LeBron James and the Cavaliers Earn themselves Some Rest
It would have been a career night for nearly any other player in the N.B.A., but for LeBron James, a line of 29 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ series-clinching win against the Toronto Raptors on Monday hardly seemed noteworthy. That’s how outlandish expectations for James have gotten.
These playoffs have offered plenty of highlights for James. He’s crossed the 40-point mark four times, recorded two triple-doubles, and hit two game-winning buzzer beaters. He broke Tim Duncan’s record for career postseason minutes played (in 28 fewer games than Duncan) and he so thoroughly humiliated the top-seeded Raptors on their home court that the term “LeBronto” was coined.
He even managed to make high-arching fadeaway jumpers from the midrange look cool as he regularly used DeMar DeRozan’s signature shot to defeat him.
But in Monday’s 128-93 win in Cleveland that gave the Cavaliers a sweep of the Eastern Conference semifinal series, James’s often-underwhelming supporting cast provided nearly as many first-half highlights as their unquestioned leader did. Kevin Love, never known for his defensive tenacity, was a force around the basket, J.R. Smith poured in 12 first-quarter points, and Kyle Korver did stellar work beyond the perimeter, going 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
James scored just 2 points in the first quarter and 10 in the half. But even his most frequent detractor, the FS1 commentator Skip Bayless, seemed to understand that taking things easy for a little while and letting the other Cavaliers do the heavy lifting made sense.
Cleveland appeared to be running on fumes entering the series against the Raptors, having just finished a seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers. But instead of wilting they seemed to get stronger leading into what will be James’s eighth consecutive appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The question, of course, is whether any of James’s heroics will ultimately matter. In the conference finals he will be facing one of two youth-laden teams engineered to try to end his dominant run. The 76ers have “The Process,” and the Celtics were similarly built through free agency and the draft; whichever team survives will want to prove that their many can beat the Cavaliers’ few.
Even if James can will his teammates beyond Boston or Philadelphia, he then would face long odds in the finals against the challenger from the Western Conference, most likely either the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets, as both teams hold 3-1 series leads.
For now, James will rest and wait to see how things play out. After he proved that Toronto’s deep lineup was no match for him, he will be eager to prove the same is true for the other teams that appear so much better on paper. At some point people may be reminded to stop doubting him, at least as far as Eastern Conference playoff games are concerned.