The moment required brilliance. LeBron James delivered again.
James banked in a running one-hander at the buzzer, giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a 105-103 win over Toronto on Saturday night in Game 3 and shoving the Raptors to the edge of their most devastating playoff exit.
After the Raptors tied it on rookie OG Anunoby’s 3-pointer with eight seconds left, James took the inbounds pass, dribbled the length of the court and rose off the floor on the left side of the basket just feet from Toronto’s bench.
Glass. Bucket. Bedlam.
“Tie game, down one,” James said. “I live for those moments.”
As the noise level in Quicken Loans Arena rose to jet-engine levels, the Cavs sprinted from the other end of the court and mobbed James. After some tight hugs, he was back atop the scorer’s table — just like he did after a last-second 3-pointer to win Game 5 against Indiana — and celebrated a win that was up for grabs.
“I’ve been doing that since I was like six, seven, eight years old,” James said. “Maybe even before that. There’s a picture floating around of me beside a Little Tikes hoop with a saggy Pamper on and I was doing it back then and all the way up until now, at 33.
“Things that you dream about, that you get those opportunities and I’ve been fortunate enough to get a handful of those in some of the biggest moments in my career.”
James finished with 38 points, Kevin Love added 21 and 16 rebounds and Kyle Korver scored 18 for the Cavs, who have won nine straight postseason games over the Raptors and may sweep them for the second straight year.
The difference in the two teams is simple: One has James, the other doesn’t.
“I ran out of words a while ago,” said Korver, struggling to describe James’ latest heroics. “I’ve seen him shoot that shot, that game-winner, countless times when he’s messing around in shootaround and practice. It’s always like, why would he shoot a shot like that — to win a playoff game?
“Unbelievable play. He did it again. He’s been so huge in those moments for us all year.”
It was the fifth career postseason buzzer-beater for James, the second of these playoffs, and this one had maybe the highest degree of difficulty of them all.
“It is very difficult,” James said, smiling. “Don’t try it at home.”
Kyle Lowry scored 27 for Toronto, which played much more physically and clawed back in the fourth quarter while All-Star DeMar DeRozan was on the bench. DeRozan, despondent at not being able to do more or help when it mattered most, went just 3 of 12 from the field and scored eight points.
“It was extremely hard, extremely hard,” DeRozan said of being benched by coach Dwane Casey in the fourth. “I never want to be over there watching. It definitely sucks to watch it. It was just one of those nights for me, personally. I kept thinking, as long as we win, it cures everything.”
Casey wanted to trap James on the final play, but he went by defenders at “100 miles per hour.”
Lowry knew James would take the ball up the left side, and once he pulled up there wasn’t much that could be done.
“Maybe we could have doubled him or made him go right,” Lowry said. “You know he’s going left and he made a tough shot.”
After winning the series’ first two games in Canada, the Cavs came home and won a brawl with the Raptors, who just can’t beat James. He’s 11-2 against Toronto in the past three postseasons.
The three-time champion has ended the Raptors’ past two seasons, and despite playing with a different supporting cast, James is one win from a Toronto trifecta.
We The North? He The North.
Game 4 is Monday night, and the odds are stacked against the rattled Raptors. Of the 129 teams in NBA history to fall behind 3-0, none has come back to win.
“Fight,” Lowry said when asked what’s next. “Rumble. What else are you gonna do?”
This was supposed to be the Raptors’ season, the one that ended in triumph over James. Toronto had the East’s best record, the No. 1 seed, home-court advantage and a Cleveland team that appeared very beatable.
But the Cavs stole Game 1 by a point in overtime, and James scored 43 in a virtuoso Game 2 performance.
Then, as he has done so many times, he ripped out Toronto’s hearts with a probable series-and-season-ending dagger, a shot that belongs right at the top of so many in his remarkable career.
“There was way more time than I needed,” he said.
The first half ended in frustration for the Raptors with DeRozan, Casey and his assistants screaming at the officials following a sequence that went against them.
Serge Ibaka’s basket was originally counted and then waved off by the referees, and the reversal was doubly painful as Love buried a 3-pointer to put the Cavs ahead by 13. When the half ended, an incensed Casey, his suit coat flying open and his tie jumping off his chest, stormed off the floor.
In the closing minutes, Ibaka was called for a foul on what appeared to be a clean block on James.
“I thought there were some bad calls down the stretch that all went against us,” DeRozan said. “It still came down to a running, bank-shot, game-winner by LeBron.”
Desperate to find something, anything, to slow down the Cavs, Casey changed his starting lineup for Game 3. He inserted 6-foot guard Fred VanVleet and benched forward Ibaka, going with a smaller lineup to push the pace.
However, Toronto started 2 of 11 from the field and the Raptors were quickly down 12 and seemingly in big trouble when DeRozan picked up his second foul and went to the bench.
Raptors: Casey has been criticized for some moves — and ones he hasn’t made — in the series. He’s also aware of the narrative that his team has been mentally defeated by James. “It’s not in my head,” he said. “It’s disappointing. It reminds me of back in the days of having to get over the hurdle of (Michael) Jordan. At some point you’ve got to get over that hurdle, you’ve got to knock it down, you’ve got to knock the wall down.” ... Toronto fell to 0-6 in playoff games in Cleveland, tying Atlanta for the worst postseason record by an opponent.
Cavaliers: Several Cleveland players watched the dramatic finish of the 76ers-Celtics game from their locker-room chairs before tipoff. ... James moved past Tony Parker (226) for the fifth-most games in postseason history. Derek Fisher (259) is the all-time leader, followed by Tim Duncan (251), Robert Horry (244) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (237).
Game 4 is Monday night.