central roles after Irving and Love got hurt. This year, he has his All-Star helpers and he's drawing them out, holding them accountable, the way a veteran leader should.

LeBron Passes Shaq

LeBron James scores the layup and passes Shaquille O'Neal to move into fourth place in all-time NBA playoff scoring.

"He's climbing," Jones said. "People automatically assume that, once you reach your 30s, it should go downhill. But you really have to switch it up and he's done that. He pays tremendous attention to detail as far as his diet, his health, his strength and conditioning. So now you see the fruits of his labor.

"When he's on the floor he's pushing it full speed and he's forcing our guys to run with him. When you get our guys running, we're pretty dangerous. He's doing his work on the front end so that, late in games, he doesn't have to play every single minute."

James has logged 62 minutes in beating Toronto twice. The Cavaliers have been 36 points better than the Raptors when he's been on the floor. Just as impressive, they have been 14 points better in the 34 minutes he has sat.

That has been James' impact, not just getting buckets or making passes or attacking the rim. He has helped his teammates get better even when he's not on the floor with them, a measure of legit leadership. He's not close to being done but he's refined the way he does things.

Mostly James smashes game plans. Often has, still does. The Raptors are taking their turn now.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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