Once again the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ season hangs in the balance.
LeBron James’s future is poised on the edge of a cliff and the foundation of the NBA itself will shift depending on what basketball’s most self-actualized superstar decides is the best way for him to cement his place at the top of the hoops pantheon.
It’s otherwise known as Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and it is the Boston Celtics who hold a 3-2 lead and the fate of the Cavs in their hands.
But whatever happens once the ball goes up, one thing is crystal clear in advance of Friday’s showdown in Cleveland: The Toronto Raptors pissed away a massive — potentially once in a lifetime opportunity as they bowed to the King one more time. This could have — perhaps should have — been the Raptors’ moment to be the team that sent James tumbling over the cliff and the league into an uncertain future.
And now with the Golden State Warriors similarly on the brink — trailing the Houston Rockets 3-2 — it’s even possible to imagine what a trip to the NBA Finals might have yielded if indeed the Warriors do the unthinkable and fail to emerge from the west.
Toronto blew it, though.
Their 4-0 sweep at the hands of James and the Cavs, extending their playoff losing streak against Cleveland to 10 games, ushered in its own era of uncertainty with head coach Dwane Casey sent packing, no sexy replacement in the pipeline and the possibility of a roster shake-up to follow.
Some way to celebrate a franchise-record 59-win season.
As the Cavs teeter (and the Warriors wobble) it’s hard not to wonder what we were actually seeing this past season.
A team that vastly over-achieved and whose flawed DNA was exposed under the post-season lights? Or an elite team that came apart under the pressure.
Boston making the Cavs offence look so ordinary hasn’t helped the Raptors’ cause. Lifted by a combination of a better-than-you-thought vet in Al Horford, a superstar-to-be in rookie Jayson Tatum — or is it sophomore Jaylen Brown? — and a cast of tough-minded role players deftly managed by head coach Brad Stevens, they are doing the job the Raptors couldn’t.
Win or lose, the Celtics can’t lose. With high-profile additions Gordon Hayward (broken leg) and Kyrie Irving (knee) out with season-ending injuries, Boston will either go down as the plucky underdog that stopped James’s streak of NBA Finals appearances at seven or the team on the rise that pushed James to the brink.
But having lost, the Raptors can’t win. The playoffs are the province of small sample sizes, but as the Eastern Conference finals play out there has been plenty of data and eye tests to confirm what has been increasingly obvious: This iteration of the King’s court is not an elite team. The notion that they are comparable to the team that won the 2016 NBA title is laughable. That they so over-whelmed Toronto makes it look even worse.
Take away their brief four-game run against the Raptors and the Cavaliers enter Game 6 with a 6-6 post-season record. The No. 5 seed Indiana Pacers were a surprise 48-win regular-season team and they out-scored the Cavs by 40 points over the seven-games series so that Cleveland had to rally to win thanks to an epic effort from James.
The Cavs’ offensive rating was 105.5 against the Pacers, which would have placed them 25th in the NBA in the regular season.
Against the Celtics, Cleveland’s elite offence has ground all the way into the mud, managing just 103.5 points per 100 possessions — tied with the last-place Phoenix Suns, even though James has maintained his nearly absurd post-season production with averages of 30.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.2 assists on 53.3 per cent shooting (although his 29 turnovers through five games suggest the Celtics have been able to make James uncomfortable, too).
Against the Raptors, James and his highly questionable supporting case must have felt like they were playing against a cool breeze, in contrast to the heat the Pacers and the Celtics brought to the floor. Cleveland posted an offensive rating of 127.3 points per 100 possessions, a level of efficiency that would be hard to replicate in an empty gym.
A year ago in the playoffs the Golden State Warriors went 16-1 on their way to the NBA title and had an offensive rating of 119.0.
The highest offensive rating in regular-season history was 115.6 achieved twice — by the Warriors last season and the peak Showtime Lakers in 1986-87.
The Raptors made the Cavs look miles better than those two historic teams, a stumble that might have been somehow explainable had the Cavs similarly strafed the Celtics or dominated the Pacers. Instead the Pacers and Celtics have made James and Co. look relatively ordinary while the Raptors functioned like a bucket with no bottom.
And so an already humiliating four-game sweep has become a basketball Rorschach test: It’s meaningful, but how it’s interpreted says as much about the person watching as the mess of missed defensive assignments and general passivity the Raptors played with do on their own.
You can be sure that the people who signed off on firing Casey are looking at the fight the Pacers and now the Celtics are putting up and seeing what they want to believe: evidence that this was an opportunity lost and the Raptors, with their third-ranked offence and fifth-ranked defence, were well-positioned to push the Cavaliers had they been coached the right way.
Why — for example — after a year in which the Raptors established an identity as a pass-heavy, high-volume three-point shooting team did they pass less and shoot less threes against the NBA’s 29th-ranked defence?
And why did a supposedly well-oiled machine look so lost in so many key moments?
And you can be doubly sure that Casey and his coaching staff are looking at what the Celtics have done and are yelling “See?!”
The Celtics have a crew of long, switchable perimeter defenders who can stymie the non-LeBron Cavaliers while the Raptors were trying to make do with the likes of DeMar DeRozan and C.J. Miles — no one’s nominees for all-defence — as well as a rusting Serge Ibaka and a hodgepodge of youngsters who couldn’t quite get up to speed quickly enough.
The Celtics have a group of tough, smart players eager and ready for the challenge.
The Raptors? Can you really coach a team to fight?
From either perspective, it’s not a good look, and the way the Cavaliers have struggled against anyone else but the Raptors this post-season leaves Toronto looking for answers to the question: “Are we good enough?”
If 4-0 wasn’t proof enough, the Celtics are underlining the point: No. Not even close.