Cavs still kings, for now
As long as LeBron James remains in Cleveland, the Cavaliers are the team to beat for any team pining to get out of the East.
Despite all the noise, drama, finger-pointing, there was no way the Cavs weren’t going to make the post-season, unless James suddenly gets shut down with an injury.
And given his history of always persevering through whatever discomfort, it simply wasn’t going to happen.
Now with the Cavs getting younger, more athletic and, on paper, more inclined to play team-first basketball, the James-led gang continues to be the team the likes of Boston, Toronto — and perhaps even Washington — must dethrone.
In a seven-game series, it still seems daunting for anyone to beat LeBron four times, but time will tell.
“In my opinion they still have one of the best players in the world and whether they had the old team or this team, I feel it’s the same,’’ said Raptors president Masai Ujiri. “He’s the constant. That’s the way I feel about it.
“All the chaos that was being made about them this and them that, I don’t see that. On the overall, we have to look at ourselves and our focus and what we are doing rather than what other people are doing because if I remember in the summer, it was the same thing when that deal (Kyrie Irving moved to Boston) was done in the summer, everyone went crazy (about) those two teams, now it’s between them and blah, blah, blah.
“This is the NBA and the reality of the NBA is we are built around chaos and drama, we deal with it every day and more drama is coming. There is plenty more drama coming and we have to deal with it.
For now, we’ll deal with the ones we have.” Ujiri is right on all counts. The daily routine of life in the NBA always features some player or agent, in some cases some family member, griping about something.
When minutes are reduced, the whining increases, but the good teams, or at least those who know how to manage any issue, keep it in-house.
In Cleveland, it got ugly because it went public, whether it was Isaiah Thomas basically criticizing head coach Tyronne Lue, Derrick Rose mentally checking out, Jae Crowder banished to the bench, teammates questioning Kevin Love.
When the Cavs got blown out by Houston, the astute Jalen Rose, a one-time Raptor, went on national TV and felt the players had quit on King James.
Love isn’t coming back anytime soon following his hand injury and with no Irving there’s no player who can create late in the shot clock.
If anything, James will now be asked to do more, which he’s capable of doing.
“I mean, I really don’t care,’’ said DeMar DeRozan of the trade-deadline day frenzy that rocked Cleveland and by extension the NBA. “Honestly. You know me, I just worry about my team, worry about us, what we gotta do to continue to get better.
“We can’t really focus and worry about what everybody else doing.”
Perhaps a less inexperienced and less mature DeRozan would have maintained a different posture in a previous incarnation, but he’s fully aware of what’s required and how teams must take care of their own business and avoid the temptation of worrying about others.
The Raptors have a good thing going having won all four games of a four-game homestand, all four wins in decisive fashion.
When they blew out Cleveland on Jan. 11, the Raptors nearly rebounded from a huge deficit to push Golden State.
Some late-game execution issues cost Toronto wins against Philly, Minnesota, Utah and Washington, but overall the team has played well.
The Raptors don’t play until Sunday afternoon in Charlotte before returning home to play the Miami Heat on Tuesday.
The all-star break officially kicks off late Wednesday night after the Raptors play on the road against Chicago.
At 38-16, it’s conceivable the Raptors might have 41 wins at the break with 25 games to be played once they return.
LeBron James and his Cavaliers are still the team to beat in the NBA Eastern Conference, even both Toronto and Boston are comfortably ahead of Cleveland in the standings.