TORONTO — In his playoff rematch with the Toronto Raptors, LeBron James proved even more lethal than last time.
In fact, James may be more lethal now than ever.
James averaged 26 points per game as Cleveland took down Toronto to win last year’s Eastern Conference Finals in six games. This year, James is averaging 34.4 points, nine rebounds and 7.1 assists per game in eight playoff encounters.
Such a stat line has never been accomplished by anyone over the course of an entire postseason.
“I think he understands the moment,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Saturday. “I think he’s chasing Michael (Jordan). I think he’s chasing rings. That’s what a guy at his level does.”
Asked to compare the James he faced this year to the player he opposed last spring, Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said he noticed a definite difference.
“He seems a lot faster and quicker this year from last year,” DeRozan said Saturday. “That extra hop step, everything out there on the court. You look on the scoresheet after the game and he’s still playing 42 minutes a game. It’s incredible for somebody with that amount of mileage on him to be able to come back and seem faster and quicker that next year. “
That mileage isn’t insignificant. Now 32, James has already accumulated 10 full seasons and more than 40,000 career minutes. Nevertheless, it seems he’s speeding up, not slowing down.
“I’m very impressed,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Since the second half of the season, he’s really gone to another level. It started in the second half of the regular season and carried over to the playoffs. We’re just riding him right now. The way he’s been playing is phenomenal. He’s carrying this team and everyone is chipping in and trying to help him as much as possible.”
For his part, James insists both he and the Cavaliers still have room for improvement.
“We have another level,” James said after scoring 35 points in Sunday’s Game 4 win that clinched Cleveland’s second straight series sweep. “We’re going to work on our habits this week and see what happens. Even though we won this series, there’s some things we can clean up. We have another level and we believe we can get there.”
Dating to last season’s rally in the NBA Finals, the Cavs have won 11 consecutive playoff games, two shy of the NBA’s record set by the Los Angeles Lakers over the 1988 and 1989 postseasons. No one has played a bigger role in that run than James.
“He’s just been on another level,” injured Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s just raised his game.”
Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, who played with Okalahoma City when the Thunder lost to James’ Miami Heat in the 2012 Finals, said he’s never seen LeBron better than right now.
“This is the best I’ve seen him play,” Ibaka said. “He’s just the motor of that team. He does everything. He creates, he helps on defense, he does everything.”
With James and the rest of his teammates burying opponents with a barrage of 3-pointers, Casey said it will take “a Herculean effort” to unseat the defending champs.
“You’re going to have to have very flexible defenders,” Casey said, “and you’re going to have score 117, 118 points a night.”
James made a team-high five 3-pointers Sunday, and went 8 for 9 at the free throw line. He also made it clear to Lue that he didn’t want to take time off with a series win, and a chance at rest, on the line.
“He tries to go as far as we need him,” Lue said. “In that fourth quarter, I tried to get him out for a couple of minutes, but he said, ‘No, I’m fine, just get me a timeout and I’ll be OK.’”
Unfortunately for Cleveland’s opponents, there’s no such option.
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