Sunday afternoon, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers finished a four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors with a 109-102 victory at the Air Canada Centre. James played his worst game of the series, scoring 35 points on 11-22 shooting, while adding six assists, nine rebounds, and a block. You did not read that wrong: LeBron James played his worst game of the series and still scored 35 points on 50 percent shooting (his lowest percentage of the series), while chipping in significantly across the board in every other statistic.
For the short-lived Eastern Conference Semifinals with Toronto, James averaged 36 points, 5.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and one block, all while shooting a scorching 57.3 percent from the field. He did not just dominate the Raptors; he embarrassed them. He taunted them with fake beer drinking and foul shot routines before effortlessly sinking three balls. He disrespected them, calling for an oop off the backboard in the very first quarter of the very first game. And most of all, he showed the entire world that he is, without question, the best player in the NBA. LeBron James did not just destroy the Toronto Raptors for four games, he destroyed their franchise.
The Toronto Raptors were supposed to be a team that could compete with the juggernaut Cavaliers. Last year, after being blown out in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Toronto flipped their switch and gave the Cavaliers a dose of their own medicine, beating them by 15 points in Game 3, and tying the series up at a two a piece with a 105-99 victory in Game 4. The Cavaliers would come back to blow out the Raptors in games five and six, but those two wins were enough to give the Raptors some hope that they had assembled a roster that could beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, something no one else in the Eastern Conference has been able to figure out.
After adding Serge Ibaka to a team that already featured Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry—both All-Stars—the Raptors, in some people’s eyes, stood a chance to take down a Cavaliers squad that had dragged its feet across the finish line the last 25 games of the regular season. That didn’t happen, though. It never came close to happening. And now, as of today, Kyle Lowry says he will out of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent.
How much does Lowry want to get away from LeBron James? Marc Stein reports the guard may move to the Western Conference. He knows Toronto can’t beat LeBron James with the core it has, which includes himself. Serge Ibaka is a free agent, as well. With the image of LeBron spinning the ball in the palm of his hand twice and then draining a three in his face still fresh in his mind, it is hard to believe Ibaka will want to give it another run in Toronto, especially if and when Lowry walks. This Raptors team brought basketball back to life in Canada. The Raptors had not been relevant since the Vince Carter days, which was fifteen year ago. And now, after just three seasons of playoff basketball, and two back-to-back 50 win seasons, this team is just going to be gone. Just like that—gone. The inability to not just beat a single team, but a single player, has turned the optimism of an entire country’s fandom upside down.
This has happened before, however. In 2014-2015, the Atlanta Hawks surprised the entire basketball world by winning 60 games, including an undefeated January, and sending four of their five starters to the All-Star game. After years of being just good, but not great, the Hawks finally had a real chance to reach the NBA Finals and give the city of Atlanta its first championship since the Braves beat the Indians in the 1995 World Series. However, they would then run into LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. “The Spurs of the East” as so many deemed them, locked up the No. 1 seed in the East and fell quickly and quietly to the Cavaliers in a four-game sweep, capped off with a 118-88 Cavaliers win in Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena.
In four games against the Hawks, James would average 30.3 points, 9.3 assists, 11 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and .5 blocks, which included a Game 4 wherein he played fewer than 30 minutes. The Hawks had the perfect system in place to beat everyone else in the East. The only problem with that is that there is no system in place to defeat LeBron James.
The Hawks would have their shot at revenge, though, just one year later. Last season, the Cavs and Hawks would meet yet again, this time in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In the first quarter of Game 1, Hawks point guard Jeff Teague backpedaled down court after scoring and was seen mouthing the words, “not this year.” Teague, however, was very wrong. The Cavs would destroy the Hawks, sweeping them in four games by an average of 12.5 points. James put up a cool 24.3 points on 50.7 percent shooting, and add 8.5 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 3 steals, and .5 blocks per game. The Cavaliers would also break an NBA record for three pointers made in a game with 25, and become the first team to make 20 or more three pointers in back-to-back games. This was never a series. It was a Cavaliers walkthrough.
Fast forward one year and that Atlanta Hawks team, a team that had won 60 games just two years ago, does not exist. Jeff Teague? Traded to the Indiana Pacers. Al Horford? The Hawks let him walk to Boston. DeMarre Carroll? He’s on that Raptors team that isn’t going to exist anymore. Kyle Korver? The Hawks traded him to the Cavaliers, of all teams. Paul Millsap? He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer, forcing the front office to shake things up in an effort to keep him. The Hawks remained competitive this year by signing Dwight Howard and benefiting from the better-than-expected play from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dennis Schroeder, but they were no where good enough to win 60 games, or beat the Cavaliers, of course. A team that won 60 games in 2014-2015 may not have a single starter from that team left in 2017-2018, and it’s largely due to LeBron James who proved that regular season success does not always equate to similar outcomes in the postseason.
The Cavaliers opened this years playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Paul George-led Indiana Pacers. George has one year left on his deal in Indiana, but his career as a Pacer all but ended when James led the Cavaliers to a 25-point comeback against the in the second half of Game 3. James’ Game 3 was his most dominant game in a four-game sweep that saw him nearly average a triple-double with 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals, and two blocks, all while shooting a cool 54.3 percent.
George too wants out of the East. Indiana knows they can’t retain him, dangling him during this year’s trade deadline, and they may as well get something in return for him. George knows he cannot beat LeBron James. He has already lost to him three times and he just turned 27 last week. By the time LeBron and company are done running the East, George could be 30. Teague is also a free agent. You have to believe that Teague, a loser of 12 straight playoff games in just three years to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, wants nothing to do with the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James isn’t just beating teams and winning series, he’s making front offices rethink their entire plan and make players question if they want to play in the same conference. When was the last time a player wanted to go out to the ultra-competitive Western Conference for a better chance to go to the Finals? Charles Barkley in 1992? Would guys like Lowry, Millsap, and George really rather have to play Golden State before the Finals than take another loss to the King? It seems like it may be so.1
LeBron James may not win the Most Valuable Player award this year, but make no mistake that he is far and away the best player in the NBA. A team cannot simply draw up a game plan to defeat him; they have to draw up a five-year plan.
James and the rest of the Cavaliers will have up to nine days off before meeting their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, which will either be the Washington Wizards or the Boston Celtics. A fresh Cavs team is a nightmare for anyone, and it seems like the Celtics or the Wizards are going to feel the exact same feeling that the Pacers, Hawks and the Raptors have felt before them. Make no mistake: Whoever the Cavs play, the media will be buzzing with all the different ways they could stop LeBron and company. We’ve seen this same exact movie the last two years. Maybe the Celtics or Wizards win a game or two, but if current trends continue, one of these teams may not exist in two years.
James is 32 years old and is not getting any younger, but he is in the midst of arguably the best year of his career. They say Father Time is undefeated, but if history tells us anything, Father Time is going to have to come up with something other than old age to defeat No. 23.
- Jordan’s Bulls, for the record, beat the Barkley-led Suns in six games. [↩]