LeBron James was incredible Tuesday night, willing his Cleveland Cavaliers past the Toronto Raptors in overtime despite never leading in regulation in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
To hear James tell it after the game, though, the only reason Cleveland won was because of his teammates. He would later say his performance — in which he had 26 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists and two blocks — was “probably one of my worst games of the season.”
On the matter of his teammates, James had a point. J.R. Smith scored 20 points, going 5 for 6 from three-point range. Kyle Korver had 19 points and hit five threes himself. Jeff Green had 16 points and Tristan Thompson — who, as recently as a week ago, was in mothballs at the end of Cleveland’s bench — chipped in 14 points and 12 rebounds, including nine offensive boards, in 26 minutes.
But it’s surprising when James gets help these days.
Consider those players for a moment. Korver made an all-star team as part of a feel-good 60-win Atlanta Hawks team, but he’s now a 37-year-old sharpshooter who is limited in virtually every other area. Smith is known as much for his off-court antics as for being a talented yet mercurial player. Green is a journeyman, while Thompson is a relentless rebounder and a switchable defender who doesn’t offer much else.
To say this is a far cry from the days of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, or Kyrie Irving and a healthy Kevin Love in Cleveland, is the definition of an understatement.
There’s a reason that James went from winning 21 straight first-round games — including four-game sweeps from 2013 through 2017 — to enduring a seven-game slugfest against the Indiana Pacers this year, which felt like, at several points, Cleveland might not survive.
This Cavaliers team simply isn’t good.
Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were supposed to provide help after being exchanged for Irving last summer; instead, they both were ineffective on the court and brought issues to the locker room. They were dealt and the players the Cavaliers brought in at the deadline — George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance — all have flaws. Nance didn’t even play Tuesday, Hill has missed several games already in these playoffs with injuries, Clarkson is an inefficient shoot-first guard that looks overwhelmed in his first playoffs and Hood remains a player who tantalizes but doesn’t consistently produce.
Love, who was supposed to be James’s second star on this team, injured his thumb against the Pacers and has looked like a shell of himself since. He did hit a couple big shots Tuesday, and finished with 13 rebounds, but he was 3 for 13 from the field and was dominated by Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas.
If James can manage to carry this limited Cavaliers team on his back to a fourth straight NBA Finals — and an eighth straight trip overall for him — it will be one of the greatest accomplishments of his remarkable 15-year career.
The other limited teams that James led to the Finals — the 2007 and 2015 versions of the Cavaliers — at least had one thing they consistently did: They defended, and did it well.
This Cleveland team, on the other hand, was 29th in the NBA in defense this season. For a team with that horrid of a defense to make the Finals would be unprecedented. It will take a player with an ability level as unprecedented as James to pull it off.
He does have a couple of things working in his favor. The Raptors, as they showed Tuesday night, remain incapable of getting out of their own way in the playoffs. Going up against a Cavaliers team that had only escaped the first round a little more than 48 hours earlier, and having led the entire game, Toronto missed 16 of its final 18 shots — including no baskets during the final 4:19 of regulation. That gave this game, and home court, away.
It’s hard to see the Raptors bouncing back from that against a team, and a player, that has dominated them over the past two seasons.
Assuming Toronto doesn’t, awaiting the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals would be either the talented but young Philadelphia 76ers, essentially led by a pair of rookies in their first playoffs in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, or the injury-plagued Boston Celtics. James won’t doubt his chances of advancing past either option.
Plenty of others will, though, with good reason. The Cavaliers have issues everywhere: from a lack of athleticism up and down the roster, to James being the sole threat in the pick-and-roll, to the team basically having no other way of winning when its shooting goes cold. This isn’t a team that should be able to navigate its way through three rounds of the playoffs to once again reach the Finals.
But it won’t really be a team that does it, Tuesday’s win notwithstanding. Instead, it will be James, somehow still at the peak of his powers 15 years into his career, putting these Cavaliers on his back and carrying them to the place he’s always expected to be: in the NBA Finals, perhaps yet again opposite the Golden State Warriors.
If James can pull that off, a career full of remarkable accomplishments may have one that stands above the rest.