Tony Dejak/Associated Press
The three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers will likely have to go through the conference-leading Toronto Raptors to reach the NBA Finals again, and LeBron James believes the opposition is in “a better place” than his squad ahead of Wednesday’s meeting between the two teams.
“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”
Toronto has run the show in the Eastern Conference this season and sits five games ahead of the second-seeded Boston Celtics and 11.5 games ahead of a Cavaliers squad battling for seeding at this point.
It is easy to point to Cleveland’s recent postseason dominance over the Raptors and assume it will happen again after James and Co. swept them in the second round last season and beat them in six games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, but this isn’t the same Cleveland team.
Kyrie Irving is on the Boston Celtics, and Kevin Love has dealt with health issues for extended stretches, leaving James with a mix of second-rate options.
There has also been serious roster turnover as Cleveland traded Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert and added George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood in February. Even though it brought talented players aboard, it still takes time to develop chemistry with one another.
What’s more, head coach Tyronn Lue has temporarily stepped away over health concerns.
On the other side, James pointed to the Raptors’ continuity, especially with the two key cogs in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan leading the way.
This is also a deeper Toronto team with players such as Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles capable of maintaining the momentum of the go-to options when they enter the game. According to NBA.com, Toronto’s bench is third in the league in offensive rating and first in defensive rating.
The Raptors handled the Cavaliers with ease in their first meeting on Jan. 11, 133-99, and will look to prove once again they are the team to beat in the East in Wednesday’s showdown.