Toronto Raptors fans might have been hoping for a Cleveland Cavaliers team rusty from too much rest or underperforming like they had down the stretch of the regular season. No such luck.
Instead, LeBron James went off for 35 points, while Kyrie Irving chipped in 24 as the reigning NBA champs beat the Raptors 116-105 in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semi-final series.
Kyle Lowry led Toronto with 20 points, while DeMar DeRozan had 19 and Serge Ibaka added 15. Still, the Raps' Game 1 franchise record fell to 1-12.
"We already got that foot in the hole," said DeRozan of his team's tendency to have slow series starts. "And that's when we kick in and understand we fight well under adversity. We did it all year. That's been our mantra. So it's something that we're going to have to exploit next game."
The Raptors came into the game on a few days rest after eliminating the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, but it was nothing like the eight days off the Cavaliers had earned by sweeping the Indiana Pacers.
The exterior of the Quicken Loans Arena was wrapped in enormous, eye-popping wine and gold posters touting Cleveland's 2016 NBA Championship and vowing to "Defend The Land." Around town, everyone from sandwich makers to Starbucks baristas was decked out in Cavs gear, while buses drove the streets with "GO CAVS!" flashing on their LED signs. The city seemed to still be basking in the glory of its first championship in 52 years.
Inside at game time, the crowd wore gold T-shirts and took a fan-centric vow to "obey the laws of 'The Land.'" The team's dramatic pregame video on the jumbotron showed highlight reel clips of James and simultaneously shot fireworks out the sides of the screen, making it look like The King could fire lightning bolts from his super-human body.
The Raptors returned to their usual starting lineup with Jonas Valanciunas at the centre spot to handle big man Tristan Thompson. Norman Powell – who had started the last few games of the Milwaukee series – was to come off the bench this time. DeMarre Carroll, as in last year's Eastern Conference finals, was tasked with starting on James.
Lowry hit the first bucket of the night – a pristine three-pointer. It would be the only Toronto lead of the night.
The Cavs certainly didn't look rusty from the layoff. Irving and Kevin Love were swooshing threes, as was J.R. Smith, with his signature cocky holstering of smoking finger guns. James racked up nine fast points by dicing to the hoop every which way – like nabbing a lob off the backboard from Irving with one hand and dunking it. The Cavs outscored the Raps 30-18 in the first.
Toronto answered with an offensive run to start the second, thanks to big buckets from Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka, who was making his first appearance against Cleveland as a Raptor. The Raps narrowed Cleveland's lead down to five points, but the Cavs kicked it up again behind offence from James and Kyle Korver. By half-time, it was 62-48.
"They get big spurts, and we fight back, and they do another big spurt. We've gotta find ways to limit the spurts," said Lowry. "We know they're going to be a high-flying team, up and down, shoot the ball well at home. But we've got to find a way to not let them get going and get everyone involved, and getting the crowd involved."
P.J Tucker took his turn guarding James as well – the other newcomer brought to Toronto to handle playoff opponents such as Cleveland. In addition to chasing around the NBA's best player, Tucker also had 13 points. Powell had fine offensive moments, too.
Still, Toronto couldn't score fast enough to keep up with what Cleveland was producing. When James wasn't scoring himself, he was playing the role of point guard or dishing out perfect no-look passes. He played the role of entertainer to the max. At one time in the heat of play, he ran into a court-side server delivering drinks and playfully grabbed a beer bottle out of her hand. The adoring Cleveland fans laughed uproariously at their King's antics.
"I was just in the moment. I don't plan for things like that," said James. "I'm not a beer guy…if she'd had a red wine, I would have probably taken a sip."
When asked whether the beer bottle stunt or the gimmicky backboard alley-oop dunk were a little cheeky for a playoff game, both Lowry and DeRozan declined to comment.
The Cavs record in Eastern Conference playoff games since James returned to Cleveland has now swelled to 29-4.
The series continues in Cleveland this week with Game 2 on Wednesday.