Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
- I should have known that this “really good” Raptors team was not going to be enough, not against LeBron.
- The Raptors said they had to stay home on shooters and make James beat them himself with scoring. James averaged 11 assists and 34 points.
- Toronto’s two stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, failed to go down swinging.
I felt so good after that first-round series. I had originally picked Cavaliers in 7 before adjusting it to Cavs in 6 over Indiana. People thought I was crazy. “LeBron never struggles in the first round,” they said. But I knew that Pacers team was pesky, and more than anything, I knew that this Cavs team was flawed.
When the Cavs got past Indiana, I was certain this was the moment. The Raptors had been better all season. The Cavaliers were flawed, exhausted, banged up, had been miserable most of the season, were facing LeBron’s impending free agency departure, and this Raptors team wasn’t the same one we’d seen before. This was it. The Cavs were going down.
Welp, the Cavs did not go down.
They defeated the Raptors 4-0 to advance to the Conference Finals for a fourth straight season.
So in the interest of transparency and full disclosure, here’s my examination of where and how I went wrong.
Step I. I doubted LeBron James.
This is the thing, above and beyond, that I messed up. What’s frustrating here is that I know what that entails. I’ve picked against LeBron James, since the summer of 2010, five times. I picked against him in 2014 against the Spurs (lost in 5), in 2015 against the Warriors (lost in 6), in 2016 against the Warriors (won in 7), in 2017 against the Warriors (lost in 5), and in this series.
That’s it. I know what a big deal it is to go against the greatest player of a generation. I know how he dissects matchups and coverages. I know how his game has evolved to where he can drive in ISO, pass in pick and roll, shoot in transition, attack the rim, hit the mid-range, knock down the floater, hit the lob, and nail the chase-down block. I know that he always has that higher gear defensively that he rarely uses.
It takes a truly wretched supporting cast, or an impossible opponent, for me to doubt him. I didn’t think the Raptors were world-beaters. But the Cavs looked mediocre, flawed and vulnerable. We’ll get to them in a second. What I drastically lost track of was how James is able to raise himself up, and if you are not an elite team — and I mean all-time great — you will not withstand the whirlwind.
I know how great LeBron James is. I’ve covered the league he’s owned for a decade. I’ve seen him rise, fall, rise again, fall and rise. I’ve seen him petulant at the podium in 2011 and humbled by the moment in 2016. I’ve seen him vanquish teams. I should have known that this “really good” Raptors team was not going to be enough, not against him.
Step II. The Cavaliers Are Suddenly Good (Kinda)
Here’s the challenge. If I capitulate and just talk about how awesome this Cavs team is, I’m being intellectually dishonest. If I double down on how flawed this team is, I’m being bull-headed and salty. Here’s the God’s honest truth: The Cavs are better than we had any evidence or reason to expect them to be, and that may still not be enough.
Against the Raptors, Kyle Korver shot 56% from 3-point range. JR Smith shot 76.9% (!!!). Jeff Green, let me slow that down, J-E-F-F-G-R-E-E-N shot 44% from deep.
Those numbers are all absurd. Even with Kevin Love’s 35%, George Hill’s 33%, and LeBron James’ … 16.7% (?!), the Cavaliers still shot 41% from 3-point range in total. They were blistering.
In the regular season, the Cavs’ effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot shots was 55%. Against the Raptors? That number was 67.6. Basically this:
So their offense was prolific, astounding, incredible. But my thought process going in was that their defense would be their undoing.
The Cavaliers now have the highest defensive rating of any team remaining in the playoffs at 108.4. Against the Raptors, they gave up the second-highest defensive rating of any second-round team with a wide gap behind them at 110. It’s just that the Raptors gave up 121.5.
I accurately estimated their defense.
I underestimated their offense.
Is that sustainable? Obviously not. Maybe in the Conference Finals, but eventually, those shooting numbers will return to Earth. The degree to which they regress will determine how the Cavs’ season ends. But it’s important to remember that their first-round performance was well below their capability, as well. In many ways, the Cavaliers advanced back to the mean with their performance vs. Toronto. The poor Raptors just happened to catch that ignition.
Again, this all goes back to LeBron. He and four shooters is a model for an absolute inferno. James plus some combination of Love, Hill, Green, Smith and Korver all had offensive ratings above 120.
But of course, it takes two to tango.
Step III. Expecting Too Much Of Toronto
The Raptors had a top-five defense this season, but one stat on social media always gave me pause (which I ultimately ignored, of course).
Toronto simply wasn’t ready to defend the Cavaliers. Their bigs and wings miscommunicated switches. The Ratpors entered the series knowing — openly saying — the plan had to be to stay home on shooters and make James beat them himself with scoring. Instead, James averaged 11 assists per game along with his 34 points. Some of that came when the Raptors helped off, breaking their game-plan discipline:
Serge Ibaka did this all series, thinking he needed to help down and expecting that he could get back. And the Cavs would run those little screens to create separation. Once the Raptors have to help down to make up for that blip, it’s over, with the Cavs shooting the way they did.
Sometimes it was a combination of miscommunication on switches and Jakob Poeltl’s lack of mobility:
The Raptors didn’t — and couldn’t — switch everything the way the Pacers did, and they didn’t challenge the Cavs on-ball the way Indiana did. Toronto wanted to keep the Cavs in front, to maintain proper rotations. The Raptors never generated turnovers. They never pressured the ball. They just basically waited for the Cavaliers to rip them to shreds.
That, too, I should have seen coming. From a scheme and personnel standpoint.
Step IV. The Mental Factor.
Look, I can point out all the metrics and switches and everything else, but there’s a part of this that is pure sport. The Raptors are not mentally able to withstand LeBron. They get rattled, abandon their game plan, start to veer away from the sound decision-making that defines them, and just, well, collapse inward.
To be honest, watching it, I don’t blame Jonas Valanciunas, who kept his head and kept trying to attack the rim. His Game 1 misses on tip-ins were bad luck on shots he usually makes. He didn’t square up and clang one; he just wasn’t able to get a drop with two defenders all over him. It happens.
I don’t blame the bench mob. If anything, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles played with genuine emotion and intensity. If Pascal Siakam did anything wrong, it was to play with too much investment. VanVleet played through a hurt shoulder, but at least he stayed aggressive — same for Wright, who helped the Raptors get past Washington in the first round.
So, you know … who am I talking about?
In the final game of their season, facing a humiliating ending to the best team season of their careers, Kyle Lowry finished with five points on seven shots, DeMar DeRozan 13 points on 11 shots. Lowry added 10 assists and no turnovers, but it simply wasn’t enough. When the Raptors’ lead started to evaporate in Game 1, they needed one of the Big 2 to carry them. When things started to unravel in the second half of Game 2, they needed one of their stars to deliver and get things under control. And with the season on the line in Game 4, one of them needed to at least go down swinging.
DeRozan had the best season of his career, an MVP-ballot-worthy campaign. Lowry wasn’t as good as he was in previous years but still excellent. However, the minute James gets a lead on either of them, they seem unable to shake themselves of the dread that comes with knowing they’re outgunned.
Say what you want for the Wizards, but they went into all 48 minutes of every game believing they were the better team and that they should win.
I don’t know how you fix that without wholesale changes to the Raptors’ roster and team structure.
Step V. A Look Forward
So first off, I’m not picking against LeBron again until the Finals. Just not going to do it.
However, there’s good reason to think the Celtics match up differently. For starters, they switch way more than the Raptors do. They have the perimeter length to contest shots from Korver and Love, and the versatility to counter the suddenly-alive Tristan Thompson lineups. They have guys to throw at LeBron who aren’t 20-year-old OG Anunoby, and they have much better game-plan discipline than what the Raptors showed.
Then again, LeBron was up 50 on the Celtics at one point last year, and Al Horford has gotten his teeth kicked in by Thompson in three separate series since 2015. And the Celtics still have to get by the Sixers, who won Game 4 on Monday to stave off the sweep.
Still, assuming the Celtics advance, it will be the test of tropes. The Almighty LeBron vs. the All-Knowing Brad Stevens. The Cavaliers will have to be as good offensively as they were vs. the Raptors because the Celtics will be better on both ends.
But at this point, the only thing in the East you can really count on, that you can really bet on, is LeBron James.
And after how this series went down, you’re never going to see me pick against him, outside of the Finals, again.