On Monday, May 7, LeBron James and his Cavaliers completed their second consecutive playoffs sweep of the Toronto Raptors. In the wake of a thoroughly demoralizing extinction, the Raptors must now confront their future–while the rest of the basketball universe confronts that LeBron James may truly be the greatest player of all time.
Just eight days before eliminating the Raptors, LeBron and the Cavs had been pushed to the brink of possibility: a first-round Game 7. LeBron’s personal 21-game first-round winning streak had been snapped by Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers in their first matchup, and LeBron’s 12-0 all-time record in the first round was 48 minutes from an ugly blemish. The 5-seed Pacers had the 4-seed Cavs on the ropes, and while Cleveland would ultimately emerge victorious, their weaknesses indicated that there wouldn’t be much to celebrate in the coming weeks. Could a non-LeBron team finally emerge from the East for the first time in nearly a decade?
The Toronto Raptors didn’t believe it. And that may have been the poison they picked.
Attaining a No. 1 seed is an extraordinarily difficult task. It translates, simply, to the most impressive accumulation of wins over 82 attempts. But this, in turn, doesn’t ensure the type of winning most important to a team’s legacy. Through the 2017-18 season, the Toronto Raptors recreated themselves, their culture, and inevitably their chances at title contention; they’d win 59 games in all, dispelling the myth that “blowing it up” is the only viable option for great-but-not-excellent teams. The Raptors proved that when a franchise–from the front office down to its All-Stars–buys in to dividend-paying change, incredible things can happen.
But extraordinary bench play, a more equal distribution of responsibility, and an uptick in attempted three-pointers can’t exorcise every demon. When LeBron James is in your head, and he’s drilling fadeaways in your face, and he’s sinking buzzer-beating game-winners in your grill, there’s not much to do but pray he twists the knife a bit more gently.
Apart from LeBron, not a single Cavalier scored at least 20 points in a single game of the Indiana series. Kevin Love was playing soulless, while King James put up averages of 34.4 points on 55.3% shooting, 10 rebounds, and 7.7 assists as he dragged his teammates to the mountaintop. The Cavs were outscored by 40–forty–points over seven games, and still pulled out an improbable (if not impossible) win.
In Game 7, head coach Tyronn Lue mobilized his players by starting a recently disgraced Tristan Thompson alongside LeBron, Love, J.R. Smith, and Kyle Korver. Thompson spoke on this particular five, explaining, “we’ve been in Game 7 at the highest level in basketball — in the Finals. So we know what it takes, and we know what we’re going to have to bring to the table.” The method was successful. While players often dismiss the concept of riding momentum, it was clear that the non-Bron Cavs had begun to understand that leaning on the greatest player in the world is an unsustainable privilege.
To the Raptors’ dismay, the Cavs woke up when it mattered most.
After shooting 12-for-30 in Game 1 in Toronto, LeBron described his showing as “probably one of my worst games of the season”–even though he recorded a triple-double, and nailed the shot that sent the game to overtime. The Cavs never led in regulation, but with offensive help from Smith, Korver, Thompson, and Jeff Green, they worked to dismantle the Raptors’ home-court and home-country advantages in the fourth quarter and overtime. Combatting the Raptors’ mantra of balanced team basketball, the other Cavs stepped up for the first time in recent memory, stealing a win for LeBron instead of waiting for him to bring home the Canadian bacon.
Lebron and crew have won Game 1. Let that simmer. Momentum shift. Big time!!!!
— Cari Champion (@CariChampion) May 2, 2018
DeRozan, late in the fourth quarter, epitomized his growth by passing up bad shots, choosing trust, and finding wide-open teammates. Those teammates missed anyway. The most piercing misses, though, were by the hands of Jonas Valanciunas, whose several failed putbacks at the rim may play on a loop in his head for the foreseeable future. It was this extended, ominous moment leading into overtime that wrote a recycled plot, and affirmed what we already knew: LeBron has the power to break at least one team built to vanquish him. The Raptors fell in nightmarish heartbreak, 113-112.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 4, 2018
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) May 4, 2018
Game 2 was an epic of its own. Watching the third quarter was bearing witness to the unfolding of history. The visuals were breathtaking. LeBron gracefully, ostensibly effortlessly buried the Raptors alive with one impossible jumper after the other. Jordan Clarkson called it “probably the craziest s**t I’ve ever seen”. King James sucked every bit of life out of the Raptors while challenging his most devout critics to reconsider everything they once understood to be greatness.
Bron's plan, Bron's plan 🎵 pic.twitter.com/5DpWKV0NA6
— Jasmine (@JasmineLWatkins) May 2, 2018
they might ban lebron from canada
— Desus Nice (@desusnice) May 4, 2018
Toronto had no answer. Air Canada Centre was hushed and one Aubrey Graham humbled as the Cavaliers danced into an 18-point victory. LeBron had 43, Kevin Love rematerialized with 31 of his own, and the Cavs had the whole world in their hands. Okay, maybe just Canada.
At that point, the series was, for all intents and purposes, over. Returning to Cleveland with two victories in hand was simply a formality, a vanity project, an extended humiliation. LeBron had already mentally extinguished the Raptors. Or so we thought.
Kyle Lowry stormed into the Q on a mission: send this series back to Toronto so we can rewrite this story. He notched a postseason-high 27 points, leading an effort that saw four teammates score in double figures on their way back from a 17-point deficit. But DeMar DeRozan was not one of those teammates, and in a loaded decision by head coach Dwane Casey, DeRozan sat the entirety of the fourth quarter of Game 3. Attributing it to a “tough night” for the face of the franchise, Casey stuck with Fred VanVleet, who missed two potential game-winners in Game 1. Whether DeRozan’s presence would have made a difference will remain a mystery, because LeBron had the final word all along.
A collapse by the Cavs on transition defense let rookie OG Anunoby, LeBron’s primary defender, get off a wide-open three that would tie the game at 103 with eight seconds remaining. In the subsequent timeout, Lue and James collaborated on a plan to inbound the ball under their own basket instead of advancing. Confusing the Raptors’ defense, who had planned to trap LeBron, LeBron took all eight seconds to glide the full 94 feet. Beating Anunoby, he got to his spot. LeBron jumped off one foot, released with one hand, and faded towards DeRozan and the visitors’ bench.
With a kiss of glass, the Raptors’ fate was sealed. That ball slinked nonchalantly through the nylon as if simply asked politely.
This series wasn’t going back to, ahem, LeBronto. And that buzzer-beater? His second of the 2018 Playoffs? One shy of Michael Jordan‘s career postseason total.
With a 35-point thrashing on Monday night, the Cavaliers released the Raptors from an excruciating headlock. The Cavaliers starters shot a devastating 64.5%, including a perfect 6-for-6 from J.R. Smith. LeBron had 29, Love had 23, Korver had 16, and George Hill added 12. King James set or tied records, dropped new milestones, and edged ever closer to MJ with each game of this series. How do the Raptors reconcile and recover?
DeRozan scored an uninspiring 13 in the series finale, and missed the fourth quarter again following an ejection off a questionable Flagrant 2 call. The referees implicitly did him a favor, saving him from eye-glazing garbage time and a 12-minute taunt of the last three years. Since May 2016, Toronto has lost ten consecutive postseason games to Cleveland.
The Raptors were always going to shrivel in LeBron James’s shadow. Recalling Jordan-induced trauma lodged in the memories of Knicks fans of the early ’90s, the Raptors face an uncertain future contingent, like it or not, on LeBron’s free agency. They don’t have much of an option.
The Raptors reinvented everything about themselves just to confirm what we already knew: LeBron James is insurmountable.
— Seerat Sohi (@seeratsohi) May 4, 2018
Salary-related issues aside, blowing it up after a historic, promising regular season would be hard to stomach. The team is young (Lowry and C.J. Miles are the only players over 30), and there remains room to improve on the remarkable stylistic changes that put Toronto over the top this year. Let’s see if they can land a difference-maker in the offseason.
The Eastern Conference Finals await LeBron James for the eighth straight year. The Cavaliers will likely be met on the other side by the Boston Celtics, who have a 3-1 edge over the 76ers heading into Game 5 at the Garden. Oddly enough, the Cavaliers will have walked precisely the same path (save for a few results) through the East as they did in 2017. Moving ever Eastward, from Indiana to Toronto to Boston, the Cavs can begin mentally preparing to shift West come June.
LeBron James is 1 of 3 players in NBA history to record 300 points, 80 rebounds and 80 assists through the first 10 games of a postseason.
The others are Michael Jordan in 1989 and Oscar Robertson in 1963 (via @EliasSports)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 7, 2018
The Celtics have enjoyed their own remarkable postseason run, but with LeBron James peaking like this while his teammates develop and improve as a unit beside him, the odds are in Cleveland’s favor. LeBron maintained after the sweep, “it’s impossible for me to lose confidence in our ballclub, no matter what the stakes are or what we’re down”, publicly commending and affirming his trust in his teammates.
Ironically, neither Cleveland nor Boston was favored in their Semifinals matchups. But while Boston has played resiliently without Kyrie Irving, their luck may run out soon. A well-rested LeBron could turn into the most lethal version of this Year 15 phenomenon.