TORONTO — LeBron James, by his own admission, had an off night. “Probably one of my worst games of the season.”
The Cavaliers star shot 12-of-30, missed seven of eight three-point attempts, was good on just one of six free throws and failed on a buzzer-beater attempt. But he also led his team with 26 points, registered a triple-double and propelled Cleveland into overtime en route to a 113-112 win over the Toronto Raptors.
The best are good even when they’re not. Yo-Yo Ma could probably make sweet music with a kazoo. Brad Pitt likely has never had a bad hair day. Here’s betting Lewis Hamilton could make a Smart car purr.
James, a spring-loaded slab of muscle, was still a difference-maker Tuesday, even if his highlight reel had some gaps in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal.
While he shot 3-of-11 in the fourth quarter, he sank a long three to bring the Cavs to within one at 100-99. At 102-99, he blocked a DeMar DeRozan drive. He scored back-to-back buckets, sandwiched around a dive into the seats in a bid to corral a loose ball, to tie the game at 105-105.
And when DeRozan, C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas failed to put back Fred VanVleet’s three-point attempt with 7.5 seconds remaining, it was James who grabbed the rebound to end the charge.
He had plenty of help on the night from J.R. Smith (20 points), Kyle Korver (19), Jeff Green (16) and Canadian Tristan Thompson (14).
“My teammates were unbelievable tonight. They stepped up when I wasn’t at my best,” said James, who admitted his preparation time for Toronto was limited after cramping in Game 7 of the Cavs’ win over Indiana on Sunday.
So much for the view that the 2018 Cavaliers, who endured a season of ups and downs after rebooting their roster, feature James and a cut-rate supporting cast.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey had made a point to debunk exactly that in his pre-game meeting with the media.
“They’ve got other good players around him,” he said.
Casey was painfully proved right when James and Kevin Love shot a combined 15-for-43 and the Cavaliers still won.
Toronto did its bit to defend James. Rookie OG Anunoby shadowed the Cleveland ace with an arm stuck out in front of him, staying in touching distance of James even if they were near midcourt. And when Anunoby sat, Pascal Siakam came in and got in James’ grill.
“He’s seen everything. There’s nothing under the sun he hasn’t seen,” Casey said prior to the game when asked about defending James.
The Raptors did their best but James still dunked or, waving teammates away so he could bore in on his defender, waited to see what Toronto would do before firing a pass or trying to score himself.
Early on the Cavaliers did not convert James’ offerings. But the visitors eventually warmed up and began finding the mark.
James was always in the thick of it. In the second quarter, stealing a Kyle Lowry pass to trigger a Smith three-pointer. James shoved VanVleet under the basket as Smith fired the ball.
That enraged the smaller Raptor who was held back by teammates only to discover that he was the one assessed a foul.
In the third quarter, James dramatically flexed his muscles at the Toronto bench after getting the better of Anunoby and slamming down a ball inbounded from under the Raptors basket.
While James shared the scoresheet on the night, his teammates know where their bread is buttered.
“We know we’ve got the best closer,” Korver said of the Cavs’ US$33-million man. “If we can keep it close to the end, he’s going to take over and he’s going to make plays.”
And the Cavaliers, who looked sharp in their custom suits by New York fashion designer Thom Browne, know they dodged a bullet Tuesday as Toronto’s offence fizzled down the back stretch.
“We feel good about the win but I think we were also very fortunate to win,” said Korver.
Game 2 goes Thursday in Toronto. The Raptors, who have now lost seven straight playoff games to Cleveland, will be looking to clean up their act and show the Cavs which team is the top seed in the East.