The Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers mirrored the emotions of this team’s turbulent season: moments of disappointment, frustration, delight, and awe. An exhausting seven-game series ended in Cleveland’s favor, but the wine and gold will get little time to recover before they journey north to see the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. The bad news is that the Raptors won more games than the Golden State Warriors this season. The good news is the Cavaliers are now playing with house money.
The stories surrounding the Cavs-Pacers series all focused on what the Cavaliers cannot do. They cannot lose in the first round and expect to keep LeBron James. They cannot win unless someone not named LeBron James scores at least twenty points. They cannot ruin James’ streak of never losing the first round. They cannot match the Pacers’ youth and tenacity. While it was not easy and, no joke, only James scored twenty or more points for the Cavs in any game of the series, Cleveland managed to survive and advance to the conference semi-finals. It turns out that in the right circumstances one man can actually deliver a playoff series win with no significant help.
The Pacers series underscored the Cavaliers’ major weaknesses including inconsistent rotations, lack of a dependable second scorer, and an over-reliance on number 23. As three-time defending conference champions, all the pressure was on the Cavaliers to fend off the upstart “not even supposed to be here today” Pacers and their quest to finally dethrone The King. Yet, despite Indy’s youth and admirable resilience the higher seeded team won largely at the hand of the best active player on the planet. With the five-seed Pacers defeated, the Cavs’ mentality can, if they choose, change in the second round.
The Toronto Raptors have never made the NBA Finals. The closest they ever got was an appearance in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals where they lost a six-game series to LeBron James. The Cavaliers won Game Six in Canada and celebrated on their floor. The following season these two clubs rematched in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The Cavs ran roughshod over the Dinosaurs, sweeping them in four games with Game Four held back at the Air Canada Centre. Throw in the Indians’ Game 5 defeat of the Blue Jays down the street and you have three seasons in the past three years in which a Toronto team watched glumly as a Cleveland team celebrated north of the border. That kind of thing can give the Raptors an edge, but it can lead to a tense crowd. Many of the Raps’ current players saw the Cavs’ previous wins firsthand the past two seasons and it makes me wonder if deep down James and Co. aren’t already in their heads a little.
After last season’s playoff departure, the Toronto Raptors had some tough decisions to make. Newly minted general manager Bobby Webster examined the roster and decided to run it back for one more go. Toronto inked Kyle Lowry to a three-year, $90 million deal and signed Serge Ibaka for three years and $64 million. Throw in British small forward OG Anunoby to the already formidable DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valančiūnas and the result is a standings bonanza. The Raps won a franchise-best 59 games, one more than the Golden State Warriors, the Atlantic Division, and earned the top seed in the East.
Expectations for the Raptors have never been higher, which means the pressure is all on them. No doubt The North looks at an admittedly subpar Cavaliers team and thinks, “this is our moment.” Maybe so. But as the top seed with a history of losing to the Cavs, Toronto must reckon with their sense of destiny as well as exorcise the demons of the past few campaigns. The Cavs meanwhile can now assume the mantle of plucky underdog team looking to knock off the biggest kid on the block. I certainly did not expect a LeBron-led team to be an underdog in the second round of the playoffs when the season began, but here we are.
At this point in his career James no doubt considers any season that does not end with a championship parade to be a failure. It remains to be seen if this iteration of the Cavs can even reach the Finals let alone win it, but all the team has to do now is win three home games and steal one on the road. There is no point worrying, “How far can LeBron carry the Cavs?” as so many think pieces are trying to determine. No one knows how much energy LBJ has in him after the draining Pacers series. No one knows how far the team needs to advance for him to consider staying home. The only thing we know is that Game 1 tips off at 8:00 pm on Tuesday night. The pressure is on Toronto for now; let’s see how the underdog Cavs perform.