LeBron's Streak Comes to an End
March 12, 2018 - Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America
Last season the doubts got pretty loud about the Cleveland Cavaliers being able to reach the Finals. They were 10-14 over their final 24 games and were one of the worst defenses in the league over that stretch as well. I was one of the people thinking that it was over for the Cavaliers, but they showed up for the playoffs and absolutely dominated the competition going 12-1 in the East before losing in 5 games to the Warriors.
Despite going to the Finals every year since 2011, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to miss the Finals this year thanks to an improved Toronto Raptors team and some roster issues for the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
Let’s start with the roster issues for Cleveland. The Cavaliers made some big roster moves by trading for Rodney Hood, George Hill, Larry Nance, and Jordan Clarkson in February. Since those moves the team has gone 8-7, but their record against teams with winning records is just 3-6. Despite the Cavaliers' struggles against some of those teams they have managed to show some great improvement defensively with a defensive rating over the last 15 games that would put them at 12th in the league. That is a huge improvement, but their season defensive rating is still quite bad, 28th to be exact.
This is the part where you say that the defensive improvement shows that they will be better come playoff time and that they can turn on the switch like last season. In addition, Kevin Love has yet to play with these new players and he will unlock so much for the Cavaliers in the playoffs. There is a huge problem with that argument and it is the absence of Kyrie Irving.
Last season in the playoffs, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were in isolation a great deal, they ranked 2nd and 5th respectively in isolations per game during the post-season. Kyrie Irving was a huge safety valve for an offensive juggernaut that relied on Kyrie and LeBron's isolation brilliance to get open three point shots for their teammates. The question now is who fills that role for this team? George Hill is not that type of player and is averaging just 0.5 isolations per game with Cleveland. That shifts the focus to the young gunners, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson and Hood have similar numbers with the Cavaliers and it is unlikely that they are going to somehow change their play between now and the playoffs.
That brings us to the three point barrage that was the Cleveland offense in the playoffs. They shot over 40% in each of their three Eastern Conference playoff match-ups. They blew the doors off of the Raptors and Celtics shooting an unbelievable 46.6% against the Raptors and 43.6% against the Celtics. Can the Cavaliers hope for that same level of shooting?
Jordan Clarkson has been a 35% shooter from three this season, although he has been hot in his time with the Cavaliers. Rodney Hood and George Hill are more accomplished shooters and have career averages closer to 40%, but have struggled since coming to Cleveland. Hood is at 31% in his time with Cleveland and Hill is
close to 35% since the trade. Cleveland returns Kyle Korver and Kevin Love should be back in time, but Channing Frye's minutes are going to a non-shooting big man in Larry Nance, which could be troublesome if Nance plays next to Tristan Thompson.
Now that we have discussed the Cavaliers' roster, let's look at the other reason for my belief that the streak is over for LeBron, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors teams of the last two seasons were good, but played a certain style that did not seem to translate well to the playoffs. Their two big guns, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry seemed to have a great deal of trouble shooting the ball. It would be easy to dismiss this Raptors team as a dominant regular season team that will struggle when it matters, but this team has been different.
Their three point attempts per game have gone up by almost 35% and their point differential has doubled from last season's 4.3 to 8.6 points per game. That jump alone is enough to take notice of a team that has found something offensively. In addition, Dwane Casey has lowered the minutes of his superstars and has expanded his bench to ensure that the Raptors have players that they can count on. While it is not a guarantee that DeRozan and Lowry will not struggle again in the postseason, they are coming into the playoffs fresher than they have ever been.
The Raptors also have been one of the best defensive teams in the league when it comes to defending the three point shot. They allow the least three point makes per game in the league at just under 9 per game. Maintaining that kind of defense can be difficult, but the Raptors have the personnel to play any kind of style and they are loaded on the perimeter with smart players that play good defense. The addition of rookie OG Anunoby is also big because they have someone they can throw at Lebron James. While no one is going to stop LeBron James, Anunoby played him well enough in a blowout win for the Raptors.
These two teams played once this season, but it was in the midst of Cleveland's tailspin and they were embarrassed by 34 points. The Cavaliers have made some big changes since then and they have two more games against the Raptors this season. The first being this week on Wednesday. I am excited to see the new look Cavaliers taking on this Raptors team. After going 1-7 against the Cavaliers last year, it would be a huge confidence boost to the Raptors to sweep the season series against LeBron.
There is a chance that the Cavaliers have another run in them, but something feels different about this year. Watching this Raptors team has been awesome this season and I am hoping for a great series between two great teams. Watching teams get swept in the Conference Finals is awful. The Raptors seem poised for a deep playoff run and the King is trying desperately to hold onto his throne. It should be exciting.