TORONTO — Cleveland star LeBron James had 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds to lift the Cavaliers to a 113-112 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, striking first in their much-anticipated second-round playoff series.
Jonas Valanciunas had 21 points and 21 rebounds, while DeMar DeRozan had 22 points, Kyle Lowry finished with 18 points and 10 assists, and Pascal Siakam had 11 points.
Turnovers proved costly for the Raptors, who will try to even up the series in Thursday’s Game 2. They coughed up 21 points on 14 giveaways, nine in the first half alone.
J.R. Smith added 20 points for Cleveland, while Kyle Korver had 19.
The Raptors had been building toward this moment all season, since the day after they were swept by Cleveland in the second round last season, and president Masai Ujiri said the team needed a “culture reset.”
That reset saw the Raptors win a franchise-record 59 games and clinch No. 1 in the East, earning the all-important homecourt advantage for the post-season.
The Raptors led from the opening tipoff, racing out to an early 14-point advantage and then holding on for dear life. They staved off a Cavaliers comeback that made it a one-point game late in the first half, then opened the second half with a 12-4 run capped by a Lowry three-pointer.
An entertaining third quarter saw Valanciunas wag a finger menacingly after a big block. James responded with a dunk at the other end, flexing his beefy arms at the Raptors bench.
Toronto took an 87-82 lead into the fourth quarter in front of a raucous Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,954 that included rapper Drake, who engaged Cavs players, including LeBron, all game long.
The Raptors boasted the best fourth-quarter defence in the league in the regular season, but the Cavs still pulled within a point with 3:16 to play when Canadian Tristan Thompson drained two free throws — while the crowd chanted “Khloe! Khloe!” in reference to Thompson’s reported off-court indiscretions and girlfriend Khloe Kardashian who recently gave birth to the couple’s daughter.
The Raptors didn’t make a field goal in the final 4:19 of regulation and James tied the game with seconds to play on a jump shot over OG Anunoby. Toronto had four misses on its next offensive possession, James hauling down the rebound that gave him his triple double and the Cavs possession of the ball. James missed at the buzzer, sending the game into extra time.
Cleveland took a six-point lead in extra time after threes by Korver and Smith, but Lowry pulled the Raptors to within a point when he converted a three-point play with 58 seconds left. With DeRozan draped all over him, James turned the ball over on a shot-clock violation with 16 seconds left, but Fred VanVleet missed on a three-pointer to end the game.
Cleveland had dispatched Toronto in six games in the conference final in 2016 en route to winning the NBA title, then came last season’s humiliating sweep.
But after two years of running into the giant roadblock that is LeBron, the Raptors believe they’re better built to face Cleveland this season, revamping their offence to focus on three-point shooting and better ball movement.
The Raptors also had the benefit of a couple days rest over Cleveland for a change. The previous two seasons saw the Cavs enjoy a week off before facing a tired Toronto team. The tables were turned for this series as the Raptors knocked off Washington four games to two on Friday, while it took Cleveland seven games to get past Indiana, and James had talked about being tired after Sunday’s Game 7.
He didn’t look tired Tuesday.
VanVleet was playing his second game of significant minutes of these playoffs, after returning from a shoulder injury. He had nine points, three rebounds and two assists, and got in a small scuffle late in the first half when James shoved VanVleet, who raced back towards James. The rowdy ACC crowd chanted “Fred-dy!” but VanVleet was whistled for a foul on the play.
DeRozan led the way with 11 points in the first quarter, and the Raptors, despite giving up seven points on five turnovers, ended the quarter with a 16-5 run to take a 33-19 lead into the second.
James had five assists in the second quarter, with three three-pointers and 11 points, and the Cavaliers outscored Toronto 38-27 in the period. Back-to-back threes from Korver and Smith cut the Raptors’ lead to a point 30 seconds before halftime, and Toronto took a 60-57 advantage into the break.
The series shifts to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday.
THE CANADIAN PRESS