Space, the final frontier: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers finally fulfilling their potential

In Game 2, as in Game 1, the Toronto Raptors were overwhelmed by a new-look Cleveland Cavaliers team who are peaking just in time to rewrite their Finals disappointment of a year ago.

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks the ball against the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night. Andy Lyons / Getty Images / AFP / May 19, 2016
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Throughout the NBA play-offs, The National's resident NBA dudes Jonathan Raymond and Kevin Jeffers will be breaking down the key talking points of the night before, plus looking around the scope of the league. Here are our NBA Play-off takeaways.

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Thursday’s score:

Cleveland Cavaliers 108, Toronto Raptors 89 (Cavaliers lead series 2-0)

Wide open

As the Cavs closed out the first half of Game 2 on a 16-2 run, LeBron James put the exclamation point on it with as thunderous a lay-up you’ll ever see, bursting inside, muscling his way to the rim, getting fouled and converting for the and-1.

ESPN announcer and former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson had harsh words for the Raptors in letting it happen.

The Cavaliers, he said, “do a good job of putting all shooters on the floor and the Raptors do a bad job again, overreacting the shooting.

“That’s bad, bad defence by the Raptors.”

Watch: LeBron James renders Raptors helpless

Jackson saw the play, but in focusing on Toronto’s failure to stop James he was misunderstanding its true dynamic. The Raptors didn’t play bad defence so much as the Cavs set them up with an impossible task from the get-go.

Since Tyronn Lue took over as coach in January, and especially since the play-offs started, Cleveland have stormed to the front of basketball’s spacing vanguard. When James came around a JR Smith screen at the top of the circle he was already nearly at full charge into a practically wide open path to the basket.

With Smith, Kyrie Irving, Channing Frye and Kevin Love all drawing their defenders out of the middle, LeBron took it to the hoop with his unique brand of authority. That’s what Jackson was referring to by “overreacting” to Cleveland’s shooting threat.

Except Cleveland’s shooting threat is not a threat. Had Toronto collapsed the lane, James, whose court vision is unequalled in the NBA, would have hit one of his teammates with a pass, and the same three points probably would have been scored anyway. That’s what’s been happening throughout the post-season, anyway. The Cavs are shooting 44.7 per cent from three, best among play-off teams. They have attempted 33.1 three point shots per game, more than any of their rivals.

And if you choose not to let that be what beats you, then LeBron will. The Raptors may have played “bad” defence on that play in the sense that they don’t have any superhuman personnel to slow James, but that’s the extent of it. The Cavaliers’ new spacing schemes are squeezing defences between the rock of James and the hard place of their three-point shooting – and either way, they’re getting crushed.

Cleveland beat Toronto by almost 20 in the end on Thursday night, as they beat them pretty much the same way by 31 in Game 1.

It’s time to begin to consider whether this will work the same against Golden State or the Oklahoma City Thunder, as it has so unforgivingly against Toronto, and before them the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons.

Last year, against the Warriors in the Finals, the Cavs tried to slow things down and have LeBron break Golden State into submission. It worked a little, but by the end it just wasn’t nearly enough. This year, they’ve decided the only way to beat Stephen Curry and Co (or, maybe, Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City) is by outgunning them. It’s a bold strategy, considering the Warriors scored in the regular season at a 112.5 points per 100 possessions rate, running one of the great offensive machines of basketball history en route to a record 73 wins.

And they’re still humming in the play-offs, scoring at 112.7 per 100.

The Cavs, though? They’re scoring 116.9/100.

Whoever comes out of the West, we aren’t headed for a repeat of last year’s Finals.

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