While it wasn’t much of a shock, the Cleveland Cavaliers rolled over Toronto north of the border on Thursday night to secure a 4-2 series win, and the franchise’s second straight passage into the NBA Finals.
The Cavs faced more adversity from the Raptors than they have endured through the rest of the postseason. But even in this hard-fought series, the outcome was never much in doubt. Cleveland dismantled Toronto in Games 1 and 2, rolling behind strong performances from LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the latest installment of the ‘Big Three’ trend in the NBA.
Games 3 and 4 saw The Raptors show their fight back on their home court, and Cleveland struggled on offense for the first time in this series, shooting at an abysmal clip from the three-point line in Game 4 and all but abandoning the shot in Game 4. Toronto rode the back of Bismack Biyombo, a stellar crowd, and the return of Lowry and DeRozan to actual basketball player status.
But the series would swing back the other way rather quickly, with Games 5 and 6 turning into large blowouts for the Cavaliers, as Kevin Love and the offense returned to form, lighting the Raptors up as Lowry and DeRozan disappeared. Even in Toronto, which has been one of the tougher places to play in these playoffs – and where Lowry has found himself – the Cavaliers smothered the Raptors on defense, and never allowed the crowd to come into the game.
And now, the NBA’s Eastern Conference looks much like it was expected to, with the Cavaliers again holding the banner, and sending LeBron James to his sixth consecutive NBA Finals. While this outcome wasn’t exactly shocking, the feat of the Cavaliers handling all of their business up to this point is indeed impressive, with the heavyweights never leaving much of a doubt along the way of who the best team in the East is.
And while last year’s Cleveland outfit were a great team, there’s been little doubt that this version of the Cavaliers is the better of the two – and the bigger threat to topple the winner of the West. This team has been marginally better than last year’s squad, if only by addition.
Last year’s title chase was marred by injuries for the Cavs, with Kevin Love missing it all and Kyrie going down during the Finals against Golden State. And as excellent as LeBron was in the Finals, he was a one-man show, willing Cleveland to two wins against an overwhelming Warriors club. This year’s Cavs are firing on all cylinders, with Kevin Love playing some of the best basketball of his career and Kyrie Irving finally playing high-scoring and efficient basketball. The role players, primarily JR Smith and Channing Frye on offense, have created the best three-point shooting team in the NBA, shooting at a higher clip than even the fun-and-gun Golden State Warriors.
The revolution of the Cavaliers has been a one that has been felt across the league, with Cleveland dispatching a talented young Detroit team 4-0, the best team in the playoffs in Atlanta 4-0, and the second-best team in the league in Toronto 4-2. Cleveland has won in shootouts and grinds, proving they can adapt to any team.
Are they a match for the Western winner? Time will tell, but Cleveland is the most impressive team we’ve seen on either side of the playoffs draw so far. LeBron James is igniting a flame in this young Cleveland team, and with the strength of its role players, they are surely a tough out. Both OKC and Golden State look entirely beatable, and the victor enter the series with Cleveland battle tested but bruised.
Cleveland may not be the favorite against whoever they play in the NBA Finals, but don’t think LeBron and company would want anything else. LeBron has proven he’s on a mission and the play of those around him reflect his leadership. The Cavaliers can now sit back and wait for whoever comes their way, and whoever challenges the King.
It’s just that this year it won’t be only him defending the kingdom.