CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James has perfected a signature, soul-crushing shot that also seems to describe what’s happening again to the Toronto Raptors.
With cold-blooded precision, James worked the 24-second shot clock down to single digits before sinking one fadeaway after the next in Game 2 on Thursday night, each swish pushing the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference closer to ending a season that was supposed to conclude differently.
Instead, it’s a replay: another Raptors extinction is expected.
Back from LeBronto, as some have nicknamed Canada’s multi-cultural metropolis, James and the Cavaliers — featuring a rejuvenated Kevin Love — will host Game 3 on Saturday night. They look to tighten their stranglehold on a semifinal series that has gotten away from the Raptors.
In the East’s other semifinal, the Philadelphia Sixers are trusting their process — and that Ben Simmons will shake off a horrible performance in Game 2 — before they fall into their own 3-0 hole against a Boston Celtics team that added a spectacular comeback to a season of overcoming long odds. Boston wiped out Philly’s 22-point lead on Thursday to open a 2-0 lead.
For the Raptors, this is all so familiar, so painful.
They insist that the magnificent James, who has won eight straight playoff games against the Raptors and eliminated Toronto from the past two postseasons, is not in their heads. That’s what the Raptors are saying; they might not believe it.
After James dropped shots and jaws with 43 points on 28 shots with 14 assists and eight rebounds in Game 2, All-Star forward DeMar DeRozan insisted the Raptors will fight back.
“It’s the first one to win four,” he said. “It’s not over.”
History begs to differ.
James is 21-0 in playoff series in which he has held a 2-0 lead, and the 33-year-old seems intent on dispatching the Raptors for a third straight postseason and maybe get to his eighth straight Finals.
“When he retires, that’s what you admire what he’s done,” said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. “Right now he’s the enemy and we’ve got to do a better job of not being part of history. We’ve got to make LeBron work harder for his catches and work harder for some of his possessions. You’ve got to live with something. Some of those shots are indefensible.”
A closer look at Saturday’s games:
CELTICS AT 76ERS
Boston leads 2-0. Game 3, 5 p.m. EDT, ESPN
NEED TO KNOW
The Sixers are headed back to the Wells Fargo Center where they won 30 regular-season games and two more in a first-round playoff series over Miami. Philly won a franchise-record 16 straight games to close the season, so a comeback isn’t totally out of reach. But history — and a Celtics team clicking — is working against the Sixers. Boston has won all 36 playoff series when it has a 2-0 lead.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Simmons. He was a leading contender for rookie of the year and a regular threat to notch a triple-double. But where was he in Game 2 when he failed to score a field goal for the first time? Simmons said he was “overthinking.” Perhaps his mind was racing from Boston’s physical defense, which kept him from driving to the basket and forced him into five turnovers.
Jaylen Brown returned to the Celtics after sitting out the opener with a strained right hamstring. He came off the bench and played 25 minutes, scoring 13 points and grabbing four rebounds.
PRESSURE IS ON
Sixers coach Brett Brown. The playoffs are about adjustments and he needs to make one to free Simmons from Boston’s defensive clutches. If Simmons continues to struggle, Brown may have to stick with backup point guard T.J. McConnell, who sparked the Sixers with eight points, five assists and two steals in 17 minutes of Game 2.
RAPTORS AT CAVALIERS
Cleveland leads 2-0. Game 5, 8:30 p.m., ESPN
NEED TO KNOW
James continues to ascend and astound. He’s averaging 34.4 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 41.7 minutes in his 13th postseason. He has led Cleveland in points and assists in 10 consecutive playoff games, tying Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for the longest such streak in postseason history.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Toronto’s defense on James and Love, who scored 31 in Game 2. Casey has to try something new to slow down James because nothing is working. His ability to post up creates a dilemma: guard him with one player and he gets to the rim; double-team him and risk him finding an open teammate for an uncontested shot.
The Raptors need to force some mistakes after the Cavs had a franchise playoff record-low three turnovers in Game 2.
Both teams are relatively healthy.
PRESSURE IS ON
DeRozan and Raptors guard Kyle Lowry. They’ve spent the past two years chasing and not catching James. The only way for the Raptors not to be considered pretenders again is for them to dethrone King James and they’re running out of time.