TORONTO: LeBron James wanted a closeout so badly, wanted a few days rest so badly, wants a championship so badly that he put the Cavaliers on his back.
It wasn’t the virtual one-man show of last year’s NBA Finals, when he carried an injury-wracked team to Game 6 before falling.
But in the first half of Friday’s Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals, James dominated the Toronto Raptors. He played to what would have been exhaustion for a mere mortal, on the court for all but 1:14 of the first 36 minutes and totaling 41 minutes for the game. He committed a foul with 3:07 remaining so he could finally head to the bench.
James finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in the Cavs’ 113-87 victory over the Raptors at Air Canada Centre.
There was no mistaking the challenge James had undertaken on this night.
James was outstanding in the first quarter, scoring 14 points and hitting 5-of-6 shots to assure the Cavs of a strong start that had been lacking in their previous two losses in Toronto in the series. He came up big again in the fourth with eight points, five rebounds and an assist as the Raptors cut a 21-point deficit to 10.
His performance helped the Cavs keep alive his quest to end Cleveland’s 52-year title drought. In doing so, James secured his sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and seventh of his career. He will face the winner of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Golden State Warriors series when the Finals start Thursday.
He also extended his amazing, but to him inconsequential, streak of winning a road game in 25 consecutive playoff series. The Cavs entered the night 0-4 in Toronto this season, 0-2 in the postseason.
James was the one dependable constant in a first half marred by fouls — 22 personals on both teams, three technicals and a flagrant — that robbed the game of any flow and the Cavs’ offense of any rhythm.
Earlier this week, he’d sloughed off the idea that he needed to do more. Fans were clamoring for a 40-point explosion, a statement game from James. He didn’t feel that was necessary, likely because he knows how much he does for his team that doesn’t show up in the box score.
He’s also bought in to winning with the Big Three, not the Big One. That formula worked again with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love also hitting the magic 20-point number that has brought the Cavs a 6-0 record in the 2016 playoffs.
Most fans probably can’t fathom what James does for the Cavs. But Raptors coach Dwane Casey gave perhaps the best summation of what that entails at shoot-around Friday morning.
When asked if there was anything the Raptors could do to physically wear out James, Casey said: “You hope he would wear down from running all over the place. You look up, one time he’s guarding Kyle [Lowry], next time he’s guarding DeMar [DeRozan], next time he’s guarding T-Ross [Terrence Ross], next time he’s guarding DC [DeMarre Carroll], next time he’s flying from this corner to run through the pick-and-roll over there.
“You would hope at some point he’d become human and get tired. We’re trying everything in the world defensively to make sure he does that. I don’t know if the guy’s human or not to get fatigued. That’s why he’s the player he is.”
James had put on a show even before Friday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, James became the first player in 10 years to score more than 20 points and shoot more than 50 percent from the field in each of the first five games of a playoff series. He ran that string to six by hitting 13-of-22 (59 percent) from the field in Game 6.
When it comes to closeout games, James gives “Moneyball” an entirely new meaning. He improved to 20-4 in closeout games since leaving the Cavs to join the Heat in 2010. He is 4-0 in possible road clinchers since his return to Cleveland last season and 6-0 overall.
The staggering numbers continue. When going into a Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead, James is 9-1 with the Cavs and Heat. His only loss came in his first playoff appearance in 2006 against the Detroit Pistons.
But going back to his days at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, James has never cared about individual statistics. The only thing he’s totaling is championships, currently sitting at two with the Heat.
The ultimate mission, the mission James came home for, remains within the Cavs’ grasp. On Friday, James made sure of that.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.