By the end, even LeBron James couldn’t believe what was happening.
In the dying moments of his team’s 110-93 whipping by the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night, cameras caught James sitting on the Cavaliers bench, staring disconsolately into the vast nothingness.
He’d come out fairly vibrating with intensity. As you may have heard, things are not going quite to script in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers were up by 18 points within four minutes. That speed burst lasted a single quarter. Cleveland spent the next three sliding into the ditch. The knife was fully stuck in by Toronto’s Lou Williams, who repeatedly embarrassed James one-on-one. Williams scored a career-high 36 points, and looked like he could’ve scored 80 if he’d felt the urge.
Williams only rated a news brief when he was brought here over the summer, as part of the deal to get rid of John Salmons. Right now, he may be the best off-season pick-up by value in the entire NBA – and that’s including James.
Williams for Salmons doesn’t just seem like a great deal any more. It seems like it ought to prompt a criminal investigation.
“This is not even the lowest it’s going to get for us,” James said afterward, surprising America with the news that there can be something worse than losing to Canadians at basketball.
There was a Freaky Friday feel to the whole thing. One of these teams was supposed to walk away with the East. And it’s the other one actually doing it.
Toronto didn’t just dominate – they swaggered. Even behind by 20, you could sense their ease. They knew they were coming back.
James and his Cleveland co-workers left the opposite impression – brittle, waiting for the sandbag to come out of the rafters.
“We’re a very fragile team right now,” James said. “Any little adversity hits us, we just shell up.”
A week ago, you figured Cleveland would work out the kinks. Just by himself, James should be able to drag this team to a final.
Now, you’re not so sure. They may still be great. But that ‘may’ is beginning to pulsate in the background. Eventually, it will completely undo them.
And if Cleveland isn’t the best team in the East, I’ve got some alarming news for you – Toronto is.
We knew the Raptors would be good. We had no idea they could be this good. What’s happening here is beyond numbers and rotations. It’s alchemy. This roster fits together perfectly. They have what great teams have – contentment. Each man knows his place and is comfortable in it. With due respect to general manager Masai Ujiri, you can’t build a team like this. It just has to happen.
You wish you could go back in time, to the start of the season, and truffle out a prediction from every guy in the room. Not one would have given themselves any chance of winning their conference.
“I haven’t heard one person in our locker room talk about where we are in the standings,” coach Dwane Casey said Saturday. Just because they aren’t talking about it, doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking it. I’ll bet you anything they’ve started thinking it.
They’re 11-2, and already six games ahead of the competition in their division. The Atlantic is already won. That puts them no worse than fourth in the East come playoff time.
That was the optimistic guess at the start of the year – third or fourth, with a decent shot at winning a playoff round.
But this run to the top suddenly looks sustainable. They are beating teams every which way, at both ends of the floor. Every night, there’s a new hero, and usually off the bench. This team is talented, but just as importantly, it’s deep. It’s built to travel the distance of a season.
No other Eastern squad has quite the same advantage.
The Cavaliers are edging toward a Lakers-level meltdown. It doesn’t look as if Derrick Rose will ever get back to fully fit, which pushes Chicago’s dial toward mediocrity.
Washington’s been great, except for that time two weeks ago they got annihilated at the Air Canada Centre. Where Dwyane Wade goes, Miami will follow – so far, so good, but history suggests there’s at least one major breakdown coming.
Everyone else has problems. The Raptors have solutions. As long as they remain healthy, there is no reason for them to fade.
There is a large part of you that would like to see them embrace their new status as front-runners. That’s another defining characteristic of great teams – they don’t pretend anything short of titles will satisfy them.
It’s still early days in that regard.
As the season gets better and better, everyone connected to the Raptors has gotten quieter and quieter. They’re terrified of jinxing things. That’s the exact word. After an orgiastic early season column, one of the team’s execs came to me fretfully and said, “Don’t jinx us.”
They’re beyond jinxes now, but they still push the underdog angle hard. Even Williams – who’s only been here for a few weeks – spent much of Saturday’s postgame talking about “respect” and the old “chip on the shoulder.”
It sounds a little tinny considering how many opposing coaches and players are lining up to heap praise on this squad. U.S. outlets are falling over themselves trying to be the first to ‘discover’ this team.
But if that’s what Williams & Co. require as motivational fodder, continue on with the imaginary poor mouthing.
That’s what makes this team so different from any Raptors side of the past. Those squads, even the good ones, were always asking for respect. City by city, this one is taking it.Report Typo/Error