CLEVELAND, Ohio – Even in a game where LeBron James looked, beyond a shadow of a doubt, like the best player on the court, Kyrie Irving still led the Cavs in scoring.
James posted his 15th career triple-double in the postseason with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists in the Cavs’ 108-98 dismantling of the Toronto Raptors in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Much of the attention afterwards went to James, who not only enjoyed a huge night but also passed Shaquille O’Neal on the NBA’s postseason scoring list and met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the hallway.
Lost in the shuffle, if you will, were Irving’s game-high 26 points. Buried somewhere underneath the rubble that was the Raptors were Kevin Love’s 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Much has been made during this perfect Cavs postseason of the emergence of Irving and Love, who are firmly upholding their corners of Cleveland’s Big 3. They’re taking some of the burden off of James and proving worthy wingmen for a captain who’s trying to steer this ship to another Finals.
Irving and Love are taking points and shots from James one year after he single-handily shot the Cavs into the Finals. But they’re also making him better, or at least more difficult to defend.
“It’s always difficult to deal with me,” James said. “I think it adds even more when you have two All-Stars with you, two guys that command multiple eyes any possession. They’re so in such a great rhythm right now, I’ve been able to just pick my spots and do other things to help us try to win ballgames while those guys take the load.”
To illustrate this, consider the Raptors’ defensive scheme against James thus far in the series. In short, they don’t feel they can double-team him.
In Game 1 – where James scored 24 points on 11-of-13 shooting, Irving led all scorers with 27, and Love added 14 – James wasn’t forced to shoot or make an assist out of a double-team one time. DeMarre Carroll was left virtually alone to guard James straight up, and the results were disastrous for the Raptors.
In Game 2, Toronto at least allowed Bismack Biyombo to slide over to help Carroll when James drove past him. And on at least two of James’ assists, Biyombo ran at James while Carroll was still in front of him.
Of course, on those plays James found Tristan Thompson for a dunk and Love for a 3-pointer.
“I don’t know how many more adjectives I can give him,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a great player, he’s playing great. He’s assisting. I’m more concerned about the Toronto Raptors. They’re a great team and we respect them, but, again, we’re here to win.
“We’re not here to increase his legacy or anything like that. We’re trying to take his legacy.”
The Raptors probably won’t be taking much of anything in this series. Outscored by 50 points in the two games, the Raptors now host a Cavs team led by James, who has won at least one road game in 24 consecutive series.
Toronto has been handicapped by the ankle injury of 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, who has yet to play. Without him in the middle, the Raptors have virtually no one to whom Carroll can funnel James to make it tougher for him to get to the room – a must when trying to defend James.
Teams sometimes try to send two defenders at James any time he catches the ball below the foul-line extended, but he almost always finds the open man.
In the Finals last June, the Warriors gave James some room to shoot, as long as it was outside the lane. And they suffocated his teammates, especially along the perimeter, while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving watched with injuries.
Through 10 games this postseason, James has taken nearly 54 percent of his shots from inside of 5 feet – easily the highest percentage of close-range shots during the playoffs in his career. He’s shooting 52.5 percent, the second-highest in 11 playoff runs.
James entered the playoffs having shot about 31 percent from 3-point range – second-lowest of his career. Teams planned on forcing him to take jumpers during the playoffs. But they can’t do it without extra bodies, and those bodies aren’t available because of the attention Irving and Love demand.
James also shooting just 18.4 shots per game – third-lowest of his career and nearly 10 fewer shots than he averaged during the 2015 playoffs.
Irving is taking the most shots and leading the Cavs in scoring (24.8 points to James’ 23.5), and Love is adding 18.4 points per night. James’ scoring average has dropped nearly seven points from the previous postseason, and he’s now gone a career-long 10 games without scoring 30 points.
Also, James’ 37.7 minutes per game are the lowest of his career in the playoffs.
“When Kyrie and Kevin are playing at a high level, it opens the floor for LeBron,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “We know LeBron is the best player in the world, and I believe that, and at times there are going to be times when he has to take the game over.
“But now he understands the bigger picture and understands that the more the team plays, the more the team performs, the easier it is for him, and the easier it is for us.”