LeBron James has plenty of respect for the Toronto Raptors. And how could he not? They have a chokehold on the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed—and that includes an 11-game lead in the win column over his Cleveland Cavaliers.
Though the reigning Eastern Conference champs have bounced the Raptors from the playoffs in each of the past two go-rounds, this year feels different. Toronto has reinvented its offensive shot profile, boasts the NBA’s deepest bench and is locked in on the defensive end.
Even LeBron couldn’t help but sing their praises leading into the Cavaliers’ Wednesday night tilt against the Raptors, per Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon:
“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”
Here’s the thing: Hours later, LeBron would go on to lead the Cavaliers to a 132-129 victory over those same Raptors.
We should always be hesitant to use one game as a tell-all barometer, but it’s tough not to read into this outcome. The Cavaliers’ usual warts shone prominently through and through. Their pick-and-roll coverage was whack, and they let Toronto jump out in front by as many as 15 points.
Still, they limited the Raptors to just two fast-break points and, more importantly, reversed the entire tenor of the game by overwhelming Toronto with their offense. That’s how they’ll have to win in the playoffs this year; they don’t have a defensive switch they can just flip. And while that’s far from a foolproof way to make it out of the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers’ firepower is enough to overcome those imperfect circumstances.
What happens after, in the NBA Finals, is a different story entirely. But, as they showed on Wednesday night, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East, even if the Raptors’ record and admirable effort suggests otherwise.