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LeBron James, Cavaliers clutch, while Raptors fold

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If Toronto loses this series, this is the game they will look back on with the most regret.

It was every Raptor nightmare about this series come to life — Toronto’s inability to beat LeBron James, the inability of their stars to close games after they had a lead, the inability of the Raptors to win the first game of a series, it all came true in the end Tuesday night, in just about the ugliest way possible. Toronto was in their own heads when it mattered most.

Toronto dominated early, led by double digits in the second half, but shot 5-of-24 in the fourth quarter and missed its last 11 shots in regulation. Then in overtime, they shot 3-of-7. Toronto missed every three they took in the final four minutes of regulation and in overtime. Then, at the end of regulation and overtime, when the Raptors needed a bucket, they turned to bench player Fred VanVleet to take the shot — not Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan.

The Cavaliers, as they have all season, showed poise down the stretch — their passes and shots looked like those of a confident team while the Raptors looked tight — and Cleveland took Game 1 in overtime, 113-112. It was a game where Cleveland never led in regulation but did when the buzzer finally sounded.

The Cavaliers lead the series 1-0 having won one on the road. Game 2 is Thursday night in Toronto.

LeBron James was brilliant as expected, 26 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds (and Tyronn Lue even got some rest for him during the game). Toronto chose from the outset to single-cover LeBron most of the night, primarily with OG Anunoby — and the rookie did a good job, LeBron needed 30 shots to get his 26 points. Anunoby is strong and LeBron couldn’t just overpower him, settling for more fade-aways than the Cavs would prefer.

However, the point of single-covering LeBron is to stay home on the supporting cast and not let them beat you, and the Raptors failed at that — J.R. Smith had 20 points, Kyle Korver 19, Jeff Green 16 and Tristan Thompson 14.

“Guys stepped up tonight, everybody stepped up,” LeBron said. “We got timely stops. They killed us on the glass, but we stuck with it, made timely shots, it’s a huge win for us.”

Lowry and DeRozan started strong but combined to go 3-of-11 in the second half. The Raptors vaunted bench was outscored by the Cavaliers maligned one 37-35.

“We know the head of the snake is DeMar and Kyle, but those six or seven guys that come off that bench are very productive. We knew we had to take them away and take them out of the game for us to be successful, it’s a good start for us this series.”

The best Raptor for much of the game was Jonas Valanciunas, who punished the Cavaliers for starting small with Kevin Love at center. In the third quarter, Valanciunas had 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting plus five boards, dominating inside. However, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue adjusted and put Tristan Thompson in against JV and in the fourth quarter the Raptors’ center was 1-of-7, including a series of point-blank putback misses.

The night started with such promise for Toronto at home.

Toronto shot 62 percent in the first quarter and was up 33-19 after one. Toronto’s offense is far more diverse than Indiana’s, the Raptors have a variety of shot creators, and that exposed the Cavaliers’ defense that had been a mess all season.

However, the Raptors couldn’t hold on to that and the Cavaliers tightened the game up in the second quarter. That was the theme all night, Toronto’s inability to put LeBron and the Cavaliers away. When the pressure was on, the Cavaliers made plays and the Raptors fumbled their chances.

Looking at the body language of Raptors players leaving the court, it’s fair to wonder if they fumbled away their chance to win this series.

Tom Thibodeau on Timberwolves not getting first-rounder in Jimmy Butler trade: ‘Getting good players was a priority’

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The Heat offered Josh Richardson and a first-round pick. The Rockets offered four first-round picks or Eric Gordon, Nene and two first-round picks. The Pelicans reportedly offered Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected first-round pick.

But the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric in a deal that included no first-round picks and Minnesota getting only one second-rounder.

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau:

We wanted quality players. I think that that was important for us.

When you look at, to get two starters off a team that won 52 games, and they’re both young, and they’re going to get better, and they’re both very good defensively. They both shoot the 3, so we think they fit well with the guys that we do have.

And so once we once got to that point where felt we were getting multiple rotational players, then we felt it would be time to execute the deal.

It was what was best for the organization. Obviously, getting good players was a priority. But the pick part is important, and we felt we got a good pick from Philly.

It was what does it mean for the team? If you get two rotational players, that’s good. And then if you can get a pick, that allows you to do more things. And so I think that’s all part of it. You always try to think about what the possibilities could be.

Thibodeau might have taken the best offer for the the Timberwolves by the time he actually accepted a deal. Miami pulled the Richardson offer after his strong start to the season. Getting four first-rounders from Houston required taking Brandon Knight‘s negative-value contract, and it’s unclear exactly how the picks were protected. New Orleans has the best record of those three teams, so an unprotected pick carries less value.

But it’s also impossible to overlook Thibodeau’s present-minded attitude. That’s how he already approached everything. Now, he appears to be coaching for his job this season. Nobody ever expected him to prioritize long-term assets.

Covington and Saric are good players, but Minnesota was also 4-9 at the time of the trade. Are Covington and Saric good enough to lift the Timberwolves out of this hole and into the playoffs? It’s a tough ask. In 2020-21, Saric will be up for a big raise, and the Timberwolves already have a lot of money committed. They might have to downgrade the rest of the roster to keep Saric and avoid the luxury tax. This is a narrow window for Minnesota to get value from this trade.

That said, blame Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor for creating this situation. By allowing Thibodeau to remain in charge without much job security, Taylor is practically demanding Thibodeau emphasize the present. If Taylor wanted draft picks, he should have fired Thibodeau earlier.

Caris LeVert suffers injury so horrific, it brings teammates to tears and opponents to prayer (video)

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Caris LeVert has been one of the Nets’ biggest bright spots. The hard-working 24-year-old was a Most Improved Player candidate, and he seems well-liked throughout the organization. He’s even already hit a couple gamewinners this season.

But LeVert’s breakout campaign hit a devastating snag tonight, as he injured his leg.

The reactions of both his Brooklyn teammates and the Timberwolves say everything. This is a tough one.

Markelle Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.