CLEVELAND – After everyone went through this a year ago, after the Toronto Raptors took their turn as turnstiles for another LeBron James-led team barreling toward the NBA Finals, Dwane Casey of the Raptors gave credit where it was due.
“He just took over,” the Toronto coach said then. “He took it to another level. Just mentally, physically, defensively, offensively, he wasn’t going to let them lose.
“He canceled Christmas.”
Fast-forward 12 months and James seems on the verge of canceling what’s left of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“Playoff LeBron” isn’t just a thing in this 2017 postseason – it’s a hashtag. It’s a force. It’s a movement, and it might as well be a cyborg, calling to mind time-traveler Reese’s frantic warning about Terminator Arnold: It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop – ever – until you are dead!
Seriously, can’t you just imagine DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry or one of the other members of the Raptors thinking that about now?
The Cavaliers led by 30 points in Game 2 Wednesday before exiting with a 125-103 victory from Quicken Loans Arena, 48 hours after leading by 25 en route to a 116-105 triumph in Game 1. They are 6-0 in the East bracket so far, halfway to the number of victories they need to advance to their third consecutive Finals (and James’ seventh in as many years).
Cleveland went 12-2 last year through its three East rounds and 12-2 in 2015, the first postseason of James’ second Cavs incarnation. Before that, with Miami, the game’s best player helped the Heat go 12-3, 12-6, 12-4 and 12-3, which suggests he’s getting better at this.
The man scored 39 points on 10-of-14 shooting in about 36 minutes in Game 2, with six rebounds, four assists, three steals, three turnovers and two blocks. He hit four of his six 3-point attempts and got to the foul line 21 times, more than Toronto as a team, making 15 of his free throws.
James had one of his best overall regular seasons (even if he and the Cavs seemed at times to treat 2016-17 as a preseason), averaging 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists while shooting 54.8 percent overall and 36.3 on 3-pointers. But he has found yet another gear since Cleveland opened against Indiana in the first round: 34.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 56.6 percent shooting and 48.3 on 3-pointers.
Oh, and in the process of dealing a severe blow to the Raptors’ hopes and dreams, James blew past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) to take over the No. 2 spot (5,777) on the all-time playoff points list. Only Michael Jordan (5,987) remains in front of him now, and at his current rate, James would catch His Airness before or in the Finals.
"Behind the scenes, just how hard he works. He’s a machine. You don’t see guys this late in their careers, guys who’ve had this much success, be the first guy in the gym. He’s still there."
Depending on how many games Cleveland plays over the next month. And from the looks of it, not all that many.
“I don’t know, I’m just feeling pretty good,” James said at the end of the night. “My teammates do a great job of putting me in a good position. My coaching staff does a great job of putting me in a position to be successful. I put a lot of work into my craft. I live with the results.”
That subdued mood broke only when a comment by Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was relayed to James. Lue had praised the defensive work of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in tackling Paul George and DeMar DeRozan, the Pacers’ and the Raptors’ top scoring threats, mentioning that it unburdened James compared to past postseasons.
“You have to give cred to those guys for giving LeBron the energy to do what he’s doing,” Lue said. “When he’s able to fly around and play with the kind of pace and that kind of energy, it’s tough.”
Said James, as he smiled broadly: “I can do both.”
Just what Toronto wants to hear. At a similar point in their conference finals matchup last year, having dropped Games 1 and 2 by a combined 50 points, the Raptors got temporarily well at Air Canada Centre. They won twice to even the series, before getting throttled by 38 and 26 in the final two games.
This time, though, it’s hard to find much foundation on which Casey’s team can build. DeRozan who averaged 27.3 points during the season, got choked off at five points on 2-of-11 shooting, the game over before his first shot dropped in the fourth. Lowry was limited to 30 minutes, suffering a left ankle sprain that cut down his mobility and easily could linger into Friday.
And the fallacy of Toronto seeing its home court as any sort of refuge this time around is, Cleveland remembers what happened there last spring, too.
Casey’s gambit Monday of swapping Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson into the starting lineup for DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valunciunas didn’t work – or at best, it worked backwards, with Valunciunas leading Toronto with 23 points off the bench. But the Cavs still outshot their guests, still rained 18-of-33 from the arc, still got 22 points and 11 assists from Kyrie Irving on a cockeyed shooting night.
Still has James, too, revved up, locked in and not stopping – ever – until his playoff foes in the East are, er, eliminated.
Asked about the level of James’ play this spring relative to the past, Shumpert ran a hand over his face, smiled and shook his head, agreeing that Playoff LeBron is hitting new heights. Kevin Love spoke of James’ efficiency, though it wasn’t efficiency that left bruises on the bodies and the egos of first Indiana and now Toronto.
Kyle Korver, the veteran shooter acquired in January, was on the receiving end of James’ postseason missions in 2011, 2015 and 2016, his teams going 1-12 in East clashes. But now he’s on the inside with James, and has been caught up in the relentlessness of the man.
“I know sweeps are hard to get,” Korver said, “but these guys have been doing that, and it’s like they want to sweep so they get that week [off between rounds]. Having that thought in their heads – ‘If we sweep this team, we’re going to have that time off’ – not many teams go into a playoff series thinking that. You’re just trying to win the series. But they were like, ‘Trust us.’”
The Cavs star Korver competed against, the nemesis he saw from afar, looks different to him now.
“Most guys are either big talkers or big workers. He’s both,” Korver said in the Cavs’ dressing room. “He’s without a doubt the leader of this team. He’s always telling everybody where to go – I mean, every possession. Offensive, defensive. I’ve never seen anyone communicate like he does out on the court.
“Then behind the scenes, just how hard he works. He’s a machine. You don’t see guys this late in their careers, guys who’ve had this much success, be the first guy in the gym. He’s still there.”
Specifically, Korver recalled a home game against Utah in March, with about four weeks left on the schedule.
“He played  minutes, he played hard. And the next morning, he was on the VersaClimber when everybody else got there, in full sweat doing a massive strength and cardio workout,” Korver said.
“He was like, ‘The playoffs are coming! I’ve got to be ready! I’ve got to be able to play big minutes and play at a high level!’
“I was blown away.”
Imagine how the Raptors feel.
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