2018 NBA Playoff Thoughts, Eastern Conference Semifinals Edition (Sunday, May 6)

A brief journey through the East’s two second-round series. The ins, the outs, and the now whats?

(1) Toronto Raptors vs (4) Cleveland Cavs

Oops, I mean…

(1) Cleveland Cavs vs (4) Toronto Raptors

or, to be really specific…

(1) Something Resembling the Toronto Raptors regular season team vs (4) LeBron James, Kevin Love, and a few others like JR Smith and Kyle Korver hitting big threes.

It’s as if the trades Cleveland made in February were about clearing the debris after a storm. The house was still intact. No flooding. Just lots of stray branches and twigs and minor damage to the patio furniture. LeBron apparently doesn’t age. His hairline recedes a bit and his beard grows, but he is still bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone attempting to guard him. And now he hits threes pretty consistently.

What an existential condition for the Raptors and their fans. You spend six months convincing yourself that the wins matter. That the new-look offense is real. That the bench depth and their dominance is important to your playoff hopes. And then the falling Cavs, who’ve vanquished them innumerable times in the past several years, fall out of the third spot and drop to fourth, leaving the Sixers with the 3rd seed. During the first round, the Cavs were bogged down by the Pacers length and tenacity. Indiana just didn’t have enough around Oladipo to score consistently. A tense 7-game series ensued between the Cavs and Pacers, but of course, as is the case with existential conditions… the forces of nature…gravity, mortality, and LeBron won.

So the Raptors pushed past the beleaguered Wizards, who missed John Wall for most of the second half of the season, but got a very good version of John Wall for most of the first round. DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas did enough. The defense and the bench rose up in the biggest moments of Game 5 and 6, and the stage was once again set for Raptors-Cavs.

And then Toronto’s young fellas (Anunoby, Siakam, and Van Vleet) showed cracks in the armor. VanVleet’s shoulder isn’t right, but he’s playing through it after missing the first 4 games of the first round. Siakam is athletic and long, but not too useful in half-court offensive sets. Anunoby may became a great 3-and-D wing. He might have begun making that leap in last night’s Game 3. Serge Ibaka, possibly the biggest x-factor for Toronto when it comes to playoff defense and taking some pressure off DeRozan and Lowry, had a brutal first two games of the series. But all of it points to the pressure on Toronto because they are facing LeBron James.

When Toronto went up 14 points after the first quarter of Game 1, things seemed slightly different. The crowd wasn’t nervous, the way they get when things get tight and they fear the worst. Cleveland’s lack of defensive presence seemed to portend good things. But then…stopped me if you’ve heard this before…LeBron took over. The game went to overtime. The Cavs won by a point. The Raptors, whose regular season focus got them to 59 wins, lost home court as soon as the dust settled on Game 1. A Game 2 thumping by the Cavs in Toronto just erased the concept of playoff home games. The fans who attended that game are not doing so well. Then, last night.

Kyle Lowry nearly willed Toronto all the way back from a 16-point 3rd quarter deficit. With DeRozan on the bench, and Fred VanVleet by his side, Lowry took over, Anunoby started draining 25-footers, and the Raptors came all the way back, knotting the score at 103…only to have LeBron bank home the game winner like he was trying new angles all by himself in his driveway.

Game 3: Cavs 105, Raptors 103. A 3–0 lead. That’s that.

Suddenly, the last six months fade out. Yes, they matter. The Raptors are better than they have been. DeRozan is a better shooter than he used to be. The trio of young reserves are still helpful in the big moments. Still, the sting of two nail-biting losses and a 3–0 hole make consolation difficult. LeBron is not retired. LeBron is not in the Western Conference. LeBron remains inevitable.

(2) Boston Celtics vs (3) Philadelphia 76ers

What also appears inevitable in this year’s playoffs is the undeniably unflappable Boston Celtics. Many things had to go right for the Celtics to win both Game 2 and Game 3. The list might go a dozen items deep. Rather than list them, here’s a thought: If Brad Stevens flipped a coin 100 times, would the coin land on heads 70 times? 80 times? Not because the law of averages doesn’t apply to Stevens, but because he probably knows something about flipping coins that most of us don’t, and good things seem to happen around him.

The after-time-out plays. The rotation decisions. The egalitarian confidence he and his staff instill in everyone. The ability for most Celtics players to put aside their egos when their number isn’t called (Rozier early in the season, Marcus Morris at times during the middle of the year, Greg Monroe now that his minutes are down) in order to help the team. Brad Stevens isn’t the only reason Boston is one win away from the East Finals. But when you preach, “Next play,” and “Next game” and meticulously avoid getting caught up in the ego-driven ups and downs of a season, a team builds resilience. The coach isn’t about ego.

The lone star Celtic remaining, Al Horford, is the closest parallel to Tim Duncan the NBA has seen in a while. Horford continues to be the center of everything the Celtics do. Horford is Mr. Stability, Mr. Self-less and now into Mr. Adaptability. Defensively, Horford has been a quiet menace throughout the playoffs. Whether its Giannis or Joel Embiid, Horford’s physicality is clever, his arms are straight up or spread wide, and his presence is felt. Shooting threes, setting picks, and finding the open man. After Kyrie’s absence, its become clear just how valuable Al Horford is.

Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum are flowing, within the offense, picking their spots and taking advantage of Al Horford and Aron Baynes screens.

The Celtics and Sixers finished 1st and 2nd in the NBA in defending the three-point line (Boston giving up only 33.7% on defended threes, while the Sixers gave up 34.2% on defended threes.) This excludes wide-open three-pointers. As a result, both teams have had to work hard to score in Games 2 and 3. The physicality was at peak-levels in the second half of Game 3. The stretches of intense defense were remarkable. At Game 3 may as well have come down to the flip of a coin. Stevens called it.

Celtics win in overtime, 101–98.

Boston leads 3–0. Game 4 on Monday.

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