‘LeBron Has Another Gear’: An Eastern Conference Finals Preview

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Shane Battier, Glue Guy / Retired - The Players' Tribune

In 2012, when I was with the Heat, we were facing elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston. They basically had a hearse waiting for us outside TD Garden. Everybody in the sports world was ready to bury us. Leading up to the game, the main topics of conversation in the sports media were related to what would happen once we lost.

The Big Three experiment is a failure.

They need to break up this team.

Who’ll be the first to go when they lose?

Yada, yada, yada.

We all knew the stakes. We felt the pressure. It was impossible not to. But when LeBron came out of the locker room for that game, I knew we were going to win. 6 just had this “don’t f— with me” look that told me that we were going to have the best player in the world playing his best game. It was almost like he was possessed. I had never before seen LeBron that focused.

From the jump, his energy level was just off the charts. After he made his first shot, everyone on the floor just kind of looked at each other. We knew it was time to stay the hell out of his way.

Regretfully, Jason Terry didn’t get the memo:

Twitter memes for days.

LeBron went off for 45 points on 19 of 26 shooting. We won by 19 on the road, and then closed Boston out by double-digits in Game 7.

If we had lost to Boston, it would have caused a big shift in the NBA landscape. We would have faced historical scrutiny as a team. But instead, one man raised his game to a different level and completely destroyed the spirit of an extremely tough and experienced Celtics team. That’s what LeBron James is capable of doing when he’s on. That’s what special players do.

Regular season success is fine, but it’s at these moments — when reputations and legacies are at stake — that the best players in the world really show out. These are the games that get you labeled as a choker or a clutch player. These are the games for which you will be remembered when all is said and done.

LeBron left no doubt against the Celtics back in 2012, and if he needs to, he’ll leave no doubt against the Toronto Raptors in this Eastern Conference Finals.

I say “if he needs to” because I know that LeBron has another gear — one he hasn’t had to use yet during these playoffs. When he shifts into that higher gear, there’s still no player in the world who can keep up with him (my apologies Steph). If I’m the Raptors, I know that and I’m pretty concerned about it.

Here’s the good news for Toronto fans: As we learned from Houston and Golden State in the first round, every series is just one untimely slip on a wet spot from changing entirely. Right now the Raptors are an improbable Cavs injury away from advancing to the NBA Finals.

Here’s the bad news for Raptors fans: That’s probably the only shot that Toronto has at winning this series. A wet spot’s chance in hell, if you will.

Right now the Raptors are an improbable Cavs injury away from advancing to the NBA Finals.

The struggles of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been well documented, but it appears that Kyle has finally found his form. Even though he’s playing better, Toronto still has almost no margin for error. For the Raptors to be competitive, they can’t have any more slumps from Kyle and DeMar. Both of those guys need to play like All-Stars and shoot close to 50% from the floor. It’s also crucial for both of them get to the line 6-12 times per game. This is particularly true for DeRozan. I wish Jonas Valanciunas or hell, even Drake, would stage an intervention and tell him that there are plenty of better options than the contested, off the bounce, 20 footer. Just saying.

These playoffs have not been particularly pretty for the Raptors at times, but to their credit, they’ve found ways to win. The 12 other teams who were in the playoffs didn’t.

So far Cleveland has played with an edge. We’ve seen them move the ball, shoot lights-out and defend well. But the one thing we have not seen from the Cavs just yet is how they handle postseason adversity. And that’s something entirely different. Say what you will about the Raptors depleted roster, but they got pushed to two Game 7’s and they’re still standing. Regardless of how this series plays out for Toronto, just the experience of playing this deep into the playoffs will pay dividends for the franchise as a whole down the road.

If I was tasked with guarding LeBron in this series, my biggest focus would be on keeping him out of the paint. Letting LeBron get into the paint is the quickest way to lose a game. Not only does he score at an unbelievable clip from there, but he also gets fouled and has the vision to create wide-open looks for his teammates after the defense collapses.

Toronto has to play disciplined, which isn’t easy against a team as loaded as Cleveland. The help-side defense has to be where it’s supposed to be on every play. It can’t get caught even a step behind. And the pick-and-roll defense has to be extremely tight, because LeBron is going to run about 30 of those a game. If the defense is tight, you can force him to take some long jumpers, which, as a defense, is your best outcome. If the Raps want a quick ticket to the off-season, then let LeBron turn the corner on a pick and roll and get downhill, where he has a multitude of options that are all bad for the Raptors.

I don’t think the difference in the amount of times that the two teams have had off since their last series is going to be a be a big factor. NBA players are used to playing four games in five nights. That’s in our comfort zone. So I’d even argue that it’s to Toronto’s advantage to have just played in an intense series. Toronto can carry that same emotion and mentality into this series.

So far things have come pretty easily for the Cavs. If I’m the Raptors, my thought process going into Game 1 is, “These guys have been chilling for a week. We’ve been grinding. We’re battle-tested. It’s going to take them at least one half to shake off the rust, so we can steal this first game.” The Cavs have shot so well thus far, but if they cool off a bit, the Raptors could bite them. All it will take is for Toronto to steal that first game on the road to change the entire complexion of the series, just like it did for OKC, when the Thunder won at Golden State. If the Raptors can steal a game on the road, it will build their confidence tremendously, and then Cleveland will have to win in Toronto, which is going to be a madhouse. For the Raptors, they need to fire on all cylinders from the tip of this series. They need to throw their best punch right now.

When the Cavs are knocking down shots (which was their biggest weakness in the regular season) there’s not much you can do to stop them. If they continue to shoot at the clip they did in the first two rounds, they’re going to overwhelm the Raptors and give whichever team emerges from the West a serious run for its money.

I think Cleveland’s hot shooting will cool off just enough for the Raptors to steal one game this series. Respect to Moses Malone, may he rest in peace, but there will be no fo’ fo’ fo’ this time. I have the Cavs closing it out at home in five.

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The Battier Take Charge Foundation, established by Shane and his wife Heidi, is dedicated to providing resources for the development and education of underserved youth and teens. With initial focus in Miami, Houston and Detroit, the Battiers’ charge is to encourage and inspire a new generation of potential leaders through educational opportunities and the cultivation of effective leadership skills. Learn more at www.takechargefoundation.org

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