Game 2 of the Cavaliers and Raptors went the same way that the series opener did: low drama and utter domination from Cleveland. And as listless as the Raptors looked, the Cavaliers looked equally dominant.
Much ink has been given to the implosion of the Raptors (even I writing of their fragility and lack of acceptance of the moment – twice), and even as much given to the prowess of LeBron James. But the play of the Cavaliers as a whole, throughout the entirety of the postseason, has been the most consistent and dominant in the NBA so far.
But the question that has largely gone without much attention: are the Cavaliers the new odds-on favorite to win the NBA Championship?
The entire season, all we’ve seen on display is the dominance of the Western Conference, and the talk of the Spurs and Warriors on pace to meet in a de facto title game in May, with the winner all but guaranteeing themselves the NBA crown. And even with the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the overriding talk in the NBA has been centered on the Warriors and OKC, debating which team will emerge as the next from the West to take the NBA title.
And yet, somehow quietly, the Cleveland Cavaliers have gone undefeated in this postseason, so far 10-0, with just three of those games being decided by less than 10 points. The Cavaliers are dismantling their opponents, and the chemistry has never been higher.
Critics of the Cavs are quick to point out that they performing well against a weaker conference than the Spurs or Warriors have climbed out of during the regular season, and the tested Thunder fought through in the postseason.
So which is it? Are the Cavs the product of being the lone good team in a conference of mediocrity, or are they a dominant team, ready to take the NBA title when they meet whoever survives the West?
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The Eastern Conference has been down in comparison to the Western powers, but the East is deep. The three to six region of the East had four teams that could flip a coin in their ability as to who the better team was. The Pistons team that the Cavs faced was flawed, with a vulnerable defense that offered no real challenge to the Cavaliers offense. The offense Cleveland faced from Detroit, however, was efficient, shooting a higher clip than any other playoff team throughout the series. Even with their play, however, Cleveland was able to dispatch them easily.
The team they met in Atlanta was also flawed, but put out the best defense in the playoffs. Even then, Cleveland steamrolled them, have just one game come down to single digits.
The criticism of their opponent in the conference finals is justified, as Toronto hasn’t really shown any flashes of a great team in the postseason. Lowry and DeRozan’s struggles are well documented, but the Cavaliers have handled their business easily thus far with Toronto.
It’s not entirely fair to say Cleveland hasn’t played anyone, but they haven’t played anyone like Oklahoma City, San Antonio or Golden State – both of those things can be true.
But it’s not just that the Cavaliers are winning, it’s how they are winning. Cleveland’s defense has been surprisingly efficient, able to get stops in needed minutes, and the second unit has been surprisingly stout around the rim and on the wing. The only area of concern the Cavs have shown so far is vulnerability on the inside. The Cavs rebound decently well, but they allow a good amount of points in the paint.
But there’s also a caveat on that, too. So far in the postseason, the Cavaliers haven’t faced a true small forward that can challenge LeBron on defense. James has been able to cheat off DeMarre Carroll and Stanley Johnson and Kent Bazemore so far in the postseason, allowing him to move around and wreak havoc on opposing offenses, disrupting things in a way that we won’t see when he lines up against Kevin Durant or the Harrison Barnes/Iggy combination. James has been spectacular, but it won’t be the same level in the next round.
Where the Cavs have really shined so far is on offense. The nucleus of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James are finally gelling the way that people had hoped they would, with James deferring to his two supporting cast mates more and more. The Irving and Love PNR has been a deadly combination, with the Cavs scoring at an unbelievably high rate when the two run it. Love is hitting his shots, but also doing his part in the paint.
With the Love and Tristan Thompson frontcourt, the Cavs are outrebounding and outscoring in the paint. The offense is just so smothering so far. Cleveland hasn’t been held under 100 points since March 24, and is just running away from games in the second and third quarters. The only hole thus far is when two of the three stars hit the bench. But the same could be said for OKC or Golden State.
So are they a threat to OKC or Golden State? The stats and performance say yes. Cleveland’s strongest asset on defense thus far has been three-point shooting, where they lead the NBA in perimeter defense this postseason. The Cavs have also turned themselves into a team that could conceivably shoot with Golden State or OKC, with their 3-pt shooting leading the league.
This is not the same Cleveland team from a year ago. Their healthy, thus far, but they also have subscribed to a belief that did them in a year ago. They have established a strong defense against shooting, and leveled it with a great offense themselves.
Calling them the favorite may be a stretch, but thinking that this team isn’t every bit as good as the teams in the West is just ignoring what Cleveland has accomplished. They are statistically better than OKC or Golden State, and their strength plays right into the weakness of both teams.
The East may be weak, but this team is the best right now.
Which for LeBron James shouldn’t be unfamiliar territory.