CLEVELAND >> LeBron James breaks hearts, shatters dreams and delivers joy all in one breath. He carries one city, crushes the other.
With mind-blowing ease, James can take over a quarter, a game, a series, a season and make it his own. His terms.
After being criticized earlier in his career — it seems laughable now — for not being clutch or taking the big shot, James has become the NBA’s pre-eminent closer, the player best equipped to handle pressure and produce excellence when everything is on the line.
Crunch time? He’s captain crunch. Tom Brady in the two-minute drill. Muhammad Ali in the 15th round. Mariano Rivera in the ninth. The fat lady.
It’s over when James says so.
James added to his growing legacy for breathtaking finishes on Saturday night by banking in a shot high off the backboard at the buzzer to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a 105-103 win in Game 3 of their semifinal series against the Toronto Raptors, who had the closest view of a moment that all but ended their season.
Dribbling the length of the floor while outmaneuvering a Toronto defense designed to stop him, James got to a spot where he felt comfortable, rose off his left foot and with his right hand softly dropped a shot he’s practiced hundreds of times for this kind of moment.
“That’s just who he is,” said Cavs center Kevin Love.
On the official play-by-play sheet, James’ shot was listed as: “L.James 10’ Driving Bank Shot.”
It was so much more. It was the 33-year-old’s second game-winner of these playoffs, coming 10 days after he hit a fadeaway 3-pointer in Game 5 in a first-round series to down an Indiana Pacers team that had him on the ropes but couldn’t knock him out.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, James has made five go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of regulation or overtime in the playoffs — two more than Michael Jordan — and he might not be done.
His late-game heroics have become so common that coach Tyronn Lue’s only instructions during late timeouts is to pick which player is going to pass it to James.
“You just get the ball to ‘Bron at the end of the game, he has been producing for us all season, his whole career,” Lue said Sunday as the Cavaliers got ready for Monday’s Game 4. “If the game is tied or the game is on the line, we got a great person to go to down the stretch.”
Before the playoffs began, the Cavaliers, who are finally meshing after months of upheaval, were 38-0 when leading after three quarters. Following practice last month, James was asked if there was a reason for the team’s ability to preserve fourth-quarter leads.
“‘Cause we got a closer,” he said, with zero hesitation.
Big shots. Timely blocks. Perfect passes.
James has done it at both ends in the waning moments of games all season for a team that has only four holdovers from its 2016 title squad. Like he does every year, James has elevated his game in the postseason. He’s averaging 34.8 points, his highest in the playoffs since 2009, with 9.5 rebounds and a career-best 8.8 assists.
The statistics, though, are only part of it.
In his last three home games, James has made two last-second shots and scored 45 points in a win-or-else Game 7.
“Right now, he’s just relishing these moments,” forward Kyle Korver said. “He’s been amazing. I think we are expecting him to win the game in the end when it’s close. We feel like he’s going to make the plays. He’s just done it so many times this year. He makes the right read, he makes the right play, he makes the shot. It’s been impressive to watch.”
Lue has seen another player like James: He was Kobe Bryant’s teammate in Los Angeles. James and Bryant share plenty of physical traits with other players, but it’s the intangibles that separate the scorers and playmakers from the difference makers.
“They want the ball,” Lue said. “They’re always able to will their team to a win, a victory, making the right pass or play or making the big shot. It’s their will to win and making everyone better.”
And while it’s true that James has carried the Cavaliers for most of his 11 seasons with them, he’s had to shoulder a heavier burden over the past 92 games. When Cleveland relented to All-Star guard Kyrie Irving’s trade demand and shipped him to Boston, it left the team without another proven scorer capable of closing.
It’s not that Love or Korver or J.R. Smith can’t make a big shot in a tough spot when called upon, it’s that James relishes the responsibility of being the one to take it — or defer if the situation demands.
In Miami, James turned to Dwyane Wade down the stretch for help. He doesn’t have that same luxury in Cleveland, but it’s not stopping him.
As he powered up the floor in the final seconds of Game 3, there was no doubt by the Raptors, the Cavaliers or the 20,000 fans at Quicken Loans Arena who was going to take the last shot.