LeBron James’s career arc is bookended by a pair of phenomenal playoff upsets. In 2011, the Big 3 Heat crumbled against the overlooked Mavericks, delighting Superteam critics and leading to questions about LeBron's ability to handle pressure. Five years later, James led the Cavaliers to an unprecedented comeback from a 3–1 deficit against the 73–win Warriors, a career–defining triumph that spawned endless comparisons to Michael Jordan.
But the entirety of James’s postseason career has been defined by steady brilliance and predictable results, not stunning twists of fate. That might seem counterintuitive given The Block,Ray Allen’s miraculous shot in 2013, and James’s baffling struggles against the Mavericks. Remember, though, that his signature accomplishment is his streak of seven consecutive trips to the Finals (and counting), a run fueled by top-shelf teams with star–studded cores.
With the 2018 postseason right around the corner, let’s put this in the simplest possible terms. When James has played against an inferior opponent in the playoffs, he’s virtually always won. When he’s played against an opponent that’s slightly better or slightly worse than his team, he’s never lost. But when his team has been meaningfully outgunned, he’s almost always gone down, no matter how brilliantly he’s played. Indeed, the 3–1 comeback over Golden State will endure as his crowning achievement because it is a gaudy exception to this rule.
Overall, James’s teams are 32–9 in playoff series. Here’s a quick breakdown of those series, comparing his teams to his playoff opponents based on the difference between their regular-season point differentials. For example, if James’s team had a +4 point differential and his opponent’s point differential was +1, the net point differential would be +3. Conversely, if James’s team had a minus-2 point differential and his opponent’s point differential was +2, the net point differential would be minus-4.
LeBron's Playoffs Series Record by NetPoint Differential
• Series record when > +2: 19–3
• Series record when +2 to minus-2: 12–0
• Series record when < minus-2: 1–6
Anyone assuming James will simply crank it up come May and waltz through the East again should think twice after looking at that track record. And Raptors fans, still sore from a hard-fought 132-129 road loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday, should find real hope. Because, as it stands, a Toronto/Cleveland postseason showdown would fall comfortably into that third category, requiring James to buck his own losing history against clearly superior teams in the playoffs.
Through Wednesday, Toronto boasts a franchise-record +8.43 point differential. That mark currently ranks fifth overall among teams James has faced in the playoffs and second among teams he’s faced in the East.
LeBron's Best Playoff Opponents by Point Differential
• 2017 Warriors: +11.63
• 2016 Warriors: +10.76
• 2008 Celtics: +10.26
• 2015 Warriors: +10.1
• 2018 Raptors: +8.43
Two postseasons ago, James famously said that he didn’t think a 2-2 series tie with Toronto qualified as a “really adverse situation.” Last year, he toyed with Toronto, needlessly spinning the ball before launching a jumper en route to a demoralizing sweep.
But these aren’t the same old Raptors from years past: their modernized offense is elite, their defense is stingier than last season, and their bench is the best in the league. They’ve been significantly more dominant by point differential than the 2015 Hawks and 2014 Pacers, among other notable recent examples.
Remarkably, James has only faced two teams in the playoffs with a more efficient regular-season offense than the Raptors (114.2 offensive rating): the 2017 Warriors and the 2016 Warriors.
LeBron's Best Playoff Opponents by Offensive Rating
• 2017 Warriors: 115.6 Offensive Rating
• 2016 Warriors: 114.5 Offensive Rating
• 2018 Raptors: 114.2 Offensive Rating
• 2017 Raptors: 112.3 Offensive Rating
• 2015 Warriors: 111.6 Offensive Rating
Toronto’s sharp ascent is only half the story, as Cleveland has simultaneously endured a hovering descent.
Through Wednesday, Cleveland has accumulated a +0.35 point differential during an injury-plagued and trade-altered season. That’s the lowest mark for a James team since 2008 (–0.35), three years before his Finals streak began. While Kevin Love is better than any of James’s sidekicks from 2008, Cleveland’s overall roster is less talented and less proven than any of his seven previous Finals teams. The twin crushing blows dealt by the Kyrie Irving trade and the failed Isaiah Thomas experiment have only been exacerbated by repeated bouts with the injury bug.
LeBron's Worst Playoff Teams by Point Differential
• 2008 Cavaliers: –0.35
• 2018 Cavaliers: +0.35
• 2006 Cavaliers: +2.23
• 2017 Cavaliers: +3.18
• 2007 Cavaliers: +3.83
The Cavaliers’ defensive struggles—a persistent problem that was on display again Wednesday despite their comeback win—represent a low-water mark for James’s career. In the past, including last season, James’s offensive brilliance was usually enough to make up for his team’s shortcomings on the other end.
That task will be even harder this season thanks to Irving’s departure, Cleveland’s health problems, and the many new teammates lacking in postseason experience. While James was able to single–handedly carry the Cavaliers through injuries to Love and Irving during the 2015 postseason, the 2018 Raptors are a more formidable foe than the East teams he survived that year.
LeBron's Worst Playoff Teams by Defensive Rating
• 2018 Cavaliers: 112 Defensive Rating
• 2017 Cavaliers: 110.3 Defensive Rating
• 2008 Cavaliers: 106.4 Defensive Rating
• 2015 Cavaliers: 106.3 Defensive Rating
• 2014 Heat: 105.8 Defensive Rating
Combine Toronto’s success together with Cleveland’s uneven play, and their potential postseason match-up currently shapes up as one of the biggest challenges of James’s career. At least on paper.
LeBron in the Playoffs: Biggest Challenges by Net Point Differential
1. 2008 Cavaliers: minus-0.35, Celtics: +10.26 = minus-10.6 net (James loss)
2. 2017 Cavaliers: +3.18, Warriors: +11.63 = minus-8.45 net (James loss)
3. 2018 Cavaliers: +0.35, Raptors: +8.43 = minus-8.08 net (TBD)
4. 2015 Cavaliers: +4.48, Warriors: +10.1 = minus-5.62 net (James loss)
5. 2016 Cavaliers: +6, Warriors: +10.76 = minus-4.76 net (James win)
6. 2007 Cavaliers: +3.83, Spurs: +8.43 = minus-4.6 net (James loss)
7. 2006 Cavaliers: +2.23, Pistons: +6.67 = minus-4.44 net (James loss)
8. 2014 Heat: +4.76 | Spurs: 7.72 = minus-2.96 net (James loss)
Seeing Toronto on this list alongside so many elite teams—including multiple champions—might feel off because it runs counter to prevailing narratives. The Raptors have an unremarkable postseason history and fell to James’s Cavaliers in 2016 and 2017. Their two All-Stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, have consistently struggled to transfer their regular-season mastery to the playoffs. And they don’t have proven game-changing defensive weapons like Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala to deploy on James.
Hold on, one might argue, the 2014 Spurs and 2015 Warriors were clearly better than the 2018 Raptors, right? Yes, sure. But don’t ignore the Cleveland half of the equation.
The 2018 Cavaliers, based on their track record to date, have been significantly worse than the 2014 Heat and the 2015 Cavaliers. James is playing arguably his best individual ball ever at age 33, but he’s still surrounded by his shakiest supporting cast of the past decade.
The last time similar conditions existed—when a relatively weak James-led team ran into an exceptional team in the East—Cleveland was bounced by Boston in 2008. And, as noted above, James’s teams are just 1–6 in playoff series when they’re facing a significant deficit by point differential. If not for Green’s mid-series punch to James in 2016 and the historic turnaround it prompted, that mark would be 0–7.
There’s certainly a strong argument to be made that James can dispatch of the Raptors again and advance to the Finals. James-led teams have repeatedly prevailed against higher-seeded opponents on the road. Toronto’s offense may come back to Earth in the playoffs. James may have his way with the Raptors’ wings. Love, crucially, is back on the court after missing a quarter of the season with a hand injury.
Even so, it’s been years since an East opponent has had as compelling a case to topple James as these Raptors. This won’t be their first rodeo. They have enjoyed great health all year. They have the offensive weapons and system to keep up in a shootout, as they showed during a blowout win in January and again on Wednesday. They have sufficient versatility to comfortably play big or small. Their star guards enjoy better individual match-ups than they did in past seasons. They have an excellent coach in Dwane Casey. And their second unit should force Cleveland to ride James for huge minutes.
Put it this way: If Toronto does knock out Cleveland to end James’s Finals streak, it shouldn’t be viewed as a stunning development. Painting it that way would both misunderstand Toronto’s consistent dominance this season and misread James’s past performance against top competition in the playoffs.