There's a legitimate race for the No. 1 seed in the NBA Eastern Conference, with the Cavaliers feeling pressure from the Raptors. But Cleveland appears to be sleepwalking through the season and Toronto hasn't won a playoff series in 15 years. Is there reason to have faith in either team? This week's FLANNS & ZILLZ focuses on the rivals.
FLANNERY: Before Steph Curry went bonkers on Saturday night, Kyle Lowry had the signature game of the weekend when he led the Raptors over Cleveland on Friday night. That game had everything: huge comeback, great crowd, late-game heroics. It impacted the standings and the psyches of both clubs. The outcome even had LeBron questioning his team's mental stability.
And by Monday morning no one remembers it. Blame the Warriors, mostly, but also blame the Cavs for sleepwalking through a game in Washington and the Raptors for getting run out of Detroit. I don't trust either of these teams, honestly.
ZILLER: This is the problem with the Raptors. I really want to believe they can take the Cavaliers in a prospective Eastern conference finals series. Lowry was unstoppable on Friday, and has been almost the entire season. Jonas Valanciunas is coming into his own, and DeMar DeRozan is a stud who gives Cleveland fits. But Sunday's beatdown at the hands of Detroit was a stark reminder that this team hasn't won anything. They are within striking distance of the No. 1 seed, and they put in a huge letdown effort against a mediocre team. The Raptors have famously underperformed in the playoffs, so winning a big game against Cleveland should be a nice sign Toronto's learned to win with the bright lights on. They fold to a lesser foe two days later.
The Cavaliers have been uninspiring since the Ty Lue bump wore off. That win over the Spurs seems like forever ago. What strikes me recently is that this team is nowhere close to where the 2011-12 Miami Heat were. None of the awe, none of the certainty. With two younger co-stars and a deeper roster, weren't the Cavs supposed to be better?
FLANNERY: I'm the guy who almost talked himself into thinking they were going to be a 70-win team last summer, so yeah, I thought they'd be better. (Thank you for letting me talk myself out of that, by the way. The summer heat does weird things to me, apparently.)
Here's what truly bothers me about this Cavs team: They have letdowns when they shouldn't have letdowns. Blowing that lead against the Raptors was bad. Getting hammered by the Wizards without LeBron was worse, because here was a chance for the supporting cast to assert themselves and they fell flat on their faces. I'm excepting Kyrie Irving out of that, and he's clearly become the No. 2 guy for that team.
It's not even that they don't respond to challenges. You mentioned the Spurs game. Great example. They beat the Thunder twice. We know they're capable, they just don't play up to their potential as much as we'd like and that tends to be a big problem. Very few teams can get away with that and most of them have championships in their back pocket.
ZILLER: I go back and forth on this because the Cavs truly can get away with this through probably two playoff rounds and maybe three, and there's no chance they fall below No. 2 in the conference in the regular season. The regular season margin of error is huge for Cleveland. They ran Boston a year ago, and would be massive favorites against Miami, Indiana, Atlanta and whoever else is in play for the second round.
Toronto poses a threat ... in late May. That's so far away! Part of me thinks Cleveland knows to pace itself and is just not mentally ready to hit the gas. On the other hand, they are giving the Raptors confidence and maybe home-court advantage. That's risky!
How telling and/or weird is it that Joe Johnson chose Miami over Cleveland? I mean, it's all spring. The weather can mean but so much.
FLANNERY: I don't know how telling it is, I mean it's Joe Johnson. He's always done his own thing.
You're getting to the heart of what makes me worried about the Cavs. They have coasted and they've been as successful as you can be without getting that gold trophy. Everything you say is true, but I don't agree that they've learned how to pace themselves, nor do I think they've earned the right to pace themselves. LeBron apparently feels the same way, given his public comments throughout the season.
But, I'm with you in that I don't see anyone in the East who can beat them in the conference playoffs. I give Toronto the best chance, but I still can't fully trust the Raptors either for all the reasons you mentioned earlier. So, let's make the case.
Um ... you, first.
ZILLER: Well Lowry is at his peak, Irving is a poor defender and even Matthew Dellavedova isn't suited to slow down the strong, aggressive Lowry. Kyrie is a master ball-handler and driver and could cause Toronto problems on the other end, but I think this is one of two teams in the East where Cleveland loses the PG matchup.
I think DeRozan can punish the Cavs going to the rim as well. The Raptors' big problem will be in trying to expose Cleveland's most glaring weakness (pick and roll defense with Love) -- Patrick Patterson needs to get hot and stay there.
Cleveland has the best player in any series until the Finals, and Playoff LeBron is a special kind of force. The Cavs have that advantage and more offensive talent. But in my estimation T-Dot has far more than a puncher's chance. (Of course I would have said the same of Atlanta at this point last season.)
FLANNERY: I would have too and that series was a real eye-opener for me in terms of how LeBron can still steamroll opponents during the playoffs.
My issue is that I want to see the Raptors win a playoff series before I get too excited about them. That's really what it comes down to for me, and maybe even them, as well. Lowry's playing great, and I've been a fan of his since his Philly days, but he got swallowed up in the playoffs the last few years. DeRozan has been terrific, and I've been in his corner for years, but will he be able to draw fouls and make enough shots to keep defenses honest in May? And then the other guys -- Patterson, Terrence Ross, etc. -- have to make shots. DeMarre Carroll is a huge question mark.
They have absolutely convinced me that they have become a very good team, but the postseason is different on so many levels. If they can put those first-round demons behind them, then we'll have a better handle on them. I wouldn't give them a free pass in any second round matchup either.
Both of us agree that Toronto has the best chance to give Cleveland a run, but is there anyone else in the East you see as a potential spoiler?
ZILLER: No. I want to be more verbose and talk about the potential for Chris Bosh to return, for the Celtics to take it to another level, for the Hawks to come roaring back. But no. I don't believe it. You?
FLANNERY: Not really, but I do believe a few of those things can happen. (Don't sleep on Paul George and the Pacers!) My prediction is for an unsettling version of the status quo that leaves no one particularly satisfied.
God, the East is depressing.
ZILLER: "An unsettling version of the status quo that leaves no one particularly satisfied" is the bleakest NBA-related thing I've read in weeks, and I looked at the Kings' transaction history just a couple days ago. Nice work, Paul.
FLANNERY: This season has turned me into a nihilist.