It’s NBA Playoffs time folks, or as fans of the NBA should call it — the “LeBron James’ NBA Finals Walk-Through.”
LeBron James has put together one of the most remarkable runs of any player in NBA history. Ever since he entered the league, he has been a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference, and the reason why many teams besides his own miss out on the opportunity to make the NBA Finals.
He has been to the Finals in seven consecutive years, tied for fourth all-time behind Frank Ramsey with eight, Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones with nine, and Bill Russell with 10. All of the players ranked ahead of James played together in Boston at some point in their careers, making LeBron’s feat slightly more impressive considering his streak continued even after he left the Miami Heat to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers.
However, all good things must come to an end, and this year looks like LeBron’s toughest path to the Finals ever. In his eight career Finals appearances, James has always entered the playoffs as a one or two seed.
This season, LeBron James and the Cavaliers will enter the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs begin on April 14. Being the fourth seed will make every round tougher than normal for LeBron and the Cavs because the level of competition is better throughout the playoffs.
In the first round, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be matched up against the Indiana Pacers, a team they lost to three out of four times during the regular season. The Pacers finished the regular season with a 48-34 record, and overachieved in a season that many thought was lost after Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The two pieces the Pacers received in exchange for Paul George, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, were two young assets that general manager Kevin Pritchard could pair alongside Myles Turner as building blocks for the franchise moving forward.
Oladipo and Sabonis have both benefited greatly from their move to the Pacers, as both are having career years.
Oladipo has been absolutely sensational for Indiana this season, stepping up as the leader of the team and filling up the stat sheet. He is averaging 23.1 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists per game. Also of note is his defensive prowess, as he is averaging 2.4 steals per game. His tremendous year in leading the Pacers back to the playoffs earned him his first career All-Star game appearance.
As for the big man inside, he has been a major contribution coming off the bench to relieve starter Thaddeus Young. Sabonis is averaging 11.6 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game all while shooting 51.4 percent from the field.
All year the Pacers have been doubted, and all year they have kept on winning. They are without a doubt a team that has just the right mix of veteran leadership and young talent along with the “playing with nothing to lose” mentality that could propel them deep into the postseason.
Some potential challenges that the Pacers could present the Cavaliers with are present both on the perimeter and in the paint.
On the perimeter, guards Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo both like to penetrate into the lane and score the basketball, or kick it out to open teammates if a shot is not there. Putting constant pressure on a sometimes suspect Cleveland defense can cause the Cavs to get out of sorts defensively and be the opening the Pacers need offensively to be able to do damage to them.
The Pacers have an abundance of quality big men that they can throw at teams inside, and that will be a huge advantage for them against the Cavaliers because they do not have many big guys who play under the basket.
Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Trevor Booker, and Domantas Sabonis are all big men who have been good for the Pacers this season. Furthermore, they also have Al Jefferson and T.J. Leaf who could play sparingly if need be. Their opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, really only play three true big men. They have Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., and Tristan Thompson. It is clear that the Pacers clearly have the advantage over the Cavaliers inside and if their guards come to play then Cleveland better not look past the Pacers or they will find themselves watching the second round of the playoffs from home.
The most likely second-round match-up for LeBron and company would be the number one overall seed in the East, the Toronto Raptors.
At first sight, Cavaliers fans might be chomping at the bit to have an opportunity to play the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs. After all, the Cavaliers have faced the Raptors in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, once in the Eastern Conference Finals and then again in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Their combined record in both of the series is 8-2, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals showdown.
Looking at the numbers and seeing the Cavaliers dominance against them the last two years in the playoffs, should there be any reason to worry, Cavs fans? The answer is yes. There should definitely be concern over a potential match-up in the second round with the Toronto Raptors.
First, I believe that the Cavaliers will be coming off at least a six, and potentially seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, meaning that the series was very grueling on the team and all its players. The same could not be said for the Raptors, who could take care of their first-round opponent, the Washington Wizards, in five or six games.
Second, the Raptors have home court advantage in a place where they have set a franchise record for home wins in a season at 34, and tied the Houston Rockets for the best home record during the regular season at 34-7.
Lastly, the Raptors are a very good and balanced basketball team led by two All-Star guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Similar to the problems that the Cavaliers could have when facing the Indiana Pacers, they could face once again when going up against the Raptors.
Both Lowry and DeRozan are masters at getting into the lane at will and causing havoc for opposing defenses all game. On the interior, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Jonas Valanciunas, and Jakob Poeltl are all very talented and hard to contain.
The bench unit for the Raptors has been very consistent and solid all year long, allowing the Raptors to have such a great year. Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are both guards who do a little bit of everything with regards to points, rebounds, and assists. I believe that their biggest strengths, though, are their ability to take care of the ball and shoot the three.
Between the two of them combined, they only average 2.1 turnovers per game. As for shooting from long distance, Delon Wright shot 36.9 percent and Fred VanVleet shot 41.3 percent. C.J. Miles has also been a nice acquisition for the Raptors this year, as he is averaging 10 points per game on 36.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
All in all, the Raptors would be a tough out for the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs if they were to face each other there.
Then, the Eastern Conference Finals would await Cleveland if they were to get by the Pacers and the Raptors (assuming they handle their business against Washington) in the opening two rounds. In my opinion, they would face the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that is taking the longest winning streak into the playoffs in NBA history at 16 games in a row, and would have many of the same advantages that both the Pacers and the Raptors boasted against the Cavs.
The 76ers would have home court advantage, which is huge for a young and inexperienced team like Philadelphia to have when going up against a team led by LeBron James that has made it to the Finals three years in a row.
In Philadelphia, it finally seems that the trust the process saying is coming to fruition, as the 76ers are on a terror right now and do not look to be slowing down anytime soon, thanks in part to Ben Simmons being otherworldly in his play on the court. He is averaging 15.9 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game, and 8.2 assists per game playing in his first season in the NBA. At 6′ 10″, 230 lbs, Simmons has been compared to NBA greats LeBron James and Magic Johnson.
His size and athleticism at the point guard position will no doubt create problems for the Cavaliers at both ends of the floor. Along with him, center Joel Embiid is the other budding star that currently leads and will continue to lead the 76ers into the future. Although Embiid was hurt at the conclusion of the regular season, he will be back for Philadelphia, and used to playing while wearing a mask on his face by the time they face the Cavaliers in a potential Eastern Conference Finals showdown.
Philadelphia has many good players outside of stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid who, if they produce in the playoffs, can help them win the Eastern Conference.
Players such as Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Amir Johnson, J.J. Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, T.J. McConnell, and Marco Belinelli can all positively impact the game when they are in and help the 76ers win games in the postseason. Come playoff time, the rotation might shrink, but if called upon Philadelphia has multiple players that can produce.
With a potential playoff path versus the fifth seed Indiana Pacers, one seed Toronto Raptors, and third seed Philadelphia 76ers — LeBron and his fourth seeded Cleveland Cavaliers will have a tough time making it back to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year.
While I would not be surprised if the Cavaliers do not make the Finals, the last thing anyone should do is count out a LeBron James led team becoming Eastern Conference champions, as that is something he has accomplished in eight of his fourteen seasons thus far, looking to make nine Finals appearances in fifteen seasons.