LeBron calls his shots, 'drains' Raptors

NBA.com Global on May 04, 2018 03:14 PM
LeBron calls his shots, 'drains' Raptors
FILE - NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 9: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes up for a dunk against the New York Knicks on April 9, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

TORONTO – Given the historic performance Cleveland’s LeBron James gave Thursday night (Friday, PHL time)at Air Canada Centre to force an increasingly harsh reality on the Toronto Raptors in their Eastern Conference semifinals series, it was no surprise that some of the discussion afterward veered into GOAT territory.

Only it wasn’t Michael Jordan or any other NBA legend being mentioned for comparison’s sake. It was Babe Ruth.

Like the Bambino (or allegedly so), James called his shots Thursday (Friday, PHL time).

That’s how Kevin Love termed it, anyway, sharing afterward that some of the improbable, breathtaking fadeaway shots James rained down on the Raptors in a Cavs-dominant second half, his superstar teammate actually talked about at the morning shootaround.

“This morning, you could just sense it,” Love said. “He knew what was at stake. He knew that us getting another one here at their place was going to be huge for us.”

It’s one thing for James to carry the Cavaliers offensively through part of all of a game with his usual array of power drives, dunks, free throws and face-up three-pointers. It’s quite another for him to pummel a defense the way he did the hapless Raptors.

James hit seven fadeaway jump shots in the second half, during which he scored 27 of his game-high 43 points. He scored four buckets in a row near the start of the final quarter, when Cleveland pushed its lead to 105-87. An 18-5 run to start the third quarter had put the Cavs in control, but James’ assault from multiple angles was almost mocking in its impact during the Cavaliers' 128-110 victory.

“Just all the shots over his right shoulder, the step-backs, the fadeaways,” Love said. “Ya’ know the one where he hit the ‘moonball’ over his right shoulder and came back the next possession and hit one over his left shoulder from the free-throw line, that was special.”

It was stupid-good and lethal, James taking advantage of mismatched Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry as his ostensible defender.

And here’s where the Babe comes in: James had tipped Love to his intentions eight hours earlier at the morning walk-through session.

“He said when he got the mismatch, he was going to do that,” Love said. “So, he actually called his shots this morning.

“That’s just one of the, I guess, examples I could use for how locked in he was.”

Ladies and gentleman, the Sultan of Shots.

Now, there’s still some mystery about what Ruth did or didn’t do nearly 86 years ago in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series between his Yankees and the Cubs in Chicago. He was, depending on the account, a) talking trash to pitcher Charlie Root, b) razzing players in the Cubs’ dugout for how the team cut his buddy Mark Koenig’s World Series bonus money, or c) telling the world he was about to deposit a Root pitch into the Wrigley Field bleachers.

In this updated 2018 version, James was a) anticipating some defensive switches by Toronto that would allow him the clean looks at the basket he got, b) challenging himself by dialing up the degree of difficulty of his attempts or c) preparing to cut the heart out of the Raptors and their fans with a barrage so staggering as to drain any fight for what’s left of the series.

“Understanding my defenders, understanding what they’re trying to catch,” James said later. “For me, just being able to have counters. ... I gave [Love] a little insight of my mind, and I showed it tonight.”

The days of daring James to shoot jumpers are long past, though that might still be the tactic of last resort. He is unstoppable on the move, a sure-fire “and one” at the rim and the equivalent of the old-school bangers in the post.

So, you get him to turn his back 15 feet or more away from the basket, stick tight as he turns and fires in one motion from various points on floor, and hope for the best.

Pity the Raptors, who were saddled with the worst. James finished with 43 points on 19-of-28 shooting with eight rebounds and 14 assists. That made him the first player in NBA playoff history to go for 40 and 14 in a single game.

LEBRON VS RAPTORS' ALL-STARS

LeBron | Lowry/DeRozan

43 | Points | 45
19/28 | FGM/A | 18/33
8 | Rebounds |  4
14 | Assists | 11
1 | Turnovers |  5

And that’s what Toronto was dealing with. James had set up Love, Jeff Green and the others so effectively with his passing, the Raptors didn’t dare show him a parade of double teams to pick apart. That meant Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and OG Anunoby got attacked and, from the look of it anyway, toyed with.

“That drains you mentally and physically,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said.

James’ takeover felt, in the building, like nothing less than the Cavs star finding and shifting into a “Bye Toronto, see you next fall” gear.

Casey said that, in spite of James’ drone strikes, his team got “bogged down” and, for the second time in as many games, didn’t push the pace hard enough, long enough. The Raptors led by as much as nine points deep in the second quarter but couldn’t push it onto double digits; by halftime, it was 63-61 and the Cavaliers smelled weakness.

That’s where Toronto is now, down 0-2 after dropping home games, desperate for traction that won’t come easy at Quicken Loans Arena in Games 3 and 4 (Sunday and next Tuesday, PHL time).

“You have to keep fighting,” Casey said. “No one is going to feel sorry for us.”

Embarrassed, maybe.

Love got a lot of attention from Cleveland faithful for his 31 points, 11 rebounds and 21 shots, all vital signs for that team’s second All-Star. His inconsistent play in the first round against Indiana – where Pacers forward Thaddeus Young stifled him repeatedly – left too much of the heavy lifting for James, a risky way to push through two months of postseason toward their Finals goal.

But after contributing in parts of Game 7 Sunday (Monday, PHL time) against the Pacers and the opener Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) against the Raptors, Love returned in full this time. Since Serge Ibaka is being sized up for goat horns through two games – not GOAT status – Love’s post-up opportunities against overmatched C.J. Miles seemed pulled from his Minnesota 20-20 days.

“He wanted the ball, demanded the ball and we got it to him,” James said.

“I made shots,” Love said.

He did. But no one made shots Thursday (Friday, PHL time) quite like James. Or called them.

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

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