CLEVELAND – Tempting as it might’ve been for him to obey his thirst Monday night, LeBron James resisted. He’s not really a beer guy. So, after avoiding a collision by poaching a beer, it wasn’t a problem for James to return the bottle to the pony-tailed arena employee who happened to be walking along the sideline when the man who refuses to surrender the Eastern Conference came prancing along.
“If she had some red wine I would have probably taken a sip,” James said.
An inebriated James might be the best hope for his reign to end because, mentally, the four-time MVP has entered an invincible phase, and, physically, he continues to defy gravity and senectitude. He’s still able to request Kyrie Irving to throw the ball off the backboard so that he can flaunt his ability to throw down a lefty alley-oop dunk. And while he has often found unusual ways to have fun – such as the time he snuck a French fry off a fan in Oklahoma City – his flirtation with the beer, while out of frustration for blowing an and-one opportunity, hinted at something else: James isn’t worried about the Toronto Raptors until they give him a reason to be concerned.
The temptation to go with the Eastern Conference field over James and the Cavaliers this postseason was perhaps stronger than previous years, based on how poorly Cleveland looked after the All-Star break and how awful the defense had been since October. But just as James showed restraint with the beer in his hand, betting against a one-man championship contender who has already overcome the most extreme basketball adversity – down 3-1 to a 73-win team last June – should be approached with similar pause. James has repeatedly made fools of the second-guessers, and his last three postseason failures have come only in the NBA Finals.
“I don’t think about the past or the future. I worry about the present,” James said after scoring 35 points with 10 rebounds in the Cavaliers’ 116-105 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series. “That’s how I’m able to stay fresh. I don’t think about the past. And the future is a mystery, so I’ve got to live in the present.”
James hasn’t lost a playoff series in the East since 2010. And second, third, and even fourth chances to get revenge against James haven’t fared well for Boston, Chicago, Indiana and Atlanta. But give the Raptors some credit. They elected to go all in while attempting to bring down James. They didn’t try to get a lower seed to avoid a second-round matchup against the defending champs. General manager Masai Ujiri went for it at the trade deadline, giving the Raptors the pieces that they lacked when James steamrolled through them in last year’s conference finals en route to his legacy-defining third title. Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have given Toronto an edge, but the newcomers haven’t been able to keep their new team from a terrible habit of self-inflicted adversity.
The Raptors have lost 10 straight Game 1’s but perhaps needed to come with a different, non-deferential approach to dethroning James. A series-opening win in Cleveland would’ve meant more for Toronto’s confidence – and possibly given an inkling of doubt to the Cavaliers – that this won’t be a repeat of what occurred last season. Alas, it was more of the same.
After the morning shootaround, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan walked from the arena to the team hotel, undeterred by the rain showers outside. Lowry joked that he didn’t care about the weather outside because he used to play basketball in the rain growing up in Philadelphia. They don’t mind making things hard for themselves. Toronto has now lost its past four playoff games at Quicken Loans Arena by an average of 24.7 points.
The Raptors spoke glowingly of James in advance of the series, praising his greatness and the honor of sharing the court with him and refusing to offer any motivational sound bites. And after Monday’s loss, they either refused to admit that they saw James handling the beer bottle or denied that it reflected any hint of disrespect. Beating James will require some well-channeled anger, which San Antonio used when it became the only team, in either conference, to exact series revenge over James (with Miami) in the past seven years. But Toronto doesn’t appear to have yet reached that point.
James was amused by what the Raptors did to improve their roster, inspired by a team that didn’t appear interested in ceding victory. That also stirred him with a desire to crush their spirits with expediency. After poking a Lowry pass out ahead to his All-Star teammate Kyrie Irving in the game’s first three minutes, James immediately directed Irving to throw the ball off the glass. (“Or you could say, ‘Throw it to the sky.’ I like that better,” James said.) Irving obliged and could only shake his head in amazement afterward.
“It’s just another play in the books for me and ‘Bron,” Irving said.
This season, these playoffs, James has almost been in open defiance of those who expected him to take it easy in his first truly unburdened season. He shouldn’t lead the league in minutes at age 32; shouldn’t average more regular-season minutes than 20-somethings Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis when he’s already amassed more career minutes than Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Scottie Pippen. And he shouldn’t be averaging more postseason minutes, either. But he keeps testing the bounds of his endurance, keeps single-handedly making the Cavaliers’ second unit dangerous merely by his presence on the floor, and he gets a little more agitated each time someone asks him if he should let up a bit. “I train my body every single day to be in tip-top shape. I feel real good about where I’m at today. And hopefully, that will continue,” James said.
In the first few months of his first season back in Cleveland in 2014, James didn’t feel right. He struggled with a balky back and a sore knee, and Cavaliers fans were briefly concerned that their hometown hero had given the best he had to offer to Miami. He griped about minutes, demanded that he’d be used less to preserve himself for the postseason, and expressed concern about his longevity. Now, in the third season of his second Cavs tenure, James wants to consume every available minute. “I’ll rest when I retire,” James said earlier this season, while repeating variances of that phrase several times afterward.
And that’s the thing with James as he’s reached a stage in his career when he has no peers. When his primary opponents either are already in the history books or looking at him in the mirror. The Cavaliers haven’t necessarily found that switch, but they are winning. (The Dahntay Jones Effect, perhaps?) And an eight-day layoff gave them plenty of time to practice and uncork their best, sustained performance of the playoffs. Rallying from a 26-point deficit to defeat Indiana in Game 3 of the first round is still the moment when James reminded all challengers of the difficulty of defeating him. But a wire-to-wire victory over the Raptors sent another message about what the Cavaliers can look like when they remain focused from the opening tip.
“I’m OK with where we’re headed,” James said. “I’m pleased. But I’m not satisfied. At the end of the day, I feel like we’re making progress in being the team we want to become.”
James had a momentary lapse in the third period, when he snatched that beer and contemplated relaxing for the rest of the evening. The crowd applauded. Teammate J.R. Smith, who was standing nearby, had a good laugh but jokingly wondered how people would’ve reacted had he done the same. Doesn’t matter. James is thirsty, no doubt. But while he prefers red wine – and that carbonated beverage that he won’t tell anyone to drink in his commercials – his play this postseason suggests that he’d rather wait for the champagne.
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