CLEVELAND — Out of the huddle he came Saturday night, and LeBron James pointed toward the officials. They had been preparing to deliver the basketball to the Cleveland Cavaliers at midcourt in a most critical final possession, before James directed to the referee crew that his team decided instead to bring the ball up the floor in the backcourt. James received the plan from coach Ty Lue and the officials gave the ball to the Cavaliers with a full court at LeBron’s disposal.
Eight seconds left, and James escaped a double team from Toronto Raptors forwards OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, turned the corner on a left-handed drive and floated a bank shot at the buzzer. James very well may have called the play the same way teammates heard him hollering the moves he’d attempt on the Raptors in Thursday’s 43-point performance in Cleveland’s Game 2 victory. “Watch this … ,” teammates heard James say in Toronto before some of his fadeaway shooting theatrics.
Here on Saturday came a floating bank shot, with James’ body moving in the opposite direction on a shot generated from his right side. In all he had 38 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals in Game 3. LeBron ruled Toronto, again. A 105-103 victory, a 3-0 series lead, and a Raptors team moving toward another postseason loss against the Eastern Conference’s worst tormentor since Michael Jordan in the 1990s.
“I practice those all the time … but don’t try it at home,” James said early Sunday morning. “The level of difficulty was very difficult. I live for those moments. That mental clock, being a kid saying, ‘Three, two, one … ,’ I was doing that since I was 6, 7 years old. Kev [Kevin Love] didn’t look at nobody but me, and so I got the ball.
“My demeanor is always different in the playoffs.”
James leaped onto the scorer’s table after the shot, with these moments becoming commonplace for him inside Quicken Loans Arena. The season had been in jeopardy after a 2-1 series deficit against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, and yet James’ mentality has molded to reflect his idols growing up: Jordan and Kobe Bryant. He’s been unrelenting this postseason, a killer scorer and destructor of hope in the same ways Jordan and Kobe defined their careers. Once Cleveland finishes this series, and Boston closes out its own 3-0 lead against Philadelphia, the Cavaliers will face a challenge similar to the Pacers — a gritty, well-coached team that plays within a system and has playmaking frontline players.
So often, James has been the difference between Cleveland and its opponent in the East. Once again, the supporting cast provided a boost: Love had 21 points and 16 rebounds; Kyle Korver and George Hill combined for 30 points and six 3-pointers; and Jeff Green had 11 points off the bench. Toronto had battled back from trailing by 14 points entering the fourth quarter, with Kyle Lowry (27 points), promising rookie Anunoby (18 points) and C.J. Miles (13 points) leading the Raptors to a tie at 103. DeMar DeRozan scored just eight points, missing nine of 12 shots, and Raptors coach Dwane Casey might have gambled with the guard’s trust by benching him instead of sticking with the four-time All-Star who carried a 59-win team. Before Game 4 on Monday night, Casey and DeRozan will need a conversation to get on the same page.
“I don’t know what it was,” Casey said of DeRozan. “If you’re not shooting the ball well, you can still defend and do some things that can help us win.”
Around the league, team personnel wondered about the optics of a sweep, and the moves the Raptors could make after another loss to James and Cleveland. There likely isn’t a move for these Raptors — as long as James is still in the East. The truth has become painful. James has been the truth for Toronto, for the Eastern Conference, for eight years running.
“I expect LeBron to win us the game late as long as we have it close,” Korver said. “I’ve seen him shoot that shot countless times in practice … one-legged fadeaways, fading hook shots … and I always say, ‘Why are you shooting like that?’
“Maybe to win playoff games.”
When asked early Sunday morning, James said his heroic shot should have never been needed. “It shouldn’t have came to that point,” he said. James has a look, a control over each of the game’s moments, that he has never shown to this degree.
He pointed to the officials, showing where his team wanted the basketball for the final shot. Next, LeBron James called game.
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