Tom Bogert, CBS Local Sports
If in the last two years the Golden State Warriors had dragons to slay, castles to scale and princesses to save en route to the NBA Finals, then the Cleveland Cavaliers have been able to get in a luxury car and shift into cruise control on their own path to the same destination. In the East, there were no San Antonio Spurs, no Oklahoma City Thunder before the Warriors convinced Kevin Durant to join their noble quest, and this season there are no Houston Rockets to fight with nor have their been any Los Angeles Clippers or Utah Jazz to sweat over.
Last season, the Cavs yawned through a first round sweep of the Detroit Pistons in which they never got anywhere near revving LeBron James’ spaceship engine. They laughed at another futile challenge from the Atlanta Hawks in four games before shockingly losing twice to Toronto in the Conference Finals before advancing in six games. LeBron is literally on the record with his opinions that the series against Toronto was not an ‘adverse situation.’ That was mid-series. He clearly wasn’t worried.
Meanwhile, Golden State saw unanimous MVP Steph Curry slip in a bucket’s worth of Donatas Motiejunas back sweat, tweaking his knee, which may well be the most disgusting way an MVP has ever injured themselves in a playoff game. That was in the first round. They managed to finish that series and get through the second round with relative ease, though that’s not a thing that’ll happen this year. They won’t play Portland in the second round, they’ll likely play the winner of Jazz-Clippers. If it’s the former, that could be an especially laborious series.
After the Portland series, they needed seven games to dispose of the Thunder after going down 3-1. And they needed Klay Thompson to be the human form of an indefatigable blowtorch to even get to the finals.
This year the Warriors will have a similarly treacherous path, one that becomes that much more dangerous should Durant fail to recover fully from his own knee injury. (Thankfully, as hygiene goes, it was not caused by Donatas Motiejunas back sweat. He was rolled into by Zaza Pachulia, who looks like he has bad breath and overactive sweat glands, but just in the first few minutes of the game so it couldn’t have been that bad.)
For the Cavs, it won’t exactly be the same worry-free patch of basketball as it was last year. They’ll likely have to play one of the Raptors, Celtics or Wizards in the second round, then likely one of the other two in the Conference Finals. They’ll be heavily favored in both, but, don’t expect a few sweeps. Maybe general basketball fans will get lucky and see LeBron in an ‘adverse situation.’
That brings us to the question: which one of those three teams poses the biggest threat to the Cavs this postseason?
Starting with last year’s foe, the Raptors have reloaded with Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker, though those moves will have been for naught should Kyle Lowry’s broken wrist, his shooting wrist, disallows him to be his best self. Should his surgery, recovery and recalibration of his form go smoothly, then they’ll resemble a frisky team for the Cavs in the second or third round.
Maybe Ibaka will ruffle a few feathers.
Washington has surged after the first few weeks of the season and there’s no coincidence that it’s correlated with the healthiest stretch of Bradley Beal’s career. Finally, John Wall has a respectable supporting cast in the DMV. Their starting five is strong and for most of the season, the bench was moribund. It’s been injected with some life after the acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic and the signing of Brandon Jennings to alleviate some pressure off the starting five.
They score at a top level, but they struggle to defend. Would you really take your chances on simply outscoring the Cavaliers?
Despite the strong starting five in Washington as well as the aggressive, smart moves the Raptors have made this season, the Celtics pose the largest threat to the Cavaliers this postseason. They have no health questions, like the Raptors do with one of their top two players, and they run further than seven or eight players deep like the Wiz. On top of all that, they have the best coach of these teams, Cavs included.
Brad Stevens gives Boston the edge in at least one category against the Cavaliers, and his team can defend. They’re deep and have multiple defenders who can be thrown at whichever of the Cavs big three starts percolating. They also have multiple scoring options, and excellent role players.
Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if Isaiah Thomas will score crunch time baskets when LeBron inevitably decides it’s his time to step up and check the diminutive Celtics guard. Then Boston will be stuck in the same sports talk purgatory of “WHO IS GOING TO GET YOU A BUCKET LATE IN THE GAME IN THE PLAYOFFS????” that they have been until Thomas’ current season of Screw Your Height Bias Tour.
At any rate, none of these teams are the elite contenders like the Spurs or Rockets. None pose the problems that the Jazz can cause, and none have a trio that’d supersede that of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan. The Cavs, again, have the easier route back to the finals, and it looks likely that LeBron’s hegemony on the Eastern Conference will continue another year.
But it won’t be as easy. And the Cavs might be pushed a bit.