The Raptors believe, but LeBron James knows

Dan Devine

The Toronto Raptors believe that they’re good enough this year to break through and make the NBA Finals. DeMar DeRozan believes the Raptors are good enough this year to win the NBA championship. The Raptors — the East’s No. 1 team, winners of 19 of their last 22 games entering Wednesday night — believe that they can be special, and that this is their time.

LeBron James doesn’t have to rely on belief, though. He’s got years of incontrovertible proof that he tips the scales when it matters most, that he’s the question nobody else in the Eastern Conference can answer. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar and four-time NBA Most Valuable Player added some more evidence in support of that assertion on Wednesday:

James helmed a dominant Cavs offense at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday, scoring 35 points and dishing 17 assists without a turnover to lead Cleveland back from a 15-point halftime deficit and all the way to victory in a 132-129 scorcher. If that sounds pretty damn good, that’s probably because it is, and we know that because nobody’s done it in the last 40 years:

Of James’ 17 assists, 11 led directly to 3-pointers — including a dagger of a right corner triple by the just-returned Kevin Love with 27 seconds to go — and four led to shots at the basket, as his facilitating gave Cleveland life while taking the Raptors’ away. He scored or assisted on 80 of the Cavs’ 132 points, the second-highest total of his career, including 45 of Cleveland’s 68 points after intermission.

LeBron James spins past Raptors forward Pascal Siakam on his way to the basket. (AP)
LeBron James spins past Raptors forward Pascal Siakam on his way to the basket. (AP)

They needed every bit of it to climb out of the hole they’d dug themselves by allowing the visiting Raptors to score 79 points through two quarters. As you’d expect, that is not the kind of first-half performance from which teams come back very frequently:

“We just dug down deep,” James said during an on-court interview after the final buzzer. “We came out in the third quarter and was very aggressive, offensively and defensively. That allowed us to get back into the game, and everybody who hit the floor tonight contributed to this win.”

That was vital, because the Cavs entered Wednesday’s game down five rotation pieces, with Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman all sidelined by injury, and veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver away from the team following the death of his younger brother. (They’re also missing head coach Tyronn Lue, who’s taking some time away from the team to tend to health issues that have plagued him throughout the season.) But against the East’s top team, Cleveland’s other players answered the call.

In just his second game back after missing nearly two months with a broken bone in his left hand, Love was money, scoring 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting (4-for-6 from deep, including the big 3 to give Cleveland a four-point lead with 27 ticks left) to go with 12 rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes of work. The 1,000th 3-ball of Love’s career was a pretty big one:

George Hill had one of his best games since coming over at the trade deadline, missing only one of his 11 shots en route to 22 points in 36 minutes. Veteran point guard Jose Calderon looked like the fire of old against his former team, nailing all four 3-pointers he took and scoring 14 points with four dimes in 27 minutes of complementary ball.

J.R. Smith chipped in on the defensive glass, grabbing five boards, and hit several big shots late in the third and early in the fourth to keep Cleveland within striking distance. Jeff Green added 15 points and played solid defense on DeRozan, pinning a driving layup attempt on the backboard with just under three minutes to go to keep the Cavs’ lead at three points. The Cavs got the contributions they needed and, as he’s been doing quite a bit lately, LeBron took care of the rest, making 11 of his 19 shots, snagging seven rebounds, tilting the score for good with a pair of thunderous mid-fourth dunks …

… before finishing the game off at the free-throw line, giving Cleveland their third straight win, and giving the Raptors plenty to think about as they head back to Ontario.

The Raptors blitzed out of the gate, shooting 63 percent from the field in the first half to take a commanding lead thanks to a 41-22 second quarter dominated by the young second unit — guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, bigs Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl — that has been so instrumental to Toronto’s success this season. They went ice cold in the final five minutes of the third quarter, though, struggling to generate quality looks as Cleveland briefly picked up its defensive effort.

The Cavs have been consistently bad on defense this season, ranking 28th in a 30-team league in points allowed per possession. (In fairness, they’ve been closer to average than awful since totally overhauling their team, sitting 19th since the All-Star break.) But when you’re operating at as high an offensive level as Cleveland did on Wednesday …

… you don’t need a lot of stops to take over a game. You just need enough. The Cavs got just enough late in the third to chop down their double-digit deficit. The Raps’ offense cranked back up in the fourth — 10-for-17 from the field, 10 assists against two turnovers, 30 points — but Cleveland had given itself a chance to put pressure on a team that, irrespective of how much confidence its principals project, hasn’t had a whole lot of luck in Northeast Ohio over the past few years.

The Raptors didn’t buckle, though; they just came up short. VanVleet, brilliant for most of the game, missed a pair of 3s that he’d probably like to have back. Poeltl coughed the ball up out of a timeout. Serge Ibaka had a regrettable late-game sequence that saw him foul LeBron while shooting a 3 and brick a long ball of his own on the other end. After DeRozan hit a tough midrange jumper to get within one with 10 seconds to go, the Raptors let a couple of seconds tick off the clock before fouling LeBron as they tried to extend the game.

Those things don’t go your way, and you’re staring at LeBron James barreling down the court toward the basket that’s a few feet behind you. On a lot of nights, that can look an awful lot like the grim advance of inevitability.

It doesn’t have to be, just as it wasn’t when Toronto trounced Cleveland two months ago. It all depends on who’s looking at the glass.

The Raptors’ defense can, and should, be better than this. Maybe it will be when they’re not on the second night of a back-to-back on the road (and playing their 10th game in 16 nights). Maybe Cleveland’s lesser lights don’t make all those shots come the playoffs. Maybe we’ll find ourselves wondering, again, if there’s enough in the cupboard around LeBron to make staying in Cleveland worth his while after the end of the season.

Whatever “maybes” there might be, though, there is LeBron, and what he is doing now approaches certainty. He’s averaging 30.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists over his last 20 games, shooting 55 percent from the floor and 41 percent from 3-point range, and activating the rest of the team along the way. I don’t know what you do with that. I don’t think the Raptors do, either.

The Eastern playoffs will still run through Toronto, and the Raptors — now 4 1/2 games up on second-seeded Boston with 10 games to go — still deserve to be considered the class of the conference. One close loss on the road against an unconscious Cleveland side shouldn’t deter their belief that this will be their year. But after watching their bogeyman come out to terrorize them yet again in what had the opportunity to be a statement game, you’d forgive them if those lingering doubts had moved a bit closer to the front of their mind … and you’d forgive the Cavs for feeling just a bit more confident that, once we toss the regular-season records out, the only thing that will matter will be that they have LeBron, and you don’t.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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