Before the NBA Playoffs began, I believed that the Cavaliers were an excellent but flawed team, and that there were several teams in the Eastern Conference that could, under the right circumstances, take them apart.
After the first rush of games, my thoughts have slightly changed. I still believe that the Cavaliers are an excellent but flawed team.
But it’s looking like they only have one real challenger in the Eastern Conference: The Washington Wizards.
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Before I get into why the Wizards will present such an issue for the Cavaliers moving forward, let’s briefly discuss the other two “challengers” to the Cavaliers – the Celtics and the Raptors. The Celtics have shown us once again that it’s really hard to compete in the playoffs when you don’t have a complementary scorer, someone who can take over a game when your opponent shuts down your best player. With the suddenly good Bulls keying in on Isaiah Thomas and playing their best basketball of the season, the Celtics have sheepishly looked around for someone else to take over.
Marcus Smart wants to be that guy, but he is decidedly not that guy. Though he’s an excellent defender and an underrated scorer, Avery Bradley isn’t that guy, either. Al Horford is a pass-first guy who wants to make his teammates better, but can’t take over a game with his scoring. Neither can Jae Crowder. The Celtics just don’t have that person, and it’ll be what dooms them. I’m not sure they could have had either Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the deadline (the more I read, the more I think neither the Pacers nor the Bulls ever actually considered trading them), but man, they could use someone like that right now.
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The Raptors are more intriguing, in that their roster is built better to take on the Cavaliers. But as the upstart Bucks have shown in a wild first three games, if you get in their faces on defense and run the floor, the Raptors will have difficulties. Granted the Bucks have a transcendent young talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he can cause any teams issues, but the Raptors still should be able to bully this inexperienced team. They haven’t been able to.
The Bucks have turned this series into an up-and-down whirlwind, flying around on defense, getting out in transition. Good teams would handle this and dictate the series on their terms. The Raptors haven’t been able to do that against the Bucks. What makes them think they can do that against the Cavaliers?
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Which leads us to the Wizards. Unlike the other two “contenders,” the Wizards have taken care of business. Their backcourt has emerged as the best in the East, with John Wall playing like an MVP and Bradley Beal stepping up at the exactly right moment. When the referees turned Game 2 into a whistle-heavy slog, basically calling Wizards big men every time they touched an opponent, the Wizards didn’t lose their heads. Wall and Beal calmed down, took the game over and put the Hawks away.
Scott Brooks is coaching fantastically. The Wizards have their identity and are built well – Wall runs the whole show, with Otto Porter and Beal spacing things, Marcin Gortat bashing around down low and Markieff Morris staring at people and terrifying them. Kelly Oubre is turning into a real player, and Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic can score off the bench.
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Coming into these playoffs, I tabbed the Raptors as the team that could cause the Cavaliers the most problems mostly because of the way their roster was built. In retrospect, this was silly: The proper way to pick the team that can cause the Cavaliers the most problems is the team that is the best. Good teams find a way to win. So far, the Wizards have been the best team in the East that doesn’t have LeBron James on their side.
This could all change in a game. The Wizards won two games in a row at home, as they’re supposed to do. The Raptors could come out and blow the Bucks away in three straight. The Celtics could figure it out, I suppose. Hell, maybe the Bulls are the real deal. (I’m done trying to figure out what on earth is going on with this suddenly fantastic Chicago team.)
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For now, though, the Wizards are the team that look most ready to challenge the Cavaliers. And if the Cavaliers can’t figure out their defense, they remain beatable. James can’t drag them back from 25 down every game, especially against a team as good as the Wizards. While it may not always seem it, he is still human.