With 7 straight Finals appearances and two rounds left to make it 8, Lebron James has been arguably the most consistently dominant force the Eastern Conference has ever seen. The last time Lebron failed to make the Finals, Antawn Jamison was still on the Cav’s roster and the team that bounced them from the playoffs was the Celtics in the last year of their infamous big 3 of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Fast forward 8 years to 2018: despite great efforts by a Pacers team led by Victor Oladipo, “The King” still prevailed to keep his first round series winning streak alive and the hopes of an 8th straight finals appearance on the horizon.
I’m shook from this kid calling LeBron’s game-winner before it happened WTF pic.twitter.com/7jRqgU3LzA
— JzoSports (@JzoSports) April 26, 2018
It was not a typical Lebron first round to say the least. It featured Lebron playing big minutes (averaging over 41 minutes per game) and seemingly doing it all for his team, but not in the typical breeze-through fashion we are used to seeing at this stage. From game winners, to a controversial block that should have been a goal-tend, this series was no walk in the park for the Lebron-led Cavaliers. Only two games were decided by more than 5 points, both games that Indiana won with ease: 121-87 and 98-80. The Cav’s biggest wins were by 4 on both 4/29 and 4/22. To put things in perspective, before dropping game 1 to the Pacers in this series, Lebron had 21 straight first round wins. It is safe to say this Pacers series was the most tested Lebron has been in the first round in the last decade.
— King of the Castle (@rapsfan25) April 26, 2018
The first round series win secured Cleveland a ticket to play Toronto in the second round, a familiar foe. In 2016 the two squads faced off in the Eastern conference finals. Lebron easily took care of the first two games at home, dropping the next two at Toronto, then winning the next two and sealing the deal with a 113-87 blowout win in Toronto for game 6. He would go on to complete the epic 3-1 comeback against the Warriors in the Finals that year, delivering one of the best playoff performances the NBA will ever see.
Fast forward one year later to 2017, Lebron is facing Toronto yet again, except this time one round earlier in the Eastern Conference Semi’s. It only took Lebron 4 games to oust the Raptors from the playoffs this go-round. The closest game was game 4 in Toronto and the Cav’s won 109-102. The Cav’s also played the Pacers in the first round this year, easily handling them in 4 games. This years path has been the same as last years was, but this year feels far different.
You have Lebron for the first time in his career after a series (especially a first-round) exclaiming to reporters that he is worn out and spent. The Raptors have been sitting and waiting for days to see who they will be playing next round. They are the first seed in the conference and boast the best bench in the league. Their star Demar Derozan is looking better than ever and Dwayne Casey is coaching this team as good as any other coach in the league (yes even Brad Stevens). Cleveland is tired and coming into a rested Toronto’s building for game 1 on a short turnaround. This game 1 feels like it is going to be different. This series feels like it is going to be different. This Raptors team is better than they have ever been before, and the Cav’s are showing weaknesses we have not seen from them before; Following what seemed to be an experimental season for them after the departure of guard Kyrie Irving in the off-season. Could this be the year that Toronto gets over the hurdle and dethrones the King?
Despite all signs pointing in Toronto’s favor, game 1 did not go as they would have hoped. In fact, they had the lead the entirety of the game during regulation until the last bit. This is only the second time in the last 20 years that a team has won a game in the postseason without leading at any point in regulation. They built a 14 point lead early on and spent the rest of the game letting Cleveland slowly chip away at it to eventually tie it late and force an overtime. The Toronto game plan seemingly went out of the window in crunch time when the Cav’s were charging back and the panic within them ensued.
When it comes down to it, Lebron James has their number and is in their head. He owns MAJOR real estate here. There is no other explanation. Yes he did get more help from others on his team. He did have a triple double and then later came out to say it was his worst game of the season after shooting 12-30 from the field. All this being said, it was still enough to get the win for his Cav’s. Toronto dealt with the ultimate disappointment. They were so close to winning this game. They had the ball with the game tied and one last chance. This one last chance turned into what felt like 15 chances between all the tip-in efforts, but the rim had a lid on it and none of them fell for the Raptors. Overtime was next, and despite not a single point scored by Lebron James, the Cavaliers prevailed with a few clutch threes from Smith and Korver and enough defense to fend the Raptors off after securing the early OT lead.
Watching the Raptors miss 47 tap-ins in the last 5 seconds like…. pic.twitter.com/wtBJv48AVI
— Chip Reiderson (@ChipReiderson) May 2, 2018
The most help for the Cavaliers though; It came from the Raptors themselves. They called a timeout in crunch time to draw up a play, only to have them get a 5 second violation called on the in-bounds. This gives the ball back to Cleveland, wastes the productivity of the timeout, and gets Toronto even more in its own head then they already are. There was no excuse for the Raptors to not close this one out. All the signs point towards the fear of Lebron. Lebron might have gotten more help from his teammates than usual with JR smith eclipsing 20 points and Korver hitting 5 threes, but on an off night for Lebron, the Raptors have to seize the opportunity and take advantage when they can. Lebron did not let his shooting woes get to his head like he has in the past, and when the Cavaliers needed a bucket the most and the game was on the line towards the end of regulation, Lebron kept delivering.
Clutch from The King! pic.twitter.com/OehPKHZOZ3
— NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2018
They got cold feet, folded, and simply did not play the game they played for the three and a half quarters before. Whether it be the playoff jitters, the fear of Lebron, or just a freakish stretch of terrible offense, they had no answers down the stretch last night. This has seemingly been a three year theme for the Raptors, with Lebron being the gatekeeper for them. I am not sure they will find the key this year after what I saw last night. It looked mighty familiar and it is getting quite evident that the thought of Lebron and the history of the two teams makes the Raptors uneasy. They should try caring less and playing like it is a regular season game, because when the stakes have been the highest, the Raptors have been at their worst. The Raptors have at least 3 more games left to prove me, everyone else, and themselves otherwise. I am personally hoping for 6 more games and a close game 7 in Toronto to see how the Raptors deal with the pressure in their own building and if Lebron really does have them shook at the thought of him. Only time will tell.