What a momentous basketball game last night between the Cavaliers and Raptors in their Eastern Conference showdown. It had a little bit of everything—from LeBron James breaking records (we’ll get to that) to the Raptors attempting to show that they’re not the same old Raptors.
Of course, before getting too deep into anything, we need to point out that this was still a regular-season game and there were variables at play. The Raptors played on the second leg of a back-to-back and the Cavs are currently missing five rotation players due to injuries and other circumstances. Oh, and Cavs head coach Ty Lue is currently away from the team.
Still, even with all that, one thing remained clear—the Cavs have LeBron James and the Toronto Raptors do not. Even when the Raptors took a 15-point lead into halftime in the Q, putting up a ridiculous 79 points, it still didn’t feel like the Raptors were in control. The Cavs had still scored at will but weren’t locked in on the defensive end, as has been the case for much of the season. And while most will point to the Cavs not being great on defense, they’re especially not very good when Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson are out.
Things shifted quickly in the second half of this game as the Cavs came out more engaged on both sides of the court. LeBron was magnificent, scoring 35 points, dishing out 17 assists and committing zero turnovers. That has literally never happened before in an NBA game. The Raptors simply had no answer for LeBron and Kevin Love who, in only his second game back from injury, scored 23 points and added 12 boards.
Meanwhile, late in the game, the Raptors leaned on their star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who struggled to finish at the pace of the Cavs. As FearTheSword writer Mike Zavagno tweeted after the game, DeRozan only shot 3-of-10 when guarded by George Hill and Jeff Green.
This is the problem that has always plagued the Raptors in the playoffs. When the game slows down, can the Raptors get the buckets they need? The Cavs were able to limit Lowry to one shot in the 4th quarter after he was on fire most of the game. DeMar only shot 1-of-6 in the second half. It looked like the same old Raptors.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the Raptors are better than they’ve ever been this season. They have depth like never before with Fred Van Fleet, Pascal Siakim, and Jakob Poeltl shining for the second unit. DeRozan is a legit MVP candidate, and Lowry is playing very well. It's unclear how much last night's game tells us about a potential series between the two teams, and given how bad the Cavs' defense has been this season, it doesn't seem as much of a sure thing that LeBron and company make the Finals as it has in other years. Maybe the Raptors can get hot and the depth is the difference in the series. Maybe the lack of Kyrie Irving will catch up to the Cavs. A lot in the air, still.
But it will probably come down to this: do the Raptors have an answer for LeBron James? No. It’s almost that simple.
During the second half, and the fourth quarter especially, LeBron once again proved that if he’s on the floor, the Raptors really have no shot. From scoring on his own, which was rather easy during the fourth quarter, to setting up his teammates (LeBron assisted on 11 of the Cavs’ 3-point makes during the game) he was just in total control of the game to the point where the Raptors seemed helpless.
Looking at the bigger picture, the Raptors are going to get the No. 1 seed in the East, but last night’s game further cemented the Cavs into the No. 3 seed. That would mean the Cavs and Raptors potential playoff matchup would be in the Eastern Conference Finals, and to be quite honest, does anyone actually think the Raptors would want to play the Cavs before that?
Let’s be real here: Imagine having the best season in franchise history and not even making the conference finals, because that’s what would happen to the Raptors if the Cavs somehow fell to the fourth seed. So maybe last night was a blessing for the Raptors in some ways. Sorry to break it to you, Toronto, the Eastern Conference still runs through LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.