TORONTO — Last year at this time, the Toronto Raptors came into their second post-season attempt at slowing down LeBron James talking about the importance of frustrating him and making him feel uncomfortable.
Four games later, after a Cleveland Cavaliers sweep, the only time James had seem particularly bothered was when a local beer outfit gleefully posted photos on their social media accounts of him holding one of their products courtside during a game. The man has strong feelings about his #brand.
And so, the Raptors contemplate their third attempt at regicide saying many of the same things that they have said previously. Be physical. Get in his way. Make him work for his points. Get all five guys on the court working together to stop him. The key difference this time is that Toronto has a number of guys, from OG Anunoby to Pascal Siakam to Serge Ibaka, who have the size and agility to, at least in theory, make it so he isn’t just bothered only by the marketing strategy of a craft brewer.
Asked on Monday if he thought he had the pieces to execute an anti-LeBron strategy, coach Dwane Casey was realistic.
“Well, we felt like we did last year,” Casey said. “We’ve got some very flexible players, versatile players, some flexible schemes and different looks that you want to put at him. He’s one of the best in the league as far as reading. He’s seen every defence you’ve thrown at him. As a young kid, it would have been harder for him, but now there’s nothing new under the sun for him. So we’ve just got to be ready with a variety of looks and be ready to throw them at him.”
The reference to last season is instructive. Two years ago, when the Raptors beat Cleveland twice before falling in six games, James wasn’t great on the perimeter — he shot 33 per cent from three-point range in the series — but he was unstoppable everywhere else. He shot an absurd 82 per cent on his two-point attempts and also led the Cavaliers in assists, rebounds, steals and blocks. Last season, the Raptors acquired Ibaka and P.J. Tucker in mid-season in part so that James wouldn’t be able to score quite so easily in the interior. With those new pieces in place, James still shot 62 per cent on two-point attempts. And meanwhile he was back up to a basically unfair 48 per cent on three-pointers, which is how someone can average 36 points per game seemingly without much effort.
This time, the Raptors know they will again have to concede something to the league’s best player, who Casey called the “head of the snake” on Monday. He meant it as a compliment.
“We understand everything starts and stops with him. There’s certain things you want to give up with him, there’s certain things you have no choice in the matter. There’s a pecking order as far as what we want to give up, what we live with,” Casey said. “It’ll be a chess match, trying to stay a step ahead of what they’re trying to do.”
The Toronto coach wouldn’t tip his hand, but what they will almost certainly try to do is force LeBron into mid-range jump shots, while limiting the easy layups. The Indiana Pacers doubtless thought the same thing in the first round, and James still averaged over 34 points per game while making more two-point baskets than anyone else in the playoffs.
The one other thing that the Raptors might — emphasis on might — benefit from is the possibility that James could be a little weary. We have seem him play so much at this time of year for so long that it has just become accepted fact that he will simply carry on like an unstoppable basketball machine. But at some point it’s possible he shows he is a little mortal. James, at 33 years old, this year passed Tim Duncan for top spot on the list of career minutes played. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is in third. Those two guys retired at 39 and 41. LeBron is also 18th in career regular-season minutes played, despite being 54th in career games played. Just when it seemed like he was entering a mildly cautious phase of his career, with scheduled days off and the occasional mid-season vacation, James went back to playing all 82 games this season and led the NBA in minutes. He has also leads the playoffs in minutes this season.
In Game 7 against the Pacers, he said he expected to play the entire game, then sat for about five minutes after he suffered cramps. He said afterward he was “burnt.”
Casey is not buying it.
“Well, if he told you he’s tired, he’s not being very honest, I don’t think,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s a lying man but I don’t think he’s tired. 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.”
That’s a smart plan. Expecting him to actually fatigue would be less so.
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