LeBron James ripped the Toronto Raptors’ hearts out in Game 3. On Monday night, he and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers finished the job, putting the East’s No. 1 seed out of its misery and reminding anyone who’d ever dared to doubt — and in this rag-tag Cavs season, that was an awful lot of us — just who continues to control this conference.
Cleveland scored at will on Monday, shooting 65 percent from the field in the first quarter and never letting up in an offensive onslaught that left the reeling Raptors staring at the ceiling, wondering what just hit them. The Cavs hit the gas late in the second quarter and Toronto just buckled, failing to offer even token resistance after halftime as Cleveland cruised to a 128-93 win to finish a four-game sweep of the Raptors for the second consecutive season, and to do so in the most dominant fashion any James team ever has:
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2018
As he had all series, James dominated the proceedings, scoring 29 points on 12-for-19 shooting to go with 11 assists, eight rebounds, two steals and one block in 38 minutes of work. He began the game by spraying the ball around the perimeter to an array of teammates who stepped confidently into shot after wide-open, in-rhythm shot.:
He ended it — for all intents and purposes, anyway — with this ludicrous all-over-but-the-shouting fadeaway dagger from the corner at the end of the third quarter …
… to bid the Raptors, whose season he has now ended three years running, a fond adieu.
The Cavaliers have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth straight year — and the eighth straight for James, stretching back to his time in Miami — and will take on the winner of the semifinal series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Boston now leads that series 3-1, after Philadelphia won Game 5 earlier on Monday.
One time for ‘The Other Cavaliers’
Two nights after being roasted in a cut-for-time “Saturday Night Live” sketch, James’ teammates provided plenty of firepower in Game 4. All four other Cavs starters scored in double figures, roasting the Raptors’ defense time and again with excellent ball and player movement to create open shots and then taking advantage of them.
Kevin Love continued his mid-series return to All-Star form, scoring 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting with six assists, two steals and two blocks. J.R. Smith was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field for his 15 points, and Kyle Korver needed only eight shots to score his 16; they combined to scorch the nets to the tune of 7-for-8 shooting form 3-point range. And point guard George Hill, who rarely looked to be 100 percent during Cleveland’s seven-game opening-round slugfest against the Indiana Pacers, was aggressive early and efficient throughout, scoring 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting with five assists, three rebounds and only one turnover.
The 4 @cavs starters not named LeBron James shot 71% from the floor in Game 4, which is the best FG pct of any of the other 4 starters on a LeBron James playoff team
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2018
James has proven time and again that he doesn’t really need much help to set an opposing defense on fire. When he gets it, though — when Cleveland can spread the floor around him with four shooters, allowing him to set up shop at the post or the elbow and start playing chess — he becomes one of the most elegant and brutalizing arsonists the sport’s ever seen. Love, Smith, Korver and Hill gave LeBron everything he needed on Monday to reduce the Raptors to ashes, and scatter them to the wind.
Extinction level event
After the Raptors dropped the most important game in franchise history to go down 0-2 to the Cavs heading back to Cleveland, All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan insisted that he and his team thrived on adversity. His finish to the series suggests otherwise.
DeRozan made an effort to get engaged offensively after his dismal eight-points-on-12-shots, benched-in-the-fourth-quarter showing in Game 3, but it didn’t much matter. He improved in a minor key when a major lift was needed, and again struggled defensively when tasked with sticking to Cleveland’s guards off the ball.
He ended his season on an ignominious note, allowing a series full of frustration to boil over late in the third quarter, with the blowout already well and truly on, by whacking Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson across the head on a fast break:
The referees reviewed the play and handed DeRozan a flagrant foul-2 for unnecessary and excessive contact, triggering an automatic ejection that sent him to the shower before the fourth quarter. He finished with 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting, five rebounds and an assist in 33 minutes.
DeRozan turned in perhaps the best season of his career this year, developing as a facilitator and advancing as a shooter. But once again, faced with the challenge of being the kind of star who could stop a slide and drag his team back into the thick of the fight against a bona fide superstar, he came up small in the season’s biggest moments.
DeMar DeRozan's worst plus/minus performances of the 2017-18 season
1. Game 4 vs. Cavs: minus-29
2. Game 3 vs. Cavs: minus-23
3. Game 2 vs. Cavs: minus-22
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 8, 2018
DeMar for the series: 66 shots, 67 points.
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) May 8, 2018
Making matters worse, DeRozan wasn’t alone in shrinking. Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s best player throughout this postseason run, had his worst game of the series at the time the Raptors could least afford it. The All-Star point guard dished 10 helpers without a turnover in 29 1/2 minutes, but he took only seven shots and scored just five points.
Jonas Valanciunas came to play, scoring a team-high 18 points on 50 percent shooting with five rebounds, three blocks and two assists in 16 minutes. Serge Ibaka made some shots, though he also worked himself out of at least a couple when staring down the specter of a closeout by LeBron. C.J. Miles, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright … they did what they could, what they were able, punching above their weight classes.
Up against the Cavs’ rampaging offense, Toronto needed its best players to stand up and throw down, too. In Game 4, again, they couldn’t, setting up the Raptors’ veteran backcourt for yet another year of hearing about their inability to carry the load when it counts and another year of being haunted by the one postseason ghost nobody in a Raptor uniform has yet been able to exorcise. Toronto blew its best chance, its best shot at changing the story. The specifics differ this time, but the ending, depressingly, is the same.
DeMar DeRozan: "The last three years have been rough for us, competing against this team." pic.twitter.com/AynmOt9CCc
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 8, 2018
New lineup, same problem
Raptors coach Dwane Casey decided to downshift his starting lineup for Game 4, moving center Valanciunas to the bench in favor of swingman Miles in hopes of finding more suitable two-way matchups against the Love-at-center, small-ball Cavs. It didn’t work. Cleveland opened the game a scorching 12-for-15 from the field, getting absolutely anything head coach Tyronn Lue might have wanted either at the rim or beyond the arc, where Smith’s second 3-pointer of the game gave them a 10-point lead with two minutes remaining in the opening quarter.
The Raptors would get back into the fight led by a surge from Valanciunas, who checked in and immediately started attacking. He took it to Tristan Thompson in the post, faced up and drove his way to the rim, and even went right at LeBron, scoring 10 quick points to fuel a 14-6 run that gave Toronto a 38-36 lead with eight minutes to go in the half.
Cleveland would quickly regain control, though, as the return of Love and Korver into the game reintroduced the problems that sunk the Raptors all series long: namely, their inability to stay connected on the Cavs’ shooters away from the ball, persistently springing leaks in their coverage that James hit each and every time for either a cutting layup or a wide-open 3-pointer.
That combo is just so hard to guard. Love can get it in the post and on the Arc, and you can't ignore Korvers gravity. Its deadly when they are both involved in a play. https://t.co/rUd012XRuc
— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) May 8, 2018
The issue is you can't double him, but you can't let him find shooters. Easier said than done when Love & Korver screen for each other, and LBJ's anticipation he KNOWS who will be open.
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) May 8, 2018
A quick 7-0 spurt put the Cavs back on top by three possessions midway through the quarter, and after Toronto answered back with a Serge Ibaka 3-pointer and an aggressive driving layup by OG Anunoby, Cleveland dropped the hammer with a 12-0 jolt. The capper? James recovering a ball that Pascal Siakam had tipped away from him and into the backcourt, then driving the ball straight down the Raptors’ throats for a layup with 17 seconds to go, sending the Cavs into half with a 63-47 lead.
That Casey elected, after Ibaka picked up an offensive foul charging into James with 2:44 to go in the second, to look past Valanciunas on the bench and call for Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, didn’t help matters. The 7-foot Brazilian, who had played all of 2 1/2 minutes in the series before Monday, proved flammable in a brief stint. He fouled Love to send him to the line, and committed a turnover that led to a transition 3-pointer by Smith to force a Toronto timeout, at which point Casey yanked him. In his one minute and 51 seconds of floor time, the Raptors’ deficit went from four to 14.
The Raptors would never seriously threaten after intermission. LeBron and Love played like the two best players in the series in the third, outscoring the Raptors by themselves, 27-25, as Cleveland extended its lead to 28 points before the end of the quarter, turning the entire final frame into essentially meaningless garbage time.
That’s what LeBron and his squad can do. When he’s cranked up and they’re moving the ball and making shots, Cleveland’s capable of producing offensive fireworks that nobody but the Warriors and Rockets can match, and that few defenses in the league can withstand for a full 48 minutes. The Raptors thought that, this year, they could. They were wrong. Very, very wrong.
In a few days, we’ll find out whether or not the rising young Celtics or Sixers can withstand the barrage. While Boston and Philly figure it out, LeBron gets to rest, to wait, to recharge, and to get prepared for the task of advancing to an unbelievable eighth straight NBA Finals. Whichever team winds up standing in his way will have home-court advantage. If you’re wondering just how much that matters when LeBron comes knocking at your door, though … well, just ask the Raptors. They’ll be home all summer.
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