2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Semifinals: Raptors (1) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Cleveland Cavaliers rounding into form at right time

An arduous regular season bled into their first-round battle with Indiana, but the Cavaliers are finally looking like legitimate contenders following their sweep of the Raptors

CLEVELAND – People are going to blame the Toronto Raptors for not offering more resistance, for all but prostrating themselves before the Cavaliers in a four-game sweep in the conference semifinals that ended Monday night with the Cavaliers’ 128-93 clincher.

Geez, non-Cavs fans will grouse, would it have killed the Raptors to push back harder, maybe play a little tougher and not paved such an easy path for LeBron James and his guys to the East finals and, quite possibly, a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance?

There are a couple of ways to answer that question. First, yes, it might have killed the Raptors, who were thoroughly outclassed in the series and exposed as a marvelous regular season team, as far as postseason contenders go.

It would have been as out of character for the skilled and affable Toronto players to get overly snarly as it would be for James Harden to pick up a razor. The Raptors mucked things up a little in the second half of Game 3 and again Monday with DeMar DeRozan’s flagrant 2 foul on Jordan Clarkson, all to little effect.

The second way to answer the charge against Toronto would be to rightly shift some of the blame to the Indiana Pacers. It was the Pacers, after all, who challenged the Cavaliers across seven games. They had every bit as much to do with Cleveland finding itself as the East’s best team, favorites restored to accompany James on his eighth straight trip to The Finals.

When the 2018 postseason began more than three weeks ago, Cleveland often looked and still felt like a drawer of mismatched socks. A tortuous regular season – which felt like “four or five” in one year, James said again late Monday – was interrupted at the February trade deadline by a hectic array of roster moves. Six players out, four new ones in, and still they hadn’t proved to be the elixir so many inside and outside the Cavs organization envisioned.

They kept hitting “reset” on their learning curve. That meant James, who had appeared in all 82 games for the first time ever, had to dial up his already extreme level of responsibility and his performances for the playoffs.

It looked, for an unnerving few days, as if it wasn’t going to be enough. The Pacers grabbed series leads of 1-0 and 2-1, then blew out Cleveland by 34 points in Game 6 to push it to the max. And even when it was, James was getting less help than Indiana breakout star Victor Oladipo got from his troops.

Seven Indiana players had scoring averages in double figures in the series. James had himself and Kevin Love, sputtering along at a non-All-Star 11.4 points per game. That’s why so many folks assumed life only was going to get tougher for the Cavaliers against Toronto, the East’s No. 1 seed.

“When everyone was burying my teammates alive throughout that first-round series,” James said, “I just continued to tell them, ‘Listen, we can’t win without each and every one doing their job and being as great as they can be.’ I continue to preach that.

“It’s impossible for me to lose confidence in our ball club, no matter what the stakes are, where we’re down. Because if I do, then where are we going to go from the team aspect?”

The work the Cavs put in defensively against one elite scorer (Oladipo) helped in their coverage of the next (DeRozan). The sheer reps they got in 533 minutes of playoff basketball – 11 games, including overtime in Game 1 vs. the Raptors – gave them more time to embrace each other’s games, while providing coach Tyronn Lue extra chances to mix and match combinations.

The improvement has been striking. Six Cleveland players averaged double figures in points in the sweep: James, Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Jeff Green and George Hill. James went from scoring more than 36 percent of the Cavs’ points against Indiana to a less taxing 28.7 percent against Toronto.

The other Cavaliers left “The Other Cavaliers,” a Saturday Night Live gag floating around the Internet since Saturday that mocked James’ supporting cast, on the same cutting room floor where SNL producers dumped the original video.

Cleveland is running more smoothly and looks better oiled at both ends. After getting outscored by 40 points in seven games in the first round, it outscored Toronto by 56 in the four victories.

“We’ve been going back, talking about that Indiana series,” Lue said. “I think that prepared us for this series. The physicality, the ball pressure really helped us going forward.”

Said James: “Defensively in these 11 games, we’ve been very, very, very good. Offensively we’re starting to pick up. We’re starting to get a rhythm, we’re starting to know what we’re capable of offensively and what we can become.”

The Raptors should be so lucky. They were left with a smorgasbord of doubts, what-ifs and looming uncertainty after getting eliminated for the third consecutive time by Cleveland. Concerns that the Cavs – and specifically James – might be in the heads of otherwise quality players such as DeRozan, guard Kyle Lowry and a few others look in hindsight to be valid.

“It hurts, just because of the season we had,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Franchise record (59 victories), top five in offense, top five in defense. (It’s just) like we flipped a switch. That’s what’s disappointing … From our coaching staff, everything we tried to do, just didn’t click.”

The Raptors were swept out a year ago by Cleveland and have lost their last 10 playoff meetings with James. DeRozan and Lowry, Toronto’s All-Stars, combined for 138 points, 30 rebounds and 46 assists. James, all by himself, cancelled them out with 136, 33 and 45, while out-shooting the “We The North” tandem to boot.

This is LeBron’s era and like several other championship aspirants, the Raptors merely are living in it.

So what if Game 1 – the series’ tone-setter, a grand opportunity squandered by the Raptors against a tired, still shaky Cavs crew – went to overtime. Big deal that Game 3 swung on James’ banked buzzer-beater. Over time, every sweep looks like a dismantling, and this one will too.

“It’s life,” DeRozan said. “You dwell on what should have happened, what could have happened in life, you drive yourself crazy. The fact of the matter is, we out. We done. Got to get back to reality come tomorrow.”

The Cavaliers get a couple of well-earned days off, while awaiting a winner in the Celtics-76ers series. When they get back to the gym Thursday, they’ll be far better off than they were before either of the past two rounds.

“We still have room to improve and things we can be sharper at,” Korver said. “We still have some lulls in the game, it feels like where the all kind of stops and we don’t have that same edge and energy.

“But this series was a great step in the right direction.”

Blame the Raptors, and blame the Pacers too. Or, depending how you feel about James and his guys and their stranglehold on the East, credit them.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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