Is LeBron James and His Cleveland Cavaliers Finally the Underdog in the East?
After 7 consecutive years in the NBA Finals, is this the year that LeBron James finally loses his stranglehold on the Eastern Conference? The Cavaliers are looking as vulnerable as ever, having escaped Indiana by the skin of their teeth.
The remaining contenders in the East are waiting to take advantage of Cleveland’s struggles, ready to pounce at the first opportunity. Toronto dispatched Washington in 6 games, and are looking like a different team than in recent years. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is rapidly emerging as a real threat, having disposed of Miami in 5. They take on a determined Boston team that overcame devastating injuries to edge Milwaukee in 7.
Who will emerge from the Eastern Conference battle unscathed? Here is a preview of the second-round match ups:
(1) Toronto Raptors vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers
For the third consecutive year, the Raptors and Cavs will lock horns in a playoff series. Will this year be different than the previous two?
To their credit, Toronto has made tremendous efforts this year to remedy the problems that have long plagued them in the playoffs. They have undergone a shift away from inefficient Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan-dominated iso-ball, towards ball movement and 3-point shooting. The result was a No. 2-ranked offensive rating of 113 points/100 possessions, a figure which they maintained against the Wizards.
A key to the Raptors’ renaissance has been their bench unit, which outscored teams this season by an incredible 17 points/100 possessions. With guard Fred VanVleet returning in Game 6 of the first round, the bench excelled once again, turning a 5-point deficit into a 3-point lead during a 6-minute run early in the 4th quarter.
In contrast to Toronto’s considerable depth, Cleveland has been a one-man show thus far in the playoffs. Averaging 34-points, 10-rebounds and seven-assists per game against the Pacers, James practically willed the Cavs to victory by himself. He shot 55% from the field and 35% from three, while the rest of the team shot a mere 38% from the field and 31% from three. No other player averaged more than 11-points per game in the series.
While Indiana is a solid team, no one is going to confuse them with Toronto. If Cleveland is going to beat the Raptors again, James will need some help. Kevin Love, an all-star this year, will have to start playing like one again. However, Love has been limited by a thumb injury suffered earlier in the playoffs. It remains to be seen whether he, or anyone else on the Cavaliers, can recapture their earlier form.
Despite their questionable supporting cast, the Cavs still have that Lebron guy. However, that might not be enough to overcome Toronto’s depth this year.
Prediction: Toronto wins 4-3
(2) Boston Celtics vs. (3) Philadephia 76ers
Boston must be commended for getting this far. They have overcome a rash of injuries that would have doomed many teams to a first-round exit, or even the lottery. From all-stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, to solid contributors like Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, the Celtics have had little success staying healthy. They can chalk up what they have accomplished so far to the league’s top-ranked defence, and excellent coaching from Brad Stevens.
Though the Celtics have often struggled to score without Irving, this was less so against the Bucks, with Boston scoring 110 points/100 possessions during the series. However, Philadelphia is not Milwaukee. Led by excellent defenders such as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and NBA deflections leader Robert Covington, the 76ers finished fourth in defensive rating this season, compared to the 19th-ranked Bucks, and held the Heat to a lowly 103 points/100 possessions in their first-round series. With their lack of a true go-to-guy, Boston might have trouble scoring against the stifling Philadelphia defence.
The 76ers are flush with rising young talent, reinforced by quality veterans. While Boston should contend for years to come, they have one too many stars in street clothes.
Prediction: Philadelphia wins 4-2