CLEVELAND, Ohio — One look at the Eastern Conference standings and it shows the Kyrie Irving-led Boston Celtics in the top spot, with the Toronto Raptors checking in at No. 2 and the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers even further back, closer to the fourth spot than anyone could have anticipated.
Still, this is the NBA. Things can — and likely will — change by the end of the season.
Nearly one month ago, the Cavs were capping their best stretch of basketball, winning their 18th game in 19 tries. They showed their potential and there’s plenty of time for them to steer the ship back on course. But after another blowout loss Thursday night against the new-look Raptors, Cleveland looks vulnerable, their crown starting to slide off a touch.
The real question is whether any East team is able to take advantage. Not now, of course. In the spring. Because for three straight postseasons the answer has been an emphatic no, which probably provides a level of comfort around town.
Even the Raptors, feeling confident going into last year’s conference semifinals, got steamrolled in four lopsided games. In the moments after, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey immediately pointed to the large disparity in 3-point shooting between the two teams, speaking about trying to evolve in the summer.
Change was necessary. The Cavs had just outscored the Raptors by a whopping 102 points from beyond the arc in the series, shredding a stingy defense.
The Raptors certainly looked more equipped to threaten the three-time champs on Thursday night.
During the 34-point blowout, the Raptors canned 18 triples, the most Cleveland has allowed all season. It’s not a one-game outlier either. With a new philosophy and some roster tweaks, the Raptors rank top 10 in both makes and attempts from long range. They were 21st and 22nd in those respective categories last season.
Last May, Toronto’s predictable, isolation-heavy offensive attack couldn’t even take advantage of a flawed Cavaliers defense, averaging just 101 points.
On Thursday, Toronto scored a franchise-high (in a regulation game) 133 points — even without starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
DeMar DeRozan, the Cavs’ primary target, was blitzed constantly, just as he was last postseason. Only this time, Toronto’s supporting cast made the Cavs pay for the risky strategy. Seven players reached double figures in scoring, showing more balance than last year’s series.
DeRozan, one of the league’s leading scorers, tallied just 13 points. That should’ve led to a blowout. It did. Just not the way many expected. The added attention opened outside shots for teammates and gave Toronto’s bigs second-chance opportunities. Starting center Jonas Valanciunas had six offensive rebounds. Jakob Poeltl pulled down four.
The Cavs’ veteran bench has been one of the team’s strengths this season. Not Thursday. The older group couldn’t keep pace with the youthful, energetic Raptors. Led by backup point guard Fred VanVleet, Toronto’s second unit tallied 76 of the 133 points.
At the season’s midway point, the Cavs rank fourth in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, which isn’t typically a mix that leads to a deep playoff run. Two straight losses by at least 25 points means history is working against them in a quest for another NBA championship.
The Raptors? They currently rank third in offensive rating and fourth in defensive rating. That’s usually a combination that equates to postseason success.
In terms of point differential, the Cavs are 11th while Toronto ranks second, trailing the Golden State Warriors.
Despite the Cavs’ dreadful stretch, ranking as the league’s worst defense in the three games since Isaiah Thomas — who was supposed to lift the team to new heights — in the starting lineup, the Cavs don’t seem too concerned. The schedule has been brutal, which gives flashbacks to last March when team meetings were happening weeks before the playoffs. Yes, the Cavs have been in this position before, able to find enough motivation later on.
“We in a funk,” LeBron James told reporters. “Once again we’re back to the beginning of the season. Just gotta find a way to get out of it. It’s going to start with us and just everybody getting back to what we were doing when we were playing good ball, but, we’re so fragile. I don’t know where it kind of went wrong or what happened to switch back, but we’ve got try to pick it back up and find it.”
It’s only logical to give the Cavs the benefit of the doubt — even though this isn’t the same team from past years. They’ve had plenty of head-scratching stretches, drama that surrounds them during the regular season, only to overwhelm lesser opponents with a prolific offense en route to the NBA Finals.
Last January, James spoke about the roster being top heavy and a few years ago used the term fragile. He did the same following Thursday’s loss.
The Cavs eventually corrected their issues and won their third straight conference championship. Can they do it again, with even more to fix this time?
Rotations are funky and players have become aware. Thomas is still trying to fit in. JR Smith has fallen apart, a liability on both ends of the court after going 0-of-12 from the field and 0-of-8 on 3-pointers in the last two games. Jae Crowder has spoken all season about being uncomfortable, playing a new position and learning a different system. There’s no Irving to ease a Kevin Love off night.
Then there’s the continued problems on defense, ranking closer to dead last than 28th, a spot the Suns currently occupy. Internal answers don’t seem to exist and it’s much more than an effort problem, the disingenuous explanation coming from the locker room. The personnel points to a group that will have a hard time reaching a respectable level, especially with an attackable Thomas who can’t be hidden, no viable rim protector and Smith’s decline.
Maybe the Cavs alter their defensive schemes. Or maybe a starting lineup change will be coming in the near future. Perhaps a trade transforms them back into the East power. Maybe none of it matters because James is the ultimate equalizer and championship experience gives them the edge.
It’s also fair to be skeptical of the Raptors, a team that’s had an abundance of regular season success, only to seemingly catch a case of stage fright in the postseason.
It’s January, not May. The Cavs tend to ignite when the temperature in Cleveland rises. But as the season goes on, the pile of evidence is growing. It’s also becoming tougher to ignore.
Past success doesn’t always predict future greatness. There are no guarantees.
This is a new Cavaliers team. It’s a new season, with improved teams looking to bust through the opening.
And while many focus on the Celtics’ impressive record, overcoming the loss of All-Star Gordon Hayward and a grueling schedule, another Cavaliers’ threat might be Toronto, the team that’s had the most success against them in the Eastern Conference Playoffs during the new James era.
The Raptors are a revamped group that appeared much more formidable Thursday night.
The Cavs looked different too. Just not in a good way.