The beast in the east
By Kristoffer Pedlar
The Toronto Raptors, the rest of the Eastern Conference, and the entire NBA for that matter have been chasing Lebron James from the moment he entered the league as the top draft choice straight out of high school in 2003.
His Cleveland teams during his first tenure with the club were strong and frequently outmatched their Eastern Conference counterparts. Lebron was dominant and asserted himself as the best player in the league. The Cavs couldn’t quite measure up to the strong Western Conference teams of that era, but they were very, very good and very, very, hard to beat.
When Lebron “took his talents to South Beach” and joined the Heat, those teams too were formidable machines; they formed an unstoppable force that outmatched and outmuscled their opponents. They were heads and tails above every other team in the Eastern Conference and collected banners and trophies to prove it.
And now, after returning to Cleveland, Lebron is once again an unstoppable force. He is the leader of a very strong and deep team in Cleveland. They are the defending champions and a basketball superpower, a team that, on paper, can beat anyone. After six straight Finals appearances, an appearance once again this year feels like a mere formality for ‘King James’ and his carefully constructed Cavs team. In the Eastern Conference, it feels like everyone else is in a battle for second place.
For the Toronto Raptors, they are left with a proverbial ‘dragon’ to slay. An obstacle so large it seems insurmountable: beat the defending NBA Champions and the greatest player in the world.
It’s a familiar story, especially for Cavs fans and the city of Cleveland. Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was that dragon and it was the hardworking Cavaliers teams of the late 80s and early 90s that were tasked with beating him.
Speaking to Chicago Tribune reporter Shannon Ryan in 2015, former Cavaliers guard Mark Price reflected on the chase of Jordan, and that infamous first round loss in Game 5 of the 1989 playoffs where Jordan would immortalize Craig Ehlo as the crumpled human in the background of “the shot” forever.
"It does bother me a little bit… I don't think how good our team was, is appreciated. We were a blue-collar really hard working team. I felt like we were definitely in the mix and ready to win a championship if we were to get by the Bulls."
The Cavs of that era were built for a championship and probably deserved a better fate. They had star power in Brad Daugherty and Mark Price, sharp shooting in Craig Ehlo and a defensive stopper in Ron Harper. It truly was a team that deserved more, but they were never able to find a way to beat Jordan. 1989 and ‘the shot’ were a prelude to 1992, 1993, and 1994 where the Cavs continued to fall short against Jordan and his Bulls teams. Time and time again, the talented Cavs team retooled and took on Jordan. No matter the roster, no matter the coach or the setting, the Cavs could not beat him.
The dreams of a Cleveland championship would have to wait.
"It was amazing to be part of that [rivalry]," Daugherty told Shannon Ryan. "I maybe would've won a ring or two [if not for the Bulls]…”
The Cavs could not slay their dragon, that is until they drafted a player who would become the new king of the NBA and stand in the way of championship dreams the way Jordan had for Cleveland.
Lebron James and every kid growing up watching that Cavaliers team remembers how it felt knowing that Jordan was always looming, to know that no matter how well they did against him during the regular season, or how many times they seemed to finally have his number, Jordan always ended up having the last laugh.
Now it’s LeBron and Cleveland enjoying that last laugh, standing in the way of every other upstart team in the Eastern Conference. LeBron, whether with the Heat or Cavaliers has been a part of every NBA Finals for the last 6 years. The East really does now go through Cleveland.
There are plenty of other weapons on the Cavs roster too. From Kyrie Irving and Kyle Korver to Channing Frye and Deron Williams the Cavs are home to a talented group of players. Even if Kevin Love misses the playoffs, even if their depth is compromised with aging veterans, this Cavs team might not be beatable.
The Raptors and their fans can feel it too and they would like to avoid the “what ifs” and “if onlys” that plagued the Cavaliers franchise during the Jordan era. This Raptors team has a legitimate shot to win the Eastern Conference. The team is built to win with scoring, three-point shooting and now even defense. Their time has come.
When completely healthy, the Raptors are a very good team as they are currently assembled. On paper, this might just be the best roster the city of Toronto, the country of Canada has ever seen play for the team…and that’s saying something.
The additions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker solidify their core, improve their team defense and give them the weapons they need to battle ‘the dragon’. The Raptors now have the scoring and depth to contend with Lebron and the Cavs. They also finally have a lockdown defender in PJ Tucker, who can push Lebron in a seven game series.
One other element the Raptors have in their favour are their fans. The city of Toronto is a basketball hotbed right now and have been for much of the last three years, but they are not alone. The city of Toronto is joined by basketball fans all over the country in cheering for this team. Much like the Blue Jays, the Raptors have adopted the mantra of “Canada’s Team”. With an entire nation behind you it’s easy to find motivation.
Tim Leiweke, former president of MLSE and someone considered instrumental in the Raptors turnaround, understood the importance of representing an entire country.
"And by the way, we have 35 million people in our fanbase. Not the Knicks, not the Lakers, not the Clippers, not the Nets. The No. 1 largest fanbase potential in the NBA, in the history of our league, is the Toronto Raptors."
Even Lebron himself was blown away by the passion and energy of the Raptors fanbase. Following the Eastern Conference Finals battle in 2016, Lebron and the Cavs had beaten the Raptors in a hard fought six game series. Fans remained after the series ended cheering on their team as loudly as they had at the start of the game. Lebron could not help but comment on the passion of the fans.
"Do you hear this?... Do you hear this? …Unbelievable respect and much respect to these fans, to this country. This is unbelievable…I have never been a part of something like this in my 13–year career. This is special, and they really appreciate what their team did."
Lebron won’t just be taking on the Raptors in the playoffs, he will have to take on the entire country of Canada. The fans at the ACC and all over the country have the opportunity to be the 6th man the team needs in the playoffs -- a loud, unrelenting mob that will let Lebron and his Cavs team have it every night.
And maybe that’s what it will take to slay the dragon.
An intense nation of bloodthirsty fans, coupled with an improved roster of warriors and a few years of playoff experience under their belt could be enough to do the job.
Or maybe this is just one of those years, one of those eras like the Cavaliers had with Jordan, where the dragon simply cannot be slain?
One thing is for certain, win or lose, this Raptors team is not going down without a fight.