After consecutive years of being nothing more than a speed bump on James’ road to the NBA Finals, the Raptors are in prime position to change their fortunes when they face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semi-finals.
Toronto has nearly everything working in its favour, from home-court advantage, to additional rest having wrapped up their series in six games – Cleveland needed seven – to ultimately being the better overall team.
And yet the one thing they have working against them may end up being the most important factor of all: James is still standing in the way.
You can forgive Raptors fans for having nightmares of the past two playoff meetings with the Cavaliers, which saw James sweep Toronto with ease last season and cruise past them in six games the year before.
The circumstances and rosters, however, have dramatically changed, with the Raptors proving to be the best team in the East this season, while Cleveland has had to rely on James more than ever to get them to this point.
And after the Cavaliers had to scrap and claw just to get out of the first round against Indiana, it’s clear Cleveland shouldn’t strike the same fear into Toronto that they have in the past.
So while James’ presence always gives the Cavaliers more than a fighting chance, the Raptors have reason to be confident, with their depth and balance equating to a significant advantage.
Are the Raptors better prepared to knock off the Cavs this year than they were in years past?— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) April 29, 2018
DeRozan: "No question. No question. I feel it. We all have that confidence."
Toronto could have handled the Washington Wizards a little easier in the first round, but their blueprint for success in the regular season translated to their first playoff series, which was an encouraging sign.
For comparison, Cleveland had six players in total average that many points, with James’ mark of 34.4 making up 36.2 per cent of the team’s scoring.
The Cavaliers received key contributions from the likes of Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson and George Hill in the first round, but still needed James to score more than 40 points for three of the wins.
It’s fair to wonder how much longer James can do it all, especially against better competition.
Aside from demoralising Toronto even further, a series loss to Cleveland would potentially end the Raptors’ best chance at reaching the Finals for the foreseeable future, with Philadelphia and Boston on the rise and appearing to be the class of the East for years to come.
Which is why it isn’t hyperbole to say the Raptors have to beat the Cavaliers.
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