Before the Cavaliers and Raptors met in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Toronto coach Dwane Casey called Cleveland “probably the best team in the league right now.” That proved prescient, as the Cavs beat the Raptors in the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history then went on to win the NBA title.
After losing that series to the Cavaliers, Casey said: “We’re learning. We’re not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We’re going to be.” Will that also come true? It didn’t last year, when Cleveland swept Toronto in the second round.
Maybe third time’s a charm.
The Cavs and Raptors will meet in the third straight postseason, beginning with Game 1 of their second-round series tonight in Toronto. If the Raptors are ever going to beat LeBron James, this ought to be the time.
Toronto has been better than Cleveland throughout the season. Better offense. Better defense. Better starters. Better bench.
On the other hand: LeBron.
LeBron has ruled the Eastern Conference for years. Count the Raptors among the teams he has tormented, and he doesn’t seem to fear them now.
The Cavaliers showed little urgency down the stretch to secure the No. 3 seed and get on the same side of the bracket as the injury-riddled Celtics. Do the Cavs believe they have Toronto figured out?
If so, it’s hard to doubt LeBron’s assessment. But it also might be just hubris.
The Raptors have revamped their offense and empowered their role players. They look better prepared for the playoffs, when Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and crew have faltered annually.
But Toronto didn’t exactly steamroll the Wizards in a 4-2 first-round series. Sure, Washington is better than the East’s typical No. 8 seed, and bench lynchpin Fred VanVleet was injured. (He’s healthy now.) But the Raptors weren’t exactly encouraging.
To be fair, neither was Cleveland in a 4-3 win over the Pacers. Strapped with his worst supporting cast since his first Cavs tenure, LeBron had to do nearly everything – in the first round. LeBron has had to shoulder such a heavy load before, but not in the first round like that in many years. And the Cavaliers were still outscored by 40 by Indiana, the third-worst point difference ever for a series victor.
That’s why this familiar matchup feels so unfamiliar.
LeBron is such a mainstay in the playoffs. He has been involved every instance of teams meeting in three straight postseasons in the last decade:
- Cavaliers-Raptors (2016-18)
- Cavaliers-Warriors (2015-17)
- Heat-Pacers (2012-14)
- Heat-Celtics (2010-12)
The big names are the same between Cleveland and Toronto: LeBron, Love, Lue, Lowry, DeRozan, Casey. LeBron’s teams build so clearly around him, not even Kyrie Irving‘s departure changes the Cavaliers’ identity.
Maybe their ability, though.
LeBron says he’s worn down. Perhaps, the deep Raptors can grind him into elimination.
But it often seems LeBron can simply will his team to victory no matter the odds, like he did against Toronto in the regular season. Especially if this series goes deep, LeBron has proven far more trustworthy in the clutch than the Raptors.
Is Toronto good enough to vanquish the Cavs quickly and not face those situations? Home-court advantage could help.
The Raptors have been building toward this moment for years. Trending the opposite direction, so have the Cavaliers.
Their paths cross again. How that goes seems more uncertain than ever.