LeBron James was his cool self on Wednesday, riding Toronto for 39 points in Cleveland’s Game 2 Conference semis conquest over the visiting Raptors, including makes in four of his six attempts from long range.
One of those connections, a second quarter three-pointer hit in the face of Raptors defensive maven Serge Ibaka, drew the ire of many for its seeming rope-a-dope action before James pulled up:
On Friday, Raptor guard Norman Powell knowingly called the move “disrespectful,” with caveats, while Kyle Lowry vowed that such space needed to spin the ball like that would never be allowed again as the series moves to Toronto for Friday’s Game 3. The spin, mixed with James’ joke of an attempt to feint a swig from an empty beer bottle during Game 1, have the Raptors on edge.
(James’ move to ask for an off-backboard alley-oop just minutes into the defending champions’ Game 1 win over Toronto, and the 33 total points in which the Raptors have lost by in this series have also added to the package.)
Whether it’s a case of trumped-up insolence or the real thing for LeBron is up to your local Value Assigner to determine. LeBron just wants you to know that the move is part of a devastating offensive arsenal, all part of the plan, and not something he plans with parting with any time soon:
“It’s bait,” James told ESPN at Cavs shootaround ahead of Friday’s Game 3. “If [Ibaka] would have reached in, I would have put it on the floor.
“It was a mental thing. Everything I do is mental.”
“I was just basically in my zone, in my comfort zone, and after I spun the ball and I jabbed him, I seen what I needed to see from the defender to be able to get that shot off,” James told reporters. “If I didn’t see it, I would have drove it, and if I didn’t have the drive, I would have gave it up and let one of my teammates attack.”
“What if I missed the shot? What if he stole the ball? We wouldn’t be talking about it,” James said.
James is rarely wrong with his media guesswork these days, but he is absolutely off in his estimation that fans and followers would ignore any miss off a pre-three spin. Millions have been made off of this man in basic cable’s television’s attempts to find holes in his particular package of skills, deign to turn on your television a weekday morning for further proof. We’d be talking about it, make or miss, shot or drive. No pass, or too much passing.
The Raptors are far from chuffed.
Powell was one of several charged with staying in front of LeBron on his spectacular night …
… and he was something less than sanguine at shootaround on Friday, when describing his squad’s reaction to watching the play on game film, following the loss:
“We can’t allow that type of freedom, that type of comfort with him or any other player, to be able to spin the ball like that.
“It’s disrespectful. But it shows us that we’re playing too soft. We need to come out with a mentality and a physicality and a force on both ends that says, ‘You’re not gonna get anything easy.’
“It shouldn’t have happened. It stops tonight.”
Kyle Lowry, a game-time decision at the moment due to an ankle sprain, echoed his teammate’s concerns, but only as they related to the Raptors:
“I was pretty upset, not that he did it,” Lowry said.
“Not that he did it. He should spin the ball, he’s comfortable, we can’t let him be comfortable, we have to make him uncomfortable,” Lowry said. “He’s in a situation right now where he’s playing very comfortably and the things he’s doing are comfortable. If I was comfortable I would do the same thing.”
How can the Raptors’ extinguish James’s behaviour?
“Play harder,” Lowry said.
The Raptors could play harder, give the punters a series, and possibly make James work for one or two or as many as zero wins when the Cavaliers strike up in Toronto on Friday and Sunday. The Raptors haven’t had any success staying in front of the Cavalier offense up to this point, though, while Lowry’s All-Star backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan has missed two-thirds of his shots while failing to hit a three-pointer thus far in the series. The Raps have absolutely failed to take advantage of what is a vulnerable Cavalier team on the defensive side of the ball.
Toronto has issues on both ends of the court that aren’t going to be wrapped up in a weekend, or with a series of continued starting lineup and rotation modifications. This is not an easy cover.
For the purposes of LeBron’s play? Sure, the Raptors can crowd James in that instance – take away that spinnin’ room – but what happens when the man slashes into an inviting paint, with Serge Ibaka left recovering some 22 feet away from the goal? Paint that is hardly protected, we should point out, due to the same lineup and rotation changes that many begged Raptors coach Dwane Casey throughout the year to execute: Ibaka was the only Raptor big man on the court, working next to P.J. Tucker and three guards in the Toronto Five, when LeBron spun his way toward earning whatever the Canadian word for “acrimony” is. We wouldn’t rely on Cory Joseph to tell us.
If you’ll allow some crossover, we wouldn’t rely on Chauncey Billups either:
Failing an angry reaction that could draw a suspension, we’d invite both sides to read about what 1970s-era Indiana Pacer Roger Brown used to do with the famed ABA basketball; spinning those red, white and blue colors all the way to the Basketball Hall of Fame:
“I developed a one-on-one move that was strictly for the ABA. It had to do with the red, white and blue ball. When you watched that thing spin in the air, there was something mesmerizing about the colors. So I’d get the ball and sort of spin it before I made my move. Some defenders’ eyes went right to the ball, to the colors spinning. It was hypnotic, and that one second that they stared at the ball was enough for me to get by them.”
LeBron isn’t allowed the same leeway with the NBA’s plain, orange leather ball. He is, however, allowed space by one of the better defenders of his era because James, in simple terms, is too dynamic a player to crowd when given the ball in a triple-threat position. Defenders don’t come much headier, much grittier and more ably suited to hang with LeBron than the 6-9-ish, 235-pound Ibaka, a former league leader in blocks per game.
If Ibaka decides to leave LeBron James on an island – Even Uncontested Corner Three Abode – then your sign should be in place. If the long jumper is locked in, even if Eric Snow is paid to work in the same building, then your search for hope in defending LeBron is just about at an end. With the way the NBA is spaced these days, James’ spin of the ball is akin to Charles Barkley taking the time to crack his knuckles prior to a 15-second backdown of a defender in 1997. Someone’s getting a good look, somewhere.
It’s unfair, for a group of Cavaliers that has yet to lose a playoff game in six tries so far.
Of course, they’ve yet to play in Canada.
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