TORONTO – He can’t hurt them anymore. LeBron James is gone. The nightmare is over.
There is nothing No. 23 can do to prevent the Toronto Raptors from reaching their destiny.
That was the case even before the Raptors casually put away a rather casual Los Angeles Lakers team Thursday that James is supposed to lead to the Promised Land but will have to take a detour to get anywhere close.
James is still a monster and led all scorers with 29 points and added six assists and four rebounds in a 32-minute night that saw him pulled with two minutes remaining, having reached his limit as the Raptors coasted home with a 111-98 win.
But as a Laker, the Raptors could only see him again in the NBA Finals and the Lakers aren’t getting there. Not this year and it’s worth wondering if they ever will given James will be 35 next season.
For now, after a weird, trying season with more than its share of self-inflicted wounds – “it’s been a grind,” acknowledged Lakers head coach and semi-permanent hot-seat resident Luke Walton — Los Angeles is happy to play for a couple of extra lottery balls. James is on his first-ever minutes restriction after missing 17 games with a groin injury earlier this year, and with the Lakers [31-37] having tumbled out of the playoff race, he isn’t expected to play on the second half of a back-to-back in Chicago Friday.
He wasn’t able to help the Lakers cut into a 90-84 Raptors lead in the 10 fourth-quarter minutes he did get. In fact, the never-ending depth of the Raptors [49-20] allowed them to extend the lead in a game where they were short-handed and came home mainly with Kawhi Leonard and four Raptors with G-League roots.
Having Leonard helps, as he scored 25 points in his 32 minutes, adding eight rebounds and four assists. The difference between the two teams is Leonard has all kinds of help, even on a night when starters Kyle Lowry (ankle) and Serge Ibaka (suspension) were out of the lineup. Norman Powell scored 20 points off the bench while knocking in three threes and Pascal Siakam scored 16 points despite shooting 3-of-16 from the floor.
James has always had the ability to invade the Raptors’ dreams, but watching him play for a depleted Lakers lineup was different. He didn’t have a lot of help. James broke even for the night, Kyle Kuzma was plus-1, but the other three starters were minus-43 and the entire bench was underwater too.
“We had some turnovers, and we had some offensive rebounds that we gave up, at critical points of time of the game,” James said. “Sometimes two or three guys would be on the ball and they would come up with it. You can’t dictate if you can make shots from the perimeter or not … but some of the things that you can control is turnovers, we had 20, and some of the offensive rebounds we gave up.
And then there is James – who led the NBA in minutes last season – having his ability to impact games being artificially limited, which is even stranger to watch unfold.
“It’s challenging for me mentally because I’m so accustomed to being out on the floor, especially when I’m healthy,” James said. “You know, but it’s a conversation between myself and my trainer and the coaching staff and the front office, and this is the direction that they wanted to go the remainder of the season given the lack of success we’ve had with our ball club. So I trust the people in charge, and that’s what it is.”
The memories of what James can do to an opponent and what he has done to the Raptors were still fresh, though.
“Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of hours of sleep over the years against this guy,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse of James. “Puts you in every, really, every conceivable combination of pick-and-roll, big-small, small-big, 2-3, 2-4, 5-4, you know, so your coverages get long and complicated. And then he puts you in the post. [He] loves to pass the most. And then still he’s kind of the freight-train basketball is still the biggest thing. He gets it out and he comes rumbling down the floor and everybody bounces off him and he lays it in.
“A lot of that going on.”
In the first half, for example.
Just as the Raptors appeared to be putting some distance on Los Angeles, he sprinted past the field like he had hit turbo to fly in for a vintage slam; leaked out to score another transition basket (seriously, how do you lose LeBron James in transition?) and then flipped a left-handed no-look helper to Kuzma for a quick 6-0 run that pulled Los Angeles back within two. Another couple of helpers from James tied the score 39-39 with 6:30 left in the half, as in the space of two minutes James scored or assisted on 10 straight Lakers points. But with James on a leash – he played just 14 minutes in the first half – Walton put his best player on the bench and the Raptors were able to reel off an 11-2 run heading into halftime, sparked by a pair of Leonard threes, including a long-distance runner at the buzzer to give Toronto a 65-54 lead.
The Raptors were able to rely on Leonard, their all-purpose solution. Whether Leonard would have been the difference had James stayed in the East is a moot point. The Raptors’ goal is to play for an NBA championship, and they will have their hands full getting there.
“It’s fun to talk about and think about, but I’m not so sure that him leaving has helped us much,” said Nurse. “We aren’t gonna know that answer until a few months from now probably. It’s certainly made the East interesting in a different way. It was ‘oh you had to get through him’, now you’ve gotta get through a lot. A lot a lot.”
Leonard looks like he’s up to the challenge. It’s fair to say Leonard at least played James even – something no Raptors team has been able to say before.
The scars left by James may not be fresh, given that Powell and Siakam were the only Raptors who hit the floor Thursday night who were around for the entirety of the Raptors’ 10-game post-season losing streak to James, with Lowry and Fred VanVleet (thumb) absent from the lineup.
But Nurse could remember it well, particularly the bizarre finish to Game 1 of Toronto’s second-round series against the Cavs last spring, where Toronto blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and missed five shots to win in the final seven seconds before losing in overtime.
“I think we’ve talked about this a number of times, we really had the first game under control. I don’t know how many times we’ve replayed that last possession,” said Nurse. “I think three or four tips point blank and the damn thing just wouldn’t go in. It really changed the whole complexion of the whole series. That’s all my memory takes me to is about right there.
“It was tough. I just think that we thought we were better than they were or at least would play them better than we did, so that made for extra tension.”
Enough tension that the Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey, hired Nurse, traded DeMar DeRozan and acquired Leonard. Enough tension that the Raptors decided it was worth remaking their franchise.
The tension is different a year later. LeBron is no longer the Beast of the East. He’s on an also-ran team in the West and his 16th season with no obvious route to another championship. He’s got his own issues.
The Raptors are still the Raptors, though. They still need to prove something, even with Leonard in the fold and a roster that has nearly been flipped inside out in the effort to shed old demons and carve new paths.
For one night they proved they can beat LeBron. It’s not what it used to be, but it’s a start.