With the sweet relief of playoff basketball on its way, there’s not much left to talk about in the NBA season except for seeding. In the Eastern Conference, that’s a spicy discussion to take part in.
At the top, the sure things have become unsure. LeBron James and the Cavaliers have fallen from grace thanks to some abhorrent defensive play. Their 113.2 defensive rating is second-worst in the league, ahead of just the Tiananmen Square-sized tank inside Staples Centre. Because of this, they’ve lost five of 13 and have fallen behind first place Boston, who continue to have an uncanny ability of beating bad teams (and losing to good ones).
This leaves our Raptors in the lurch. The Lowry-less bunch continue to win games (six straight now) and threaten the Wizards in third. Now, with the Cavaliers falling, there’s reason to question this success. Does the team really want to be in the same bracket as LeBron? Wouldn’t the best path to the Eastern Conference Finals be through Boston, who Toronto is 3-1 against?
The answer to these questions comes with a moon-sized grey area. I’d be remiss not pointing out that everything can change in the last eight games; the Raptors could finish fourth, or they could finish first. Only three games separate this foursome, and by each team’s momentum, it’s impossible to predict how this will finish.
There’s an argument, though, that it shouldn’t matter to Raptors fans. Toronto is better prepared to play Cleveland this year, regardless of when they meet. In some ways, you can argue that seeing them earlier might be preferable.
In any discussion of the Cavaliers, observers say that when the playoffs start, the team will “flip a switch.” It’s happened countless times with rosters led by LeBron — the regular season is a cycle of apathy, LeBron calling out his team in the media, renewed spirit, followed by more apathy. When the playoffs come, the theory goes that everyone engages, and everyone chases a common mission.
Except, this isn’t every other year. In the last 40 years, only three NBA teams have won the title and not been a top ten defense.
Only 3 teams to win title in season they ranked outside top 10 in last 40 years ('01 LAL, '95 HOU, '88 LAL) were defending champs. https://t.co/La5ysXQV8c— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 13, 2017
The common comparison people make to the Cavaliers is the 2001 Lakers, who sleepwalked through the regular season (21st in defensive rating) before stomping through the playoffs, going 16-1 — the lone loss ironically a product of Allen Iverson stepping [extremely Marv Albert Voice] “over Tyronn Lue!”
This hardly seems fair, though. The Lakers had prime Shaquille O’Neal, the most notable try-less superstar in history. They had length in Robert Horry, Kobe Bryant, and Horace Grant, and a scheme by Phil Jackson — a defensive coaching great. Their figurative switch was entirely a question of effort, and they responded.
It’s not so cut and dry with the Cavaliers. The distractions of a Kardashian lifestyle aside, Tristan Thompson is playing heavy minutes and starting to wear down as the team’s only rim protector. Behind him, Andrew Bogut is out for the year and Larry Sanders isn’t ready. Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver are aging rotation players who struggle to defend. Lue is hiding Kyrie Irving behind Iman Shumpert in cross-matches. J.R. Smith has lost a step. LeBron can flip a switch — we all know and respect that — but what about everyone else?
From there, it’s a question of how long it will take to get their stuff together. Last season, the Cavaliers were able to get momentum thanks to a bruising, competitive series with the Pistons. After that, they walked through Atlanta and allowed Toronto a moment before snuffing them out.
This year, the competition is better. At the bottom of the standings, Miami is feisty. The three teams around Cleveland at the top — Boston, Washington, Toronto — are all vastly improved. The Raptors specifically have geared up with Cleveland in mind, adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker — eliminating the cracked armour of 4-5 lineups that can’t switch out onto Channing Frye and Kevin Love.
The Raptors are ready for the Cavaliers (as ready as they’ll ever be), and it doesn’t matter when they see them in the playoffs. If it’s earlier, maybe that means Cleveland’s had less time to find their championship selves.
While the idea of reaching another Eastern Conference Finals is a nice one, this team will always be measured against LeBron. The Raptors are the next in line after the blow-in-your-ear Indiana Pacers, the Thibodeau Chicago Bulls, and the 60-win Atlanta Hawks — very good teams who couldn’t beat LeBron.
Except now, LeBron looks more beatable than ever. It makes sense that the Raptors try to capitalize on that window of time, and hope it’ll be open for a while longer.
So, I ask you this. Do you care when the Raptors play the Cavaliers? Would you prefer it be earlier or later in the playoffs?