Ahead of Tuesday’s first playoff game in Toronto, LeBron James began unfurling a white flag.
“I’m burnt right now,” he announced, apropos of nothing, at a presser. Then he looked off-stage and turned peevish. “I’m ready to go home. I’m tired. I’m gonna go home.”
So he went home. Or back to the gym to climb ropes with the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers strapped to his back. Who knows with this guy?
Although he is only 33, James has already played more minutes in his NBA career than all but a handful of players in basketball history. He’s not used to serious exertions in late April. Maybe he has shot his bolt this time.
“I’m not saying he’s a lying man,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said on Monday. “But I don’t think he’s tired.”
A lot has been made about what Toronto can do to contain James – man-to-man, emergency help, getting stuck into him before he gets the ball, constant rotations onto him, tiring him out on defence.
The approach to someone like James is very much like the one our caveman ancestors brought to the challenge of playing the woolly mammoth – everyone in the tribe grab hold of something and pray.
The first step in this process is convincing yourselves it can be done. Kyle Lowry was at practice on Monday walking around with a thick, spiral-bound playbook – the implication being that there is a plan.
Aside from giving people something to talk about, that doesn’t matter much. If tactical innovation could beat James, he’d have been beaten by now. James is post-tactics.
At some point in their careers, certain great players make an evolutionary leap. They stop being people and become ideas.
Only a few professional athletes on Earth currently occupy the same conceptual space as James. Lionel Messi does. Cristiano Ronaldo does. Tiger Woods and Tom Brady recently did.
None of them manage(d) it with such metronomic dependability as James. He is the Man Who Will Not Allow Himself to Lose. Once you start believing that (and who doesn’t any more), you are already in trouble.
As such, playing against him isn’t so much a physical test as it is a psychological wall.
Over the past eight seasons, James has become the human version of the four-minute mile. He can be beaten (everyone can), but since no one has (not at this point in the postseason) people no longer think it’s possible.
The Raptors have been here before. They haven’t found a new way to confront an old problem.
Someone asked OG Anunoby, the delightfully monosyllabic Raptors rookie who will likely draw basketball’s least desirable assignment, what the key to all this is.
“He’s pretty strong, but I feel like I’m strong, too.”
Do you get nervous before playing him?
“I have no reason to get nervous.”
Well, I can think of one reason.
All of Anunoby’s colleagues hit the same conversational notes: LeBron who? Oh yeah, him. Yes, he’s great. Are we worried? Hell, no. Faith in my teammates/play our game/insert cliché my sports psychologist included in latest batch of ‘Combatting Cleveland Night Terrors’ flashcards.
Casey was as inscrutable, but a touch more pragmatic. In discussing James’s “aura,” he went all behind-the-poolhall with his game plan.
“You’ve got to go in with a healthy amount of respect and a healthy amount of disrespect,” Casey said. By “disrespect,” Casey appeared to mean ‘elbowing LeBron James repeatedly in the head’.
According to the coach, basketballing men of quality appreciate that sort of treatment.
“[Michael] Jordan respected that, Karl Malone, those guys, Kobe Bryant, those great ones respect you coming at them.”
This is as good a theory as any, although once you have stood beside LeBron James – were he a Transformer, he’d be the Sherman tank – it gets a little shaky. The problem with beating a guy up is that he might beat you back. And there is no one on the Raptors who is a physical match for James.
If you do start the laying on of hands, you know how this goes. Once the referees get it into their heads that the NBA’s golden boy is being abused by a bunch of TV-ratings-anchors from another country, this series will turn into a skills competition.
If you get onto James too hard, he kills you at the free-throw line.
If you send too many people to him, he starts distributing the ball (Anunoby said that the best way to limit James is to prevent him from passing, which is a little like saying the best way to stop coastal floods is damming the Atlantic).
If you lay off, he stands behind the arc and murders you from there.
History is not a useful teacher here. In his prime, James has never been contained in a playoff series.
The only way to defeat him was noted a half-century ago by Los Angeles Dodger Maury Wills, in reference to his teammate, Sandy Koufax.
Back then, Koufax was the LeBron James of baseball. He could win a game on the walk from the bullpen to the mound. Koufax single-handedly killed the Yankees in the 1963 World Series.
In the midst of it, New York’s Yogi Berra said, “I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”
“He didn’t,” Wills replied. “We lost them for him.”
James’s only weakness is the other four guys on the court. It’s been a long time since his supporting cast was so mediocre.
They are the reason James has moved so early to the mind-games stage of the playoffs. Saying he’s already spent is simultaneously a reminder to them, and a goad to his opponents. If neither ploy works, he’ll do it himself, as he so often has.
For the Raptors, LeBron James isn’t a problem to be solved on a greaseboard.
He’s a state of mind. Getting around him is only impossible as long as you believe that it is.
So, do they?