CLEVELAND – LeBron James lamented the week off between Game 4 against the Indiana Pacers in the first round and Game 1 Monday against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I don’t like the way I feel when we’re not playing,” James said. “It gives me a mental break. As far as physically, I am who I am. I’ve played so many games over the years that the best break for me is probably when I’m done.”
A Circadian-like rhythm exists for NBA players: play a game, no game for a day or two with a practice sandwiched in between then another day without a game. Repeat that cycle for six months. It’s a routine and way of life, and players embrace that flow.
The playoffs are different. Sweep a series and receive considerable time off. While James may prefer the rhythm, the break from games doesn’t hurt, giving the Cavs time to rest, improve and prepare for the Raptors, who pushed Cleveland to six games in last season’s conference finals.
In last season’s playoffs, the Cavs swept the first round, had a week off, swept the second round, had another full week off and won the first two games of the conference semifinals. The rest vs. rust debate skewed in favor of rest for the Cavs.
James logged significant minutes during the regular season (league-high 37.8 per game) and first round (league-high 43.7 per game). His tone on minutes played has shifted over the years. Where he once suggested his minutes should be reduced, James is content to play big minutes, saying he will have plenty of time to rest when his career is finished.
“With him playing the minutes he played during the course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Now, he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes because he's used to it. His body can take it, so I'm not worried about what outside people say.”
The week without a game is good for the Cavs and James, who averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks against the Pacers. He also shot 54.3% from the field and 45% on three-pointers. It may take an identical performance to eliminate the Raptors, who finished the regular season with the same 51-31 record as the Cavaliers.
“They’re still the champs,” Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. “Doesn’t matter what seed you are. Once you are in the playoffs, they are still defending something they won last year. You still have to give them all the respect in the world. But it’s on us Game 1 to start something new and start chipping away at it.”
The Raptors acquired forwards Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline to improve for the final seven weeks of the regular season and for a potential playoff matchup against the Cavs. As long as James is in a Cavs uniform, all roads in the East go through Cleveland. Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas is also healthy, which was not the case in last season’s playoffs.
Ibaka gives Toronto a defender, rim protector and capable scorer, especially from mid-range and sometimes from the three-point line. Tucker provides toughness and defense, and Valanciunas has size the Cavs can't match. The Raptors need that defense against a potent offense led by James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and supporting cast that can make three-pointers.
But for the Raptors, it starts with guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Toronto knows it needs its two All-Stars at their best, taking advantage of a Cavs defense that is susceptible to giving up points.
“The two-headed monster,” Lue said. “Offensively, those two guys do a great job of carrying their team. We’ve got to do some different things, give them some different looks and we’ve got to do it by committee. It’s not going to be a one-on-one challenge.”