LeBron makes difficult look easy with game-winner

NBA.com Global on May 07, 2018 01:12 PM
LeBron makes difficult look easy with game-winner
CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 5: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots game winning shot during game against the Toronto Raptors during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semi Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors on May 5, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

CLEVELAND – There were a dozen different basketball decisions, plays and moments to review, analyze and talk about Saturday night (Sunday, PHL time).

Things Toronto did better, as far as its intensity and tactics compared to the first two games of the series against Cleveland. Things the Cavaliers nailed and, too, things they botched, leading by as many as 17 points in the second half at Quicken Loans Arena. There were lineup changes, defensive adjustments, and a general coarsening and muscling up of the on-court interactions that made Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinals round way more interesting than the two that came before.

Then that guy makes that play at that point. And everything else seems to fall away.

LeBron James sprinted end-to-end in the final eight seconds and sank an improbable, drive-left, shoot-right, kiss-it-off-the-glass floater at the buzzer to lift the Cavaliers to an exhlarating 105-103 victory. The sellout crowd of 20,562 exploded in giddiness, while the unfortunate Raptors mostly looked dazed.

This was one part gut punch, one part yank-out-their-hearts-and-show-them-to-the-Raptors-before-they-die, as far as the cruelty involved.

Showing up late to the ball to begin with, already dragging from losses up in Toronto that didn’t reflect the strong regular season they had, the Raptors showed real toughness and resiliency down the stretch. Enough that, had this been Game 1, you’d say we all were in for a dynamite series.

As it was, the Raptors scored 38 points in the final 12 minutes, two points shy of their first-half total. Down 79-65 when the fourth quarter began, they sank 13 of their 18 final shots, seven of 11 three-pointers, and controlled the boards.

Coach Dwane Casey kept All-Star wing DeMar DeRozan – who was hurting their cause at both ends – over on the bench near him for the game’s last 14:16. Casey got solid performances from surprise starter Fred VanVleet, who started for the struggling Serge Ibaka, and then from a rejuvenated Ibaka himself.

Point guard Kyle Lowry, who runs hot and even pulled James down to the floor this night, kept his head enough to score 15 of his 27 points in the fourth. And rookie forward OG Anunoby, tasked with primary defensive responsibility on James, went from scoring 12 points on 10 shots, total, through Games 1 and 2 to giving the Raptors 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. It was Anunoby’s three-pointer with 8.8 seconds left – his fourth of the game, his third of the quarter – that got Toronto even at 103-103.

Cleveland, by that time, was dwelling on all the mistakes it had made. For sure, Anunoby’s three-pointer – none of the Cavs accounted for him as 10 men scrambled downcourt, Toronto out of timeouts – was cringe-worthy from the home team’s perspective.

But the Cavaliers got real sharp from there. They have in James the NBA’s ultimate closer, the corporate fixer who capable of cleaning up most embarrassing messes.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue set the stage by not advancing the ball to the frontcourt after using his team’s final timeout. The reason: Give James room to roam. The Cavaliers could space the floor better without cramming everyone into the halfcourt for a static inbounds play. There was plenty of time for James to race to the far end, and all that real estate made it difficult for Toronto to trap him with two defenders. It did, in fact, as the play began but he quickly shed them.

That left Anunoby on the left side of the lane. The other Raptors stayed snug to their men, lest James find one open for a clean look. That included C.J. Miles, who was sticking close to Kyle Korver in the left corner, even as James barreled his way in Superman mode (more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings).

“LeBron’s shot was way tougher than Kyle hitting a three from the corner,” Miles said, a shrug in his voice. “So I’m looking at where he’s going. And he’s shooting a one-footed floater from 15 feet with his body facing the crowd. There’s no need for me to help off Kyle Korver in that situation. If it’s a different shot or he’s got more of a rhythm to it, then maybe I jump in a little bit.”

James had made a circus shot to beat Indiana in Game 5 of the first round. He had thrown up several worthy of the big top Thursday (Friday, PHL time), hitting one fadeaway after another, each trickier than the last. This one? It lacked only a calliope as three-ring entertainment.

But yes, as impromptu and awkward as it looked, it was a shot James work on. Because he apparently works on everything.

“The ability to have different things in my tool box and the repertoire that I have,” James said, “throughout the game I can kind of go to those. That’s just another instance where I had an opportunity to go to something I practice or kind of mess around with, tinkering with shots and things, finding angles.”

Said Korver: “I ran out of words a while ago. I’ve seen him shoot that shot countless times when he’s just messing around at shootaround or in practice. It’s always like, ‘When would he shoot a shot like that? Maybe to win a playoff game, I don’t know.’”

For drama, for showmanship, it’s hard to top James in the NBA postseason. There was a little fudge factor with the game tied, same as with Game 5 vs. Indiana. The worst that could have happened? Overtime. But no one in the building was thinking that when his shot banked in, framed by the orange backboard lights of time running out.

The play-by-play sheet hardly did the highlight justice: “:00.0 L.James 10’ driving back shot.” It was so much more, to the Raptors as they stare out of their 0-3 holes, to the Cavaliers as they start to sniff a postseason run gaining serious traction and to James himself.

Such opportunities and successes are not lost on him, he said.

“Oh yeah. Listen. Tie game, down one, whatever the case may be, I live for those moments,” the Cavs star said. “I told y’all in the Indiana series, that mental clock of being a kid and just telling myself ‘3, 2, 1...’ and making the noise of the net sound, I’ve been doing that since I was 6, 7, 8 years old.

“Maybe even before that – there’s a picture floating around of me besides a little tyke’s hoop, saggy Pampers on. I was doing it back then, all the way up till now at 33.”

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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