CLEVELAND (AP) — The drama has included turmoil and trades, head-scratching losses, infighting, injuries and illness.
Cleveland’s stormy season seems extracted from the script of a scandalous TV soap opera — “All My Cavaliers.”
But just when it looked as if LeBron James and this group of Cavaliers, some of whom have yet to play together, were about to implode with the postseason in sight, a startling win may have turned them around.
“I always say there is one game during the season that changes your team,” acting coach Larry Drew said following Cleveland’s 132-129 win over Toronto. “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.”
With James on a mission to remind the Raptors of his magnificence, the short-handed Cavs, missing five rotational players and coach Tyronn Lue, rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second half Wednesday night to stun the Eastern Conference’s top team and send a message to the NBA.
Don’t count them out.
James scored 14 in the fourth and finished with 35 points, 17 assists and didn’t commit a turnover in 40 minutes, a stat line not seen since the league began charting turnovers in 1977-78, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
At 33, James continues to defy age while padding his impeccable resume. Although Houston’s James Harden appears to be a lock to win MVP honors this season, there is no debate about the game’s best all-around player.
Since Feb. 7, the day before the Cavs deconstructed their roster with three major trades, James is averaging a triple-double — 30.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.5 assists.
“It just seems like every night, every night the things that he does, I sit over there and I just kind of shake my head,” Drew said. “I’m just glad that I’m coaching him.”
James scored or assisted on 80 of his team’s 132 points, and in the process silenced any doubts as to whether the Cavs could handle an improved Toronto team that has more depth, shooters and experience than the squads Cleveland dispatched the past two postseasons.
At halftime, none of that seemed possible. Toronto tied a franchise record with 79 points in the first half, and James confessed the Cavs “had that depleted feel” as they headed to the locker room.
On his way back to the floor, James, who recently couldn’t recall a season with as much adversity as this one, grabbed a box score from one of the team’s media relations staffers, took a quick glance and handed it back.
It was time to get to work.
“I know with LeBron I could see that he was going to take it to another gear, he was going to take it to another level,” said Drew, who is filling in while Lue addresses health issues. “I could kind of see that in his eyes. … You can kind of see as the game kind of went on, he just kind of took it upon himself, and started making more plays. Bron is just that guy that when things seem a little bleak, he’s the guy that can get you over that hump.”
The Cavs haven’t finished their climb, but they’re nearly over their injury bug.
Forwards Tristan Thompson (ankle) and Rodney Hood (back) could be back in the lineup as early as Friday against Phoenix, and Larry Nance Jr. (hamstring) will likely be back on the floor by next week. Kyle Korver will be out a few more games after he was excused to be with his family in Iowa following the sudden death of his younger brother, Kirk.
Cleveland isn’t quite whole, but with James that doesn’t really matter.
“You can’t overlook ’em or underlook ’em,” Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan said. “No type of way, no matter what type of changes they make.”
James has carried less talented teams than these Cavs to the NBA Finals. And as the three-time champion showed against the Raptors, there is no player who can take over a game like he can.
With 11 regular-season games left, the Cavs are up against the clock to get healthy, tweak their rotations and work out any kinks before the playoffs begin. They trail second-place Boston by six games in the East.
But Cleveland’s win over the Raptors was a needed confidence boost in a season that has sometimes defied description.
“We got work to do,” said James, who will be seeking his eighth straight Finals appearance. “There’s a lot of teams in the East that’s been playing better basketball than us for the majority of the season. We want to try to continue to just to build off what we did the last couple games and if we do that, we’ll put ourselves in a good position going into the postseason.”
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