LeBron James passed another NBA milestone on Tuesday as the Cleveland Cavaliers kept ahead of Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a win over first place Toronto.
James’s 27-point performance in a 112-106 victory at the Quicken Loans Arena helped the Cavs improve to 48-30, leaving them one win ahead of the 76ers in the battle for third seeding in the playoffs.
It was the 942nd time James scored 20 points or more, seeing him vault over Kobe Bryant into third place in the all-time list. Only Karl Malone (1,134) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1,122) have had more 20-point games.
Meanwhile, the Raptors’ fourth defeat in six games will fuel the anxiety felt by the Canadian franchise as they attempt to lock up the No1 seeding in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors fell to 55-22 for the season following the loss but breathed a collective sigh of relief after second-placed Boston blew a chance to close within one win of top spot.
The Celtics slumped to a 106-102 loss against the Milwaukee Bucks, with Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring 29 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
In Cleveland, however, the 2016 NBA champion Cavs signalled they will be a threat for any team in the postseason as they attempt to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth year in a row.
As well as his 27 points, James contributed 10 rebounds and six assists on a night when the Cavs starters shared the scoring evenly.
All five starters made double figures, with Jose Calderon grabbing 19 points and Kevin Love weighing in with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
The Cavs’ defence also successfully shut down the Raptors’ offence, with Kyle Lowry restricted to just five points from his 28 minutes on court.
“We know Toronto have been scoring at a high clip all year – our last match-up here they put 70 on us in the first half,” James said.
“So we knew we had to get the defence in order to get the win. It was a good game for us.”
Lowry – who raised eyebrows by travelling to San Antonio on Monday to cheer on his former college Villanova in the NCAA championship game – had a miserable night on court, making one of seven 3-point attempts.
“I played terrible,” Lowry said, denying that his trip to Texas on Monday had affected his performance. “I’m a professional. I got back here on time. I ain’t missed nothing – just missed some shots,” Lowry said.
It was left to DeMar DeRozan to provide Toronto’s focal point, with the 28-year-old finishing with 19 points.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the fourth-placed 76ers have the Cavs firmly in their sights after a blowout 121-95 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
JJ Redick led the Sixers’ scoring with 19 points, while Marco Belinelli finished with 17 and Ben Simmons 15. Eight Sixers cracked double digits as the Nets fell to 25-53 for the season.
The Miami Heat also locked up their place in the playoffs with a 101-98 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in Florida.
Warriors battle past Thunder
In the Western Conference, top seeds Houston demolished Washington 120-104. James Harden enhanced his season MVP credentials with a dazzling individual performance that included 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
The Rockets have the best record in the NBA and are already assured of the No1 seed in the playoffs. They lead the conference with 63 wins and 15 defeats.
The reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who are second in the West, meanwhile battled to a bruising 111-107 road win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A feisty contest provided another opportunity for former teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to lock horns.
The two have clashed repeatedly during meetings between the teams since Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors in 2016.
Westbrook scored 44 points to win his personal duel with Durant, who finished with 34 points. But it was not enough to overpower the Warriors, who played without the injured Stephen Curry.