It’s been clear since the start of the season Cleveland was the class of the Eastern Conference. The question had been how big was the gap to every other team?
Turns out Grand Canyon big. Mount Everest big. The gap between the quality of Godfather I & II to III big.
That was on full display Wednesday night as the Cavaliers remained perfect in the playoffs and trounced the second-seeded Raptors in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals 115-84. While that makes the series just 1-0, the 31-point blowout was the Cavaliers largest margin of victory ever in the postseason, and it felt like a referendum on the East.
The nine days off didn’t matter, Cleveland is still playing its best ball of the season on both ends of the floor.
“We understand who we are as a team,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Defensively and offensively we understand who we are, who we want to play through, who we want to go through, and it’s been easier for the guys.”
LeBron James was 11-of-13 shooting and was attacking the rim all night on his way to 24 points. Maybe more impressive was Kyrie Irving, who finished with 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting, and he got wherever he wanted on the court all night.
“I’m always on Kyrie about staying aggressive, being aggressive because guys can’t guard him one-on-one, especially in transition when we get out fast and get it early to him and he can attack to the basket,” Lue said. “LeBron is the same way.”
After nine days off for Cleveland, it was fair to ask if they would be rusty and Toronto could try to steal a game on the road. Cleveland’s rust lasted about three minutes (Toronto did lead 7-0 to open the game). LeBron got to the rim — he was 7-of-7 shooting in the first half, with every shot at the rim — and as a team the Cavaliers shot 66.7 percent plus hit 50 percent of their threes before halftime. The Cavaliers put up 66 points in 47 possessions in the first half.
Part of it was that the Raptors were terrified of the hot shooting of the Cleveland Cavaliers had from three in the playoffs (shooting 42 percent as a team from beyond the arc in the first two rounds). Toronto’s game plan involved getting out high to chase the Cavs shooters off the arc. It’s a good idea in theory. In practice, the Raptors don’t have the defenders to then contain the Cavaliers ball handlers on the drive. Nor did Toronto protect the rim. Cleveland players blew past their defenders and got straight to the rim — Cleveland shot 17-of-21 in the restricted area in the first half. It was just a show for Cleveland.
The Cavaliers blew the game open with a 16-2 run at the start of the second quarter.
The Cavaliers were playing good defense, too. Kyle Lowry was 2-of-9 shooting in the first half, Cory Joseph was 0-5, but the Raptors were bailed out some by DeMar DeRozan putting up 16 points on 8-of-13 from the field. DeRozan finished with 18 points, and second in scoring was Bismack Biyombo with a dozen.
The game never got close in the second half, and every Cavaliers starter not named Tristan Thompson rested the entire fourth.
It’s hard to picture how Toronto makes this even a series. They may get Jonas Valanciunas for a game, and he can certainly help score inside, slow the game down, and provide a big body in the paint. But that’s not going to be enough. This isn’t the Thunder after Game 1 against the Spurs; this is a much larger gap. Hopefully, Toronto can make Game 2 more competitive.