Playing host to the reigning Eastern Conference-champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors made a statement on national television Thursday night, smashing LeBron James and the Cavs by a score of 133-99, putting Toronto (29-11) 3.5 games ahead of Cleveland (26-15) in the standings. It didn't take long for the blowout to get underway, with the Raptors going up by six points after one quarter and taking a 25-point lead into halftime. The Raptors will likely look at Thursday night's contest as a statement game, but we've seen Toronto beat Cleveland in the regular season before—the question now is whether the Raptors can top the Cavaliers in the playoffs.
The Raptors met the Cavaliers in the postseason each of the past two years, and LeBron James put a dagger into the heart of Toronto's championship aspirations both times. The Raptors managed two home wins in 2016, losing the series 4-2, but were swept last season, losing by an average of over 15 points per game.
But after a dominating win that saw LeBron post a minus-22 rating, do the Raptors finally have some hope in taking down the East's perennial juggernaut?
The advantages that the Raptors have over the Cavaliers are youth and continuity, which are allowing Toronto to grow as a team, whereas many of Cleveland's players have reached their peaks (or are past them) and are playing with new teammates.
The Raptors' top 10 players in minutes per game are an average of just 25.7 years old. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers' top 10 players in minutes per game (excluding Derrick Rose, who has played just seven games and is dealing with yet another injury) are an average of 30.5 years old. Theoretically, the Raptors are in a position where they should improve every year, especially with the playoff experience their young players have been getting over the past few seasons, whereas many of the Cavaliers' players have already reached their potential and are possibly on the decline.
As for continuity, the Raptors' core of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas has been together since the 2012-13 campaign, and key contributor Serge Ibaka is now in his second season with the team after Toronto acquired him in a trade last year. And with the exception of Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, and rookie OG Anunoby, all of the Raptors' contributors have played for the team in prior seasons.
After losing to the Golden State Warriors in last year's Finals, the Cavaliers made some significant changes to their squad, not the least of which was trading away star point guard Kyrie Irving. Players like Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas, and Jeff Green are being relied on for over 20 minutes per game in their first season with the Cavaliers—they don't have the same experience playing with their teammates that many of the Raptors' players do.
Of course, what may make these advantages irrelevant is the NBA's all-time leader in playoff points, LeBron James. Regardless of where you stand in the dizzying, seemingly endless “Michael Jordan or LeBron James” debate, it is obvious that the Raptors don't have a weapon of LeBron's caliber. Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan is fully aware of this, saying after last year's playoff sweep, via Nunzio Ingrassia of FOX Sports, “If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would have won.”
Unfortunately for Toronto, the Raptors don't have LeBron on their team, leaving DeRozan as the player who has to put the team on his shoulders. DeRozan is enjoying another stellar season with 25.0 points per game while also improving his distribution ability (5.1 assists per game) and efficiency, especially from downtown (37.8 three-point field-goal percentage), but he doesn't measure up to LeBron in any notable metric. The Cavaliers' four-time MVP can dominate a game himself or set up others to light up the scoreboard; he stuffs the stat sheet while also bringing elite intangibles. The NBA is a league driven by stars, and if the Cavaliers end up in a playoff series rematch with the Raptors this season, LeBron will be far and away the greatest star on the court, as he usually is.
The Raptors may have the better record right now, but that doesn't make much of a difference to the LeBron and the Cavaliers. Since LeBron's return to Cleveland, the Cavs have had the best record in the East just one out of three years, but they easily coasted their way to the Finals in each of those seasons.
Once again, the Raptors have youth and continuity on their side. If they meet the Cavaliers in the playoffs in a few months, they'll likely give a better showing than they did in last year's demoralizing sweep. But when the games really matter and the bright lights are on, expect the greatest star on the court to shine. LeBron may be 33 years old, but he is still a virtually unstoppable force surrounded by players with savvy and postseason experience. It seems like every year we talk about why LeBron might not make it back to the Finals, but he's made it there seven consecutive seasons.
The Raptors are a very good basketball team. You don't get out to a 29-11 start without a talented squad. Given their potential for growth since last year's postseason, as well as the Cavaliers' possible decline given their aging players and the loss of Kyrie Irving, the Raptors could very well make life difficult for Cleveland in a playoff series. But at the end of the day, LeBron is still the king, and the Raptors won't be able to dethrone him.