The odds are against the Toronto Raptors escaping a sweep when they face-off against LeBron James and his ravenous Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. For the 13th time in his professional career, his team leads a playoff series 3-0. Only twice has the other team avoided being swept; LeBron and the (whichever team) gang, had completed a wipe-out the other 10 times.
The Raptors were always going to have a battle on their hands in the bid to topple a Cavaliers side that sat atop the Eastern Conference for a long period during the regular season, before injuries slowed them down. The Cavs then decided to wait for the postseason before launching their Championship charge, the Raptors were just another obstacle to surmount.
Cleveland’s 3-0 lead in this series is a repeat of their postseason run of last term, the Cavs did not drop a game until they got to the Conference Finals, where Toronto took both games at the Air Canada Arena. But then again, the Cavaliers have dropped only two games in the East each postseason since the return of LeBron: two games in the Conference Semifinals against Chicago in 2015 (swept the first round and the Conference Finals), and two games against Toronto in 2016 (swept the first two rounds). No team recovered after going down 3-0.
The Raptors are victims of a season-long, star-stuck ailment: they seldom get production from their All-Stars the same day, and that has affected them this postseason. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry may have made the All-Star team the last two years, but they seldom show up big for the Raptors on the same night. DeRozan and Lowry made the All-Star team by carrying the Raptors on different days. The second game of this series underlined that fragility. DeRozan, who averaged 27.3 points per game and was averaging 22.4ppg in the playoffs, delivered just 5 points in 31 minutes, in a 125-103 loss. Then the Raptors lost Lowry in Game 2 to injury.
The arrival of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams breathed a new life into a tiring Cavaliers. The injuries they suffered mid-season exposed the thinness of the squad. The arrival of Korver, who brings a hefty dose of three-point shooting, and Williams (3-time All-Star point guard), ensured that the Cavaliers were going to be more dangerous in the playoffs, especially when the injured stars returned. The Raptors may have realised it then; it changed the dynamics of a future meeting.
Then, there is the injury to Kyle Lowry. The rise of the Raptors is largely based on the ball skills of Lowry, coupled with the one-two punch his partnership with DeRozan provides. When Lowry sprained his ankle in the third quarter of Game 3, his team organisation, the 15.8ppg and almost six assists he delivers per game, went out the window and made what was already a difficult series, almost impossible to win.
Then, there is the ascendancy of LeBron James. Yeah, ascendancy. The best basketball player in the world found a way to be better. Until now, Michael Jordan, the man LeBron is often compared with, held the record for most points averaged by any player in the postseason. Between 1995 and 1998, Jordan’s averages swung between 31.6ppg and 33.6ppg per game; all records. LeBron is averaging 34.3ppg now, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. When the king is playing like that, his team is unstoppable. He’s scored 35, 39 and 35 so far in this series; LeBron will be determined to finish off the Raptors on Sunday night and its live on Kwesé Sports 1 at 21:30 CAT.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi