TORONTO — LeBron James, who admitted to feeling “burnt” after averaging 41.4 minutes during a seven-game playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, says he’s ready to take on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I’ll be all right,” James said at the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ shootaround Tuesday morning. “I’ll be fine.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue acknowledged that he has to protect his 33-year-old superstar during the second round, where there is just one day off between games.
“Just got to be smart about the situation,” Lue said. “I know he wants to play and play a lot, but we’ve got to be smart because we play every other day, so there’s not a lot of time really to recover.”
Lue, who said he was impressed by his team’s focus during an hourlong walk-through Monday before flying to Toronto, explained how James is able to mask his fatigue.
“[He looks tired] just after the game, but not during the game,” Lue said. “I think his mental toughness — just being mentally prepared, not giving in to fatigue — is a big part of who he is.”
When a reporter characterized James’ bevy of minutes as an “issue,” the four-time MVP rejected the insinuation.
“It wasn’t an issue,” James said. “It’s what I had to do to help us get to the second round. And we’re worried about the second round now that we’re here.”
James was magnificent against the Pacers, averaging 34.4 points on 55.3 percent shooting from the field (35.3 percent from 3) and 81.8 percent from the foul line, to go with 10.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 block per game.
He was not interested in rehashing his individual success in the first round, however.
“It’s about what we did,” James said. “Just trying to help us advance. I had a lot of things that I had to do to try to help our team win, and I was satisfied with the fact that I was able to go out and make plays to help our team succeed and move onto the next round, and that’s the most important thing.”
The Cavs lost 133-99 on the last occasion they played in Toronto, on Jan. 11. That was before they revamped their roster at the trade deadline. After their moves, they beat the Raptors twice — 132-129 on March 21 and 112-106 on April 3 — to take the season series 2-1.
Cleveland also beat Toronto in the postseason the past two years — six games in the 2016 conference finals and a four-game sweep in the 2017 semifinals — but James doesn’t think there is much of a comparison there.
“I don’t know about previous years and things of that nature,” James said. “I worry about this present Raptors team that we’re facing, and they’re the No. 1 team in the East for a reason. They are well-balanced. The head of the snake is DeMar [DeRozan] and Kyle [Lowry], but they’ve added some pieces this year that has helped this team be more complete. And obviously their bench is extremely well-balanced. They come in and play with the same aggression and the same focus and the same confidence as the first unit.
“So they’re a more well-balanced team this year, and they showed it in their record, they showed it in their ability to win games and they showed why they’re the No. 1 team in the East. So I don’t know, I’m not comparing. Let’s just talk about this year.”
The Raptors’ bench of Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl combined to average 32.5 points per game against the Washington Wizards in the first round. And that does not include Fred VanVleet, maybe Toronto’s most dynamic threat in the second unit, who missed most of the series with a shoulder injury.
“Their second unit is a big part of what they do,” Lue said. “They come up with a lot of energy, they score the basketball, they defend well. So we got to just be able to come out and just hold that second unit down as best as we can.”
Although James was not willing to look back on past matchups with Toronto, DeRozan was.
“They stopped us from getting to our goal [all] these years,” DeRozan said. “If you’re not frustrated with that and that don’t bring the extra energy from within us … I know for a fact our crowd is definitely going to be in it and have that same energy. For sure, if that’s what it takes for us to get past it, by calling it a rivalry, why not?”