TORONTO — Moments after almost single-handedly hauling the Cleveland Cavaliers to a narrow Game 7 win over Indiana on Sunday, LeBron James told reporters through droopy eyelids that he was tired and wanted to go home.
But Dwane Casey isn’t buying it.
“You believe he’s tired? I don’t believe it,” the Toronto Raptors head coach said. “I’ll believe it when I see him sitting over on the bench, and I haven’t seen that very much because he’s playing at such a high level. It’s amazing the type of condition he’s in. We’re not banking on that.”
The Raptors practised Monday on the eve of Game 1 of their second-round playoff series against old foe Cleveland at the Air Canada Centre. And if there was any suggestion James is worn out, the Raptors are fully expecting the 33-year-old to be at his best despite logging 41 minutes a game through the first round.
“I’m not saying he’s a lying man but I don’t think he’s tired,” Casey said. “He’s been through too many of these and he’s professional enough to know how to buy time or save energy or whatever it is. We’re going into it and approach it like it’s a fresh James in those situations.”
Kyle Lowry concurred.
“I don’t believe it, I bet he’ll be ready to go (Tuesday),” Lowry said.
One of the game’s greatest players, with the body of a Mack Truck, James has been virtually unstoppable against Toronto, averaging 30.9 points in their last 12 meetings. Even more insufferable for Toronto fans is his indifference towards the Raptors. In last year’s four-game sweep of Toronto, James faked like he was taking a swig from a courtside fan’s beer. Before shooting a three over Serge Ibaka, he brashly spun the ball first.
Toronto scored 79 first-half points against Cleveland on March 21, but James took charge with a massive second-half comeback, finishing with 34 points, 17 assists, seven rebounds, and zero turnovers. The Cavs won 132-129.
There’s an aura about LeBron. Casey said his team has to ignore it.
“This is what causes that, us up here spending 15 to 20 minutes talking about it causes that,” Casey said, at Monday’s media availability. “Everyone knows how great a player he is, but you’ve got to go in with a healthy amount of respect and a healthy amount of disrespect from that standpoint.
“And he will respect that. Jordan respected that, Karl Malone, those guys, Kobe Bryant, those great ones they respect you coming at ‘em. The physicality you’ve gotta play with, how hard you’ve gotta play against him, I think that’s the only way to combat that aura against a great player.”
Pascal Siakam, who provides some energy off the bench, is prepared for a bruising battle against LeBron.
“You can watch TV all you want, but you don’t know how strong he is until you get out there on the floor and have to guard him,” Siakam said. “Just knowing that, you’ve got to know it’s going to be a physical game.”
James hasn’t lost an Eastern Conference playoff series since 2010, but the Raptors revamped their playing style this season for exactly this moment: to knock off Cleveland and get to the NBA finals. So far they’ve found success, as Toronto earned the No. 1 seed in the east with a franchise-high 59 wins.
And if there’s a season the Cavaliers look vulnerable, it’s this one. It took the Cavs seven games and numerous heroic efforts from James to dispatch Indiana. Toronto’s defence, at fifth in the league in the regular season, is significantly better than Indiana (14th). Cleveland’s defence? Second worst in the league.
And the Raptors were No. 1 in the league in defending transition, which is where Cleveland generates much of its offence.
“I think we’re just a different team. We’re more prepared and ready to go,” Lowry said.
And if James isn’t tired yet, the Raptors plan to make him work.
“He’s on a mission. But there’s certain things we want to do to make him expend some more energy and there’s a variety of ways we can do that,” Casey said. “But I don’t want to sit up here and give away our game plan, what we wanna do, how we wanna do it, what we wanna take away, what we wanna give them, that wouldn’t be prudent on my part.”