James was sublime in leading the Cleveland Cavaliers past the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors 132-129 on Wednesday, notching 35 points, 17 assists and zero turnovers – the first time a player has had 35-15-0 in NBA history.
It was a timely reminder that while the Raptors have been the frontrunners in the East this season, James, who has reached seven straight NBA Finals, is still the man to beat.
Toronto have met their end at the hands of James the past two seasons, having fallen in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016 before being swept last year.
So for everything they’ve accomplished this season, until the Raptors overcome the hurdle that is James in the playoffs, they’ll still have something to prove.
James, however, dismissed the idea that his performance was a reminder of what couple be in store for Toronto once again in the postseason.
“It’s a good win for us because of how depleted we are on our roster and everything that’s been going on,” he said. “It’s a good win for us against a very good opponent. But I don’t need to remind anybody about what my teams are capable of doing. So, that wasn’t a factor.”
It wasn’t just the fact that Cleveland won that was significant, but how they won.
The Raptors ran up 79 points in the first half alone to open up a 15-point gap at the intermission. Yet the Cavaliers stormed back with a pair of 34-point quarters as James put in an inspired effort to power them to victory, all while missing five rotation players – Larry Nance Jr, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman, Tristan Thompson and Kyle Korver.
LeBron James is the third player in past 10 seasons to record 17 (or more) assists without a turnover in a game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2018
Chris Paul did it twice during the 2016-17 season.
Rajon Rondo did it twice (once in 2010, once in 2014). pic.twitter.com/vGJQg1QdXl
“They’re still a hell of a team; you can’t take anything away from them,” Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan said. “They’re still a top team in our conference and in this league. You can’t overlook ’em or underlook ’em – no type of way, no matter what type of changes they make.”
Of course, the Raptors’ increased hopes this season haven’t just been due to their own transformation, but also a result of the Cavaliers woes.
Cleveland were stuck in a mediocre state with the first iteration of their roster until the trade deadline, when they swapped several players to get younger and bring new energy.
Since then, they’ve continued to have their ups and downs while compiling a 10-7 record, but interim coach Larry Drew believes the win over Toronto may have been a turning point.
“I always say there is one game during the season that changes your team,” Drew said. “That game can be early, it can be midway, it can be late. There’s always one game that kind of changes your team, the mindset. And I really believe tonight’s game might have done that for us.”
The Cavaliers only have 11 games left in the season, but considering their history of flipping the switch in the playoffs, beating the Raptors may be a springboard to a strong finish down the stretch.
Dwight Howard is no longer the unstoppable force he once was, but he can still be dominant from time to time.
And on Wednesday in the Charlotte Hornets’ 111-105 win against the Brooklyn Nets, the big man looked like the Dwight Howard of old to do something that had only been accomplished one other time in the last 36 years.
The centre scored 32 points and grabbed 30 rebounds – the first 30-30 game since Kevin Love had 31 points and 31 boards in 2010 and just the second since 1982, when Moses Malone had 38 points and 32 rebounds.
Congrats to @DwightHoward the new Mr. 30/30. Hell of a night!!!— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) March 22, 2018
Howard, 32, also became the first player aged 30 or older to record a 30-30 game since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar managed the feat in 1978, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
For comparison, Wilt Chamberlain had 124 30-30 games in his legendary career.
Not to be lost in Howard’s monster effort was the fact it helped bring the Hornets back from a 23-point deficit to earn the victory.
Though Charlotte have faded into obscurity this season, Howard has put together a bounce-back year in his first go-around with the Hornets.
In 30.5 minutes per game, he’s averaging 16.6 points – the most since his mark of 18.3 in 2013-14 with Houston – 12.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
Howard has been particularly impressive in the past eight contests, averaging 23.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 59.1 per cent shooting overall.
His days as an MVP candidate and someone who can carry a team to the NBA Finals are in the rearview mirror, but Howard has proven he can still affect the game, even if his skillset doesn’t particularly fit in the modern game.
A pair of lengthy winning streaks came to an end this past week as the Toronto Raptors saw their run of 11 consecutive victories snapped, while the Houston buzz saw claimed another victim to halt Portland at 13 straight.
Golden State and Boston, meanwhile, have been treading water as many of their key players have been sidelined due to injury, which has all but taken them out of contention for the top seed in their respective conferences.
The team that makes the most sizeable jump in our power rankings this week is Oklahoma City, who have started to figure it out and were the ones to end Toronto’s streak – that too at Air Canada Centre where the Raptors are 29-6 this season.
1. Houston Rockets
Record: 57-14 | Last week: 1
Wrap your head around this: Houston are 23-1 over the past 24 games. And the lone loss in that span came to Toronto on the road.
2. Toronto Raptors
Record: 53-18 | Last week: 3
They continue to be the only team in the league in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Plus they’ve won 12 of their last 13.
3. Golden State Warriors
Record: 53-18 | Last week: 2
4. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 44-27 | Last week: 5
It took the Rockets to end Portland’s impressive 13-game winning streak, which shot them up to third in the West.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 43-30 | Last week: 13
The late collapse to Boston was embarrassing, but big-picture wise, they showed real promise with six straight wins before that.
6. Boston Celtics
Record: 48-23 | Last week: 4
They look more like the Maine Red Claws than the Celtics, but Brad Stevens still has his team fighting tooth and nail every night.
7. Utah Jazz
Record: 40-31 | Last week: 10
Even with the disappointing loss to bottom-feeders Atlanta, Utah have won 21 of their past 24 and found their rhythm.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 41-29 | Last week: 6
The return of Kevin Love provides a boost and allows the Cavaliers to get a better idea of how they can fit together before the playoffs.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 41-30 | Last week: 7
They’re in the midst of playing five games in six days, which will be followed by a murderers’ row featuring Houston, Portland, Cleveland and Oklahoma City. Yikes.
10. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 39-30 | Last week: 12
Joel Embiid is rolling and the Sixers look like a team no favourite wants to face in the first round of the playoffs.
11. Indiana Pacers
Record: 41-30 | Last week: 8
Five of their next seven are on the road, where the Pacers have been a .500 team this season.
12. Washington Wizards
Record: 40-30 | Last week: 11
The win over banged-up Boston was far from impressive, but Washington are managing without John Wall.
13. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 41-30 | Last week: 9
Kawhi Leonard is still not back yet, but the Spurs have responded with four straight wins after dropping five of six.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 41-31 | Last week: 15
Andrew Wiggins has been shooting more efficiently in Jimmy Butler’s absence, but it’s not like he’s gone to another level.
15. Miami Heat
Record: 38-33 | Last week: 19
Goran Dragic has been hot of late, averaging 23.2 points on 53.2 per cent shooting overall and 50.0 per cent on 3-pointers over the past five games.
16. Denver Nuggets
Record: 38-33 | Last week: 14
They’re two games back of the eight spot in the West and without Gary Harris for the moment after he went down with a knee injury.
17. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 37-33 | Last week: 17
Inconsistencies have plagued them all season and they just can’t seem to string together wins.
18. Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 37-33 | Last week: 16
Four straight losses, albeit to some of the best teams the West has to offer, have set them back in the playoff race.
19. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 31-39 | Last week: 19
Julius Randle has been playing some inspired basketball, averaging 26.0 points and 11.6 rebounds over his past five games.
20. Detroit Pistons
Record: 32-39 | Last week: 21
21. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 30-41 | Last week: 20
No team has a worse defensive rating than the Hornets over the last 10 games, with Charlotte allowing 116.6 points over 100 possessions.
22. Sacramento Kings
Record: 23-49 | Last week: 23
They’ve been playing playoff teams tough of late, with rookie guard De’Aaron Fox having flashes of brilliance.
23. Chicago Bulls
Record: 24-46 | Last week: 25
Chicago aren’t exactly helping their cause as their 4-5 record so far in March is harming their lottery odds.
24. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 23-48 | Last week: 27
Cleveland likely have one eye on Brooklyn, who are two games from third-to-last and three games from 10th.
25. New York Knicks
Record: 26-45 | Last week: 28
Tim Hardaway has raised his scoring over the past month and taken charge as the Knicks’ primary threat.
26. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 21-50 | Last week: 22
Atlanta must be thrilled to see the continued development of Taurean Prince, who has scored at least 22 points in four of his past five.
27. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 22-49 |Last week: 26
The main reason they were exciting to watch even as they were losing, Dennis Smith Jr, is now out with a sprained ankle.
28. Orlando Magic
Record: 21-50 | Last week: 24
They’ve been woeful offensively over the past five games, fielding an offensive rating of just 93.8 points.
29. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 19-51 | Last week: 30
Not only did they finally end their 19-game skid, but Memphis beat a playoff hopeful in Denver to feel what it’s like to win again.
30. Phoenix Suns
Record: 19-53 | Last week: 29
The losses keep piling up as they’ve now dropped 24 of their past 26 to sit in pole position for the best lottery odds.