LeBron James Has Gone from Dominant to Officially Toying with the Competition

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMay 2, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 1: LeBron James #23 celebrates with Kyrie Irving #2 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after scoring during the first half of Game One of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena on May 1, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

CLEVELAND—There's an adage thrown around the Cleveland Cavaliers, one that can predict their wins and losses without having even watched a minute of the game.

Did LeBron play well?

It's a joke by nature, but one that carries a tremendous amount of truth.

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Toronto Raptors, yes, LeBron James did play well.

Cleveland blew out Toronto 116-105 in a game where the Cavs lead swelled to as many as 25. James finished with 35 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and shot 13-of-23 from the field and 2-of-5 from the three-point line.

His fingerprints were everywhere, whether it was finishing an alley-oop dunk off the backboard from Kyrie Irving, bullying P.J. Tucker in the post or spinning off DeMar DeRozan on the baseline for an emphatic slam.

"LeBron changes the dynamics of everything. He’s the hub of everything," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. "Controlling that situation first and then figuring out how to get out to the shooters with a guy like him who is dynamic enough. He understands where everyone is. He’s a quarterback, he’s a point guard, he’s a power forward, he’s a small forward, he’s a shooting guard, he’s everything."

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 1: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers is seen during the game against the Toronto Raptors in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 1, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It wasn't the stat line that James posted against Toronto, but rather the fashion in which he did it. That oop off the glass? He specifically called for it mid-first quarter (with defenders in the picture, mind you).

At one stop in play, James casually grabbed a beer bottle from a vendor before handing it back, drawing a laughing ovation from the crowd. While the Raptors struggled once again in Quicken Loans Arena, here was James toying with the opponent and enjoying the moment.

"I'm not much of a beer guy. If she would have had some red wine, I probably would have definitely had a sip," James laughed.

This was a 32-year-old in his 12th straight postseason playing with the enthusiasm and looseness of a teenager on the blacktop. 

"I just liked our energy," James said. "Our energy was very, very good and it sustained. That was a mystery with our eight-day layoff. For the most part, for 48 minutes we kept that level of intensity up."

This was something not seen from James in Round 1 vs. the Indiana Pacers, where Cleveland struggled with slow starts and had to come back from 26 points down just to get a win in Game 3. Paul George was a terrific individual opponent for James.

The Raptors have no such player.

Toronto only has so many weapons it can throw at James. All of them were either too slow (DeRozan), too short (Tucker) or too weak (DeMarre Carroll).

The Raptors' best bet may be power forward Serge Ibaka, who's big enough to handle James in the paint. Carroll gives up significant muscle mass, and James looks to back him down in isolation. If Toronto doubles, James can flick a pass anywhere on the court to find an open shooter.

"He’s such an excellent passer and he does a great job of looking you off," Casey said. "Looking at the slot and then finding the corner. He’s seen everything. He’s seen every defense. He knows where the defense is coming from and how they’re getting there. We’re going to have to mix it up and how we’re going to help. But most of all, try to get the job done on the ball with the primary defender."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

James lives two lives with the Cavs. He begins the game with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love by his side, picking his spots to score and help, knowing there's enough talent around that he doesn't need to do everything. 

After Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue gives James his customary minutes of rest to end the first quarter, James is back out with the bench unit to start the second. 

Despite the complete difference in surrounding teammates, James continues to dominate. Love is swapped for Channing Frye. Irving for Deron Williams. Kyle Korver and Iman Shumpert round out the reserve core, giving James a mixture of shooters to spread the ball to. 

"(Cleveland’s) just a different type of team. They can march out different lineups," Casey said. "They can put LeBron out with four shooters. They can put LeBron in with Tristan, which is a problem. Their primary ball-handler is their 3-4 guy, which is LeBron, so they’re very flexible also."

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 2: LeBron James #23 Tristan Thompson #13 and JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after a play during the second half against the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 2, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers de
Jason Miller/Getty Images

And that's what this all really comes down to. Because making a mockery of the Raptors by showboating and having fun is one thing, but doing it while being great is taking things to a new level.

While social media was running with James pretending to sip an adult beverage, the superstar was also busy racking up his 92nd career playoff double-double:

And while folks were oohing and aahing at the lob off the glass, No. 23 was on his way to tying Kobe Bryant for second all-time in the postseason with 88 games of 30-plus points.

There is a monumental gap that exists between James and the rest of the Eastern Conference. If the Raptors were to advance past the Cavaliers, it would be the greatest season in Toronto franchise history. If James fails to reach a seventh straight NBA Finals, it will be a disappointment of colossal proportions.

But there's still hope for Toronto, right? Well, James is 22-2 in career series when his team wins Game 1, per ESPN Stats and Info. Counting last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the average score differential between the two teams is 14.9 in favor of Cleveland, and that includes Toronto's two home wins.

"I don't think about the past or the future. I'm all about the present," James said. "That's how I'm able to stay fresh."

With that in mind, we ask again: Did LeBron play well?

Oh yes—LeBron played well.

And while the man himself may not say it out loud, some in both locker rooms could be wondering if this series is already over. 

Stats via Basketball Reference and NBA.com and are accurate through May 1.

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.


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