The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors tip-off Game One of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday night (7 PM CT, TNT). Today on “Take Five” we take stock of LeBron James and the Cavs, perception of the Raptors series, and Lance Stephenson’s dubious legacy.
What else to say about LeBron’s Game 7 masterpiece? Simply the best of all time, at his best, fifteen years in. That is perhaps the developing takeaway: James is well past the mileage mark where most icons faded into the ends of benches or television booths. Yet he trucks on with accustomed speed, power and durability. He single-handedly decimated Indiana on Sunday with 45 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and four steals in 43 overwhelming minutes. It punctuated a series in which James carried his lifeless Cavs teammates up and down the floor like a freighter hauling frozen fish to and from the market. Long live the King, indeed.
LeBron’s Herculean playoff performances have become old hat. We don’t appreciate his respect for the public and the media nearly enough. The dynamic was evident Sunday just seconds after the buzzer sounded and the Cavs survived. There was James, patiently executing the tired postgame routine with ABC’s Doris Burke, while fans screamed and teammates celebrated. In this cauldron of noise and emotion, he thoughtfully spun frame-by-frame recountings of his teammates’ contributions, followed by a thorough dissection of the Raptors personnel.
The answers could have been written from a studio desk. Small matter, and James adulation? Perhaps. But consider the endless monotony of short postgame clichés. Or San Antonio coach Greg Popovich, who routinely belittles professionals just trying to do their jobs in these situations. Pop is somehow “cute” for it. Players, starting with James, would get crushed for that same behavior. The fact James, even as the most popular and pressurized force in basketball, never seems to take the interview process lightly, that he rarely says the wrong thing yet always has things to say, ought to be appreciated more. We took a minute to do so on the Drive.
“How did this really happen?” Game 7 presented the stakes to beg the question again, as the Cavs ran Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith out on the floor to start. After all of the noise subsided and dust settled: Kyrie Irving’s tenure, the trade for Isaiah Thomas, the reinforcements from Utah, how had the Cavs ended up with the same four veterans beside LeBron they’d had all along? The Jazz quartet has gone silent. George Hill has battled back injuries and missed three games in the series. Rodney Hood – 14.7 ppg scorer in the regular season – looks like the Monstars took his basketball powers (see below). He played just seven minutes in Game 7 and didn’t score a point. Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson combined for 9.5 ppg in the first round. Not exactly the firepower and depth owner Dan Gilbert bargained for. It’s a study in mismanagement and the challenges in building a team around LeBron. But it’s James and the same old gang vs. the Eastern Conference going forward.
(Now, the Monstars.)
Re-enter the Raptors. James can say all the insightful things about their team depth, Dwayne Casey’s coaching, and DeMar Derozan’s improvements. They may be true. You may even believe him. But public perception of this series remains that it’s the same old Raptors against the indomitable James, a matchup James has won comfortably the past two seasons. No.1 seed Toronto was easily the best team in the Eastern Conference this season. The Cavs look more vulnerable than ever. But in the Eastern Conference, the team with LeBron is still the favorite unless the Raptors prove otherwise. Game on.
Find someone who looks at you the way Lance Stephenson looked at getting in that Game 7 mix (picture N/A, sadly). You may remember the eager look on “Born Ready’s” face as he waited at the scorers table to enter the game, with James and the Cavs leading early. But Stephenson did little to derail the freight train, picking up two overeager early fouls in route to a team worst -19 +/- in just twelve minutes. The loss marked the fifth time Stephenson has been eliminated from the playoffs at James’s hands. His personal battles with LeBron over the years have gained notoriety and some admiration, but it’s turning into a dubious legacy for Lance: the guy who came at the King and missed.
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Jon Wiener is a sports broadcaster, writer and film producer with Bash Brothers Media and ESPN 105.9 FM The Zone (Jackson, Miss.). He’s written for The New York Daily News, SLAM! Magazine, ABC News, Global Golf Post, The Jackson Free Press, Mississippi Sports Magazine, and more. He graduated from Syracuse University with an M.S. in Broadcast and Digital Journalism and Trinity University with a B.A. in English Literature. Broadcasting is fun, producing is expensive, writing is where the heart is.