* Thursday on TNT: Cavaliers vs. Raptors (6 ET)
TORONTO – Knowing where the help is coming from is essential (if not grammatically precise) basketball jargon, a reminder most often to ball handlers facing the threat of double-teams. Knowing where the extra defender typically plays means knowing which teammate has been left unguarded. Which in turns means a big, juicy open shot, assuming the dribbler can pass or swing the ball in that direction.
Sometimes, though, knowing where the help is coming from isn’t hoops jargon at all and means exactly what it says: Who the heck is going to help out the guy or guys already carrying the group on his back?
That had been a specific problem for the Cleveland Cavaliers as the 2018 NBA Playoffs got underway. LeBron James was playing great, but the other Cleveland players were unproven, unreliable or, at their worst, both. And unless someone emerged as a consistent sidekick from among the Cavs’ veteran role players and playoff newbies, Cleveland’s designs on a fourth consecutive trip to the Finals looked to be as doomed as James’ personal quest of making it there eight straight years.
Well, in their 113-112 overtime victory in Game 1 on Tuesday at Air Canada Centre, the Cavs, the Raptors and the world learned where James’ help was coming from. And where it might continue to be sourced as this Eastern Conference semifinal series plays on.
James’ best helpers in the series opener, as in Game 7 of the first-round series against Indiana, were familiar faces. With considerable playoff experience, not merely individually but as part of this Cleveland crew. Maybe with a few gray hairs. They were guys most familiar with James, the Cavs’ system and the style of play – long on deference and patience – that maximizes his outrageous bundle of skills.
Notably against Toronto on Tuesday, it was J.R. Smith, best known in previous stops for knucklehead antics but embraced with this bunch for his uncanny long-ball accuracy and a fairly recent commitment to individual defense. Smith scored 20 points, hitting 5-of-6 3-pointers in Game 1.
It was Kyle Korver, 37-years-old and a guy who has conformed his game to fit James’ in the 16 months he’s been with Cleveland. Korver scored 19 and kept pressure on Toronto simply by popping open time and again (he took 17 shots) for potentially lethal opportunities.
And it was Tristan Thompson, whose time with the Cavs pre-dates this second run of LeBron. Thompson sparked Cleveland as a surprise starter in Game 7 against the Pacers on Sunday, getting 15 points and 10 rebounds to pose an extra headache for the Indiana defense. This time, the 27-year-old big man came off the bench for 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Nine of his boards were on the offensive end, creating second chances and extended possessions to wear down the Raptors. Thompson also brought a defensive counter to Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, who had dominated Kevin Love inside and wasn’t slowed all that much by sub Jeff Green. Reps from previous playoff encounters came in handy for Thompson, and Valanciunas went from a 19-point scorer through three quarters to a fellow who shot 1-for-7 in the fourth quarter and didn’t even attempt one in overtime.
Green chipped in 16 points and even Love, the All-Star still not playing like one, improved after halftime with five points and eight rebounds.
The point wasn’t just that they played well. It was that they cut James some slack on a night he wasn’t all that sharp. The league’s best player did post a triple-double and did score 26 points, but he missed 18 of his 30 shots, including seven of eight 3-pointers. He also bricked five of his six free throws – and earned only six.
"I definitely wasn't as efficient as I would like to be," he said afterward. "But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is to try to get a win, and my teammates were unbelievable. They stepped up when I wasn't at my best."
There was a side benefit as well. The first wave of Cleveland role players took some glare off the second wave, namely Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, George Hill and Larry Nance Jr. They’re the guys who arrived in February, the ones still adjusting and learning how to blend their skills and styles into what it means, as the saying goes for 30 franchises, to play “Cavaliers basketball.”
“Every system is different,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said Wednesday morning. “If you come in late in the season, it is tough to grasp everything in such a short amount of time. But the guys have done a good job of just trying to catch up and get up to speed.”
And that’s swell. Except this is the postseason, when moving too slow along a learning curve can mean falling off completely. Considering James’ load of minutes and, in the half court anyway, responsibility for initiating nearly everything his team does offensively, Cleveland might have been doomed if his more established crew – Smith, Thompson, Korver, Love – hadn’t asserted themselves soon.
Remember, Toronto has what generally is regarded as the best bench in the NBA. Yet help from a couple starters enabled James to log positive minutes with some backups and the Cavs’ bench wound up winning that battle, 37-35.
"We've just got to keep chipping in as much as we can," Smith said. “He can't play Superman every night.”
Said Lue of Smith, who appears to have cut back on his occasional haywire moments that can be so costly: “J.R. is really great in the playoffs for us because we give him one assignment – he usually has [to defend] the best perimeter player – and he really does a good job of locking in.”
Apparently, there was no separate team meeting or a gathering of the LeBron James lack-of-support group that got several fellows unstuck. But they know their roles, both when they’re filling them and when they are not.
“Y’know, this is how we play,” said Korver. “LeBron has the ball and we play off of him. We have to do a better job. ... When we kind of bog down is when the ball stops moving and the bodies stop moving. As long as we do that, we usually find some shots and some looks.”
Korver’s remarks were deliberate, making clear he understands the Cleveland dynamic: This is LeBron’s team. Everyone else – now that Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas are gone – conforms their impressive and varied basketball skills to suit his. Period.
“There’s not been a ton of discussion,” Korver said. “We haven’t shot the ball great as a team yet. ... We’ve got to help him out, right? He plays a ton of minutes, he’s carrying a big load. But this is how we play. It’s not gonna change.”
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