There is no such thing as a LeBron Stopper. There are LeBron Inconveniencers, and if you are one of them, and have eaten a well-balanced meal and hydrated deeply and prayed to all the relevant deities, you might “hold” LeBron to a triple-double and 26 points on 40-percent shooting, as the Raptors did last night. As these things go, this is a LeBron James shot chart you can live with:
After an ugly seven-game series against the Pacers, it is clear that the Cavaliers offense rests on LeBron James as heavily as it ever has. These days he prefers to dine alone. LeBron has feasted on isolations through eight postseason games, and has only increased his appetite since the regular season, ramping them up to 34 percent of his possessions from 24 percent. He isos more regularly than any postseason player besides James Harden and has produced an average of one point on those possessions. The 10.4 points per game LeBron has piled up from going one-on-one account for a hefty chunk of his 33.4 ppg playoff average. Practically anytime you glance over at the screen he’s got the ball clasped like a coconut he’s trying to crush with his bare hands, eyeing whatever sap has been tasked with containing him.
And as it turned out, OG Anunoby fared okay. The Toronto rookie clawed his way through screen after screen, recovered well to stick a last-second hand in James’s mug, and played the kind of physical, pestering, highly responsive defense that almost kind of causes the King some frustration. James only got to the rack three times with Anunoby defending him—once off a stupid gamble for a steal, once off a spin move no mortal could stop, and once after getting straight-up burned from the top of the key. Meanwhile, James took and missed three three-pointers with Anunoby on him. Some combination of the rookie’s stubbornness and (much more likely) the accumulated fatigue of having to go Hulk seven straight games in the very first round, meant that 33-year-old James spent much of Game 1 settling for step-backs and leaners—which, of course, he’ll still make, but a defender would much rather see those than any of the other unpleasant options.
When the whole right side of the court cleared out for this duel at the end of regulation, Anunoby did everything right. James was just better, and that is fine.
All the rookie can be reasonably asked to do is to position his flesh in any way that prevents LeBron from getting within three feet of the hoop, where he shot a comical 77 percent in the regular season and is shooting 79 percent in this postseason. As ESPN enthusiastically outlined before the game, Anunoby was one of the most successful defenders in the entire league when it came to containing drives. Keeping LeBron from the cup forces him to defer to some other option, which, though still good, are not 77 percent good. For instance, James has been nothing special from floater range, making only 27 percent of his shots from 3-10 feet in this postseason, and last night he settled for a whole cluster shots from awkward places in the paint. If you can thoroughly take away his preferred mode of attack, you might even force him to rely on (gulp) the other Cavaliers.
Last night, finally, they did not disappoint him. Cleveland’s scoring load was well-balanced, with James flinging out his 13 assists in all directions:
Korver showed up to the office and hit 5 of his 12 triples; Jeff Green was nearly perfect from the floor and the free-throw line; Tristan Thompson notched another redemptive double-double. J.R. Smith in particular looked refreshingly locked-in, missing only one of his six attempts from three, and picking up one dubious honor: It was the first time any non-LeBron Cav hit 20 points in these playoffs, and the first time J.R. himself had cleared that scoring mark since early February. That Cleveland needed such an diverse explosion of scoring to squeeze by in overtime should register as something close to encouragement for Toronto. Don’t get me wrong: the Raptors are still frauds who lost last night’s game in the most hysterical terms and failed to take advantage of a muted shooting night from Playoff LeBron on their home turf, but they at least did well to make him put his fate in the hands of people not named LeBron James.