Last night, the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the Toronto Raptors. Normally, a late-March NBA game between two playoff-bound teams is only noteworthy if playoff positioning is on line, but the Raptors are comfortably in first place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and 10.5 games ahead of the Cavaliers.
Last night, however, was a little different. The Cavaliers have struggled this season, despite LeBron James putting forward one of his best performances, at least offensively. Following the injury of Kevin Love early in 2018, “struggled” converted, for a time, to “sucked.” But Love has returned, and the Cavaliers had won two straight games headed into their showdown with the Raptors.
Moreover, in each of the last two seasons, the Raptors have fielded fine, if not great, basketball clubs. In each of the last two seasons, they entered the playoffs with an apparently real belief that they had a chance to unseat LeBron from his annual position in the finals. And in each of the last two years, James ran them off the court in the Eastern Conference Finals (while averaging 38 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists last season.
It was evident from early on that both the Cavaliers and the Raptors saw last night’s game as a preview of another playoff meeting. In their last meeting, the Raptors smoked the Cavaliers by 34 points. Last night, they jumped out to a big lead, scoring 79 points in the first half. And then stuff like this started to happen:
"Closing time Kevin!"
— NBA (@NBA) March 22, 2018
Yes, Kevin Love hit a nice three on that play, and contributed 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists. It is important that James has that sort of help. But LeBron’s pass in the embedded highlight is stupendous (yeah, stupendous), as is the fact that he finished with 35 points, 17 assists, and 7 rebounds, and that that stat-line seems just a little out of routine for James. The entire highlight reel is extremely impressive:
From the power forward position, James is second in the league in assists this season. Nobody throws more inventive passes, and nobody sees the court better. The Raptors stayed close with motivated LeBron James in Cleveland, so all is not doomed. But notice was served, Cleveland expects to get back to the promised land this year. Where they will be ritualistically flayed by either Golden State or Houston. But still.