The Cavaliers capped off their largest postseason win in franchise history after defeating the Raptors, 115-84.
Get all of Rob Mahoney's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
The contrast between regular season basketball and playoff basketball has made the experience of watching LeBron James as astonishing as ever. The initial 82 are, for James, an exercise in pacing. Every game that follows showcases LeBron at full bore, a physical and cerebral force unlike any other. Playoff LeBron jump-starts offenses and tramples defenses. His rebounds become launchpads, regardless of whether he fires up the floor with a live dribble or flings an outlet to a teammate. The kinetic force of his play can reduce a solid opponent like, say, the Toronto Raptors, into a helpless one.
Given that Cleveland so often does as James does, those rushes upcourt in transition became team-wide waves of fast, forceful offense. All that was left in their wake was a 115-84 Game 1 victory, the largest in Cavs' postseason history.
Cleveland’s speed had been selectively applied up to this point. Despite having personnel suited to an open floor game, the Cavs finished the regular season as one of the three slowest teams in the league, per NBA.com, and continued along the slow track through their first two playoff series. Toronto slogged comparably behind an offense layered with slow-developing sets and dragging isolations. In their similarity, Cleveland saw opportunity; every Cavalier looked to reverse possession as quickly as possible with an intent that suggested instruction. Soon those outlets became overwhelming. It wasn’t the fast break points that did Toronto in so much as the fact that many of Cleveland’s possessions began with a running start. How could one hope to contain Kyrie Irving’s nimble handle when a quick transition already has the defense on its heels?
It matters when a team seems to arrive first to every loose ball, but matters more when that same team can turn that loose ball into a LeBron dunk within seconds. This was energy at its most devastatingly efficient: a nightmare feedback loop in which the Cavs pressed to get stops, sprinted into the kind of offense they wanted, and amplified the pressure for the Raptors to create on every ensuing possession. That dynamic devoured the first half and all but ended the game on the spot. James went 7 for 7 in the opening two quarters while taking all of his attempts in the restricted area. Cleveland took 21 of its 36 overall attempts at the rim during that span, independent of the 18 free throw attempts that came from that same relentless propulsion.
Toronto’s defense appeared inert by comparison. Even when the Raps were able to ward off an initial fast break, the ball moved on before the defense could fully settle. It flowed to shooters and cutters out of the pick-and-roll. It sought out transition-forced mismatches and jumped them. It found James in the post for unobstructed back-downs and unimpeded spin moves. No Raptor stood a chance. Those who dared offer help gave up clear angles to one of the best post passers the NBA has ever seen. Whatever futility Toronto felt in watching its defense cave for dunk after dunk was only echoed in LeBron’s complete control of a halfcourt offense.
At this stage of the playoffs, it’s not enough to run sets or a system. Everyone on the floor knows what plays might be coming. What pushes the predictable through is the force with which it’s executed; an offense relies on the actual speed of its movement and screens as much as any whiteboard wizardry. Creating separation from the defender is critical, and it becomes that much easier when an entire team is flying up the court and into its actions. Screens displace a defense, cuts stress it, and fakes confuse it when operating at this rabid pace. Momentum within possessions is its own kind of rigor.
And if the lane seemed to open up whenever Cleveland beckoned, that may have something to do with the way the Cavs’ three-point shooting forces their opponents into active desperation. Shot-blockers like Bismack Biyombo were occupied by subtle movement by shooting bigs like Channing Frye on the weak side. Cleveland’s offense was loaded with those kinds of cuts and exchanges, moves out to or along the perimeter timed in a way that would tax the defense’s attention just at the time they would need to rotate. The Raptors couldn’t keep up. Their focus on the perimeter helped limit the Cavs to just seven threes on the night (easily Cleveland’s lowest total of the postseason) while ceding driving lanes to any interested party. Baffling misplays, too, allowed the likes of Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert to attack in straight lines. That alone is a development warranting some deep introspection. Many teams give up points to James and Irving. This one allowed uncontested finishes out of what should have been honest, one-on-one defense against marginal offensive players.
In the parlance of the postseason, this is still only one game. In the real world, however, this one game bears all the marks of overwhelming disparity.