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The undercard first-round series were not easy for either team, but this is the heavyweight slugfest the Eastern Conference has been waiting for, at least since it became known that Boston would be without Kyrie Irving.
The variety of teams in the second round of the East bracket is intriguing. The Celtics are missing their two best players, but are making up the difference with shrewd coaching and impressive performances from young stars. The Raptors are a veteran-laden squad with high expectations, though their hopes are slightly tempered by the past failures of the current core. The 76ers have the best top-end talent left in the conference, but their utter lack of experience could become more apparent as the stakes rise. And the Cavaliers have a championship pedigree, but they seemingly need to wring every last drop out of LeBron James to compete in the postseason.
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With the scores tied at 95-95, and just 3.3 seconds to play in Game 5, James rose for a three-pointer from the top of the key, hitting it to give his Cleveland Cavaliers a 98-95 win over the Indiana Pacers.
The Cavaliers now lead their first round series 3-2, heading back to Indiana, but the game didn’t come without controversy.
With 26.3 seconds to play, James appeared to turn it over, but replays showed that the ball was more than likely off Thaddeus Young’s hand. The officials didn’t review the play. In the ensuing possession, James appeared to goal-tend Oladipo’s layup attempt, but that also wasn’t called.
If the Raptors are to ever make the leap, this feels like it has to be the year, with the Cavs teetering on the ropes like a heavyweight legend in the late stages of their career. Meanwhile, the Sixers have gone from upstart to the establishment, now expected to defeat a Boston team playing with house money and make the make the conference finals. Here’s what to be on the lookout for in the East semis.
Thus the Cavs have been more reliant on LeBron James in the second half of the season and into the playoffs than they’ve been since he first left the team in 2010. He has had little help from teammates in the postseason — Kyle Korver was often the Cavs’ second-best player until Tristan Thompson’s revival on Sunday — and has had to carry Cleveland to this point. In the Cavs’ first three wins of the series, they needed 46, 32 and 44 points from James to get the W, plus 45 points in a tough Game 7 victory.
It’s not quite the series that many thought it would be. But this should still be a memorable matchup with plenty of drama, one of the league’s best regular-season teams trying to douse its history of postseason flops against a prideful all-time great player whose supporting cast has let him down but is carrying them anyway. Seven games of that should be entertaining.
The key player
If there was any question of the value of Fred VanVleet to the Toronto bench, the first-round series against the Wizards showed it.
During the regular season, the Raptors’ bench was a stalwart for the team, able to flip games when the starters were off and wear teams down with unmatched depth. Their net rating was tops in the league (8.3) and their effective field-goal percentage (which adjusts for 3-pointers) was third, at 54.0.
That has flipped, and the Raptors’ bench has been a nightmare. VanVleet has been out with a shoulder injury, and in the first five games against Washington, their net rating was minus-9.9, 14th among the 16 playoff teams. The effective field-goal percentage has tanked, down to 48.4 percent, also 14th among playoff teams. They’ve been hammered on the boards, too, with a rebounding percentage of 44.5, last in the postseason.