LeBron James and the Cavaliers are starting to look like NBA title favorites

May 17, 2016

Can someone shoot us a text when the NBA playoffs actually begin for the Cleveland Cavaliers? 

To this point, things have played out perfectly for LeBron James and his team -- and if they continue as such, an NBA title could very well be in the Cavs' future.

They cruised through the first round against the Detroit Pistons, then took the opportunity to crush an Atlanta Hawks team that LeBron originally and completely solved last year. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavs avoided the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade, the only real dog left in the postseason who could give it right back to the King.

Okay, sure. The Toronto Raptors are a talented basketball team. They deserve credit for the most successful season in franchise history. Kyle Lowry's amazing, DeMar DeRozan is a human being who exists and often makes basketball shots ... and yadda yadda yadda. Whatever. They're completely overmatched against the Cavs. You could argue things would be different if Jonas Valanciunas were healthy if you really want, but honestly, the big man wouldn't make a lick of difference in this series. Cleveland's too damned good. The Raptors aren't.


As a result, Game 1 quickly turned into a Cleveland highlight reel. No, seriously -- let's relive those amazing Cavs moments, because that was the most interesting part of Cleveland's ridiculous beatdown of the Raptors. 

There were LeBron dunks that brought the Cavs to their feet:

Kyrie Irving dribbled the Raptors into the court:

Shumpert got in on the dunking act:

Channing Frye and Matthew Dellavedova hooked up for a gorgeous play:

And Tristan Thompson kept the action going with a slam of his own:

Had enough? Fine. We'll stop, if only for the sake of any Toronto fans in the audience. It's beside the point, anyway -- kind of like the East finals.

Now, there are only three questions left for the Cavs:

1. Can they keep playing on a string? 

The biggest fear for the Cavs should be how much better they are than Toronto -- and the complacency that might result. In Game 1, the Cavs whipped the ball around and kept everyone involved, which paid dividends on the defensive end. The chemistry they've developed on offense has leaked into their defensive approach, as guys are covering for each other, communicating well and keeping everything in front of them.

It's easy to do against such weak competition, of course. Yet it's still imperative that Cleveland keeps it up, regardless of the opponent. The Cavs won't need to play their best basketball to beat the Raptors three more times, but they can't fall back into their previously poor habits of letting the ball stick. There won't be time to correct course during the Finals. The Cavs have to treat the rest of this series as if each game is their last. It's the only way they'll stay ready for what's next.

2. Will they lose a game before the NBA Finals?

Only one NBA team in history has swept the first three rounds of the playoffs -- the 2001 Lakers -- and it hasn't been done since the first round was expanded from best of five to best of seven. The Cavs seem like a lock to join L.A. And in the process, they could become the first team to win its first 12 playoff games and lose in the NBA Finals. 

Then again, the way things are going, maybe we should be looking at this as LeBron's best chance to bring a title to Cleveland ...

3. Are the Cavaliers on pace to be the favorites in the Finals? 

It seems preposterous, given that the Warriors won 73 games, the Thunder are playing their best ball of the season, and the Cavs have been competing with wet tissue paper in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But it's absolutely on the table.

That lack of competition should serve Cleveland well. They'll be nice and rested heading into the Finals, assuming they close out the Raptors in four like they should. Golden State and Oklahoma City, meanwhile, are going to beat the living hell out of each other for at least six games, if not the full seven. Whichever team emerges from the Western Conference finals is going to be exhausted, and LeBron will know that. He'll approach the game accordingly, continuing his campaign of vengeance against the rim for whatever sins it committed in a past life. Any weaknesses exposed by a prolonged Western Conference series are there to be exploited by the Cavs.

Stephen Curry's already banged up, after all; fighting through screens and trying to finish against the Thunder bigs will continue to take its toll. And if Golden State has to break out its small-ball lineup for longer stretches than it has before, Draymond Green is going to be in real danger of running out of gas before the Finals.

If the Thunder knock off the Warriors, on the other hand, Cleveland would have home-court advantage in the Finals -- not to mention the best player in the series and big guys who can match (or outclass) Oklahoma City's frontline. The Cavs won't be bullied on the boards like the Warriors, at the very least, which will disrupt everything the Thunder have learned so far this postseason.

To be fair, nothing in the Finals will come easy for the Cavs once they move beyond the punchline that is their own conference. They'll still have to deal with Curry, Green and Klay Thompson, or Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Old tensions may resurface, particularly if a real NBA defense forces Irving to dribble until his hands fall off. Perhaps Cleveland will even be considered betting underdogs regardless of their foe. We certainly wouldn't be surprised.

But at this rate, count against the Cavs at your own peril.