Cleveland’s 115–84 victory over Toronto seemed to confirm the obvious: The Cavs are the class of the East, the Raptors are a flawed team with a Game 1 problem, and LeBron James is a lot better than everybody else. But did the opening blowout do anything more than confirm our pre-existing beliefs? We think so! Here’s a quartet of new conclusions.
1. LeBron has never had a team like this.
Danny Chau: LeBron James approached perfection in Cleveland’s systematic dismantling of Toronto in Game 1, but not out of an all-consuming necessity. The Cavs would’ve been fine if LeBron chose not to play like the most physically imposing player in the league — scoring 24 points in 28 minutes on 11-for-13 shooting, including 8-for-9 on contested field goal attempts! — but he did anyway. It was an act of passion, not duty, and that’s an important distinction. LeBron had spent years in Cleveland overcompensating for his incomplete and insufficient teams. There was a newfound lightness in his domination. His emphatic screams sounded like sighs of relief.
Kyrie Irving, who repeatedly knifed through the open lanes the Raptors allowed all night, went 6-for-6 on shots around the rim. Irving and James combined for 17 makes out of 18 attempts within the restricted area; as a team, the Raptors attempted only 16 shots within the restricted area. Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, who have spent their entire careers being identified as one-way players, were integral to the Cavaliers defense, which held the Raptors to an abominable 88.6 offensive rating for the game. Channing Frye is the shrewd midseason acquisition that didn’t backfire. Every player, all the way down to the 13th man, has demonstrated his utility during this remarkable nine-game win streak. There’s a solid chance that even this won’t be enough to win a title, but LeBron has never been closer to having a Cavaliers team completely in tune with his lofty aspirations. This might be as good as it gets.
2. And these Cavs really, really like each other.
Chris Ryan: Just because a game lacks drama doesn’t mean it totally lacks theater. The players on the Cavs put on a show last night, performing a piece about the depths of their commitment to one another. Cleveland is 9–0 in the playoffs this season, and seems to be rolling downhill — picking up power with every revolution. The way this engine is humming, there’s no reason to look under the hood. But if we spent so much time analyzing their dysfunction during the regular season, doesn’t their harmony warrant some scrutiny too?
To wit: dunks were celebrated with barbaric yawps, handshakes were performed with Payne-Westbrook gusto, and in-game clinics (Irving and LeBron schooling Tristan Thompson, much to the delight of Mark Jackson) were conducted like the Dead Poets Society was in session. Hand over the mouth when we talk. What we do is secret. Except it’s not, right? These Cavs have often been defined by what they choose to share with the world, how they share, and how people interpret it. The love-in could be genuine — these guys have certainly been through enough together. But make no mistake: they know we’re watching.
3. You can dent a basketball with a dunk.
Someone ask Spalding for a refund. This is not supposed to happen.
4. DeMarre Carroll can’t stop LeBron.
Ryan O’Hanlon: Ahead of last night, DeMarre Carroll became the latest version of the LeBron Stopper. Over the past two seasons, Carroll had held James to a stingy 30.6 effective field goal percentage, more than seven points lower than LeBron’s second-best handcuff. If the week-plus boredom between Cleveland’s sweep of Atlanta and the start of this series had begun to rot your brain to the point that you were ready to convince yourself that Toronto actually had a shot, Carroll’s recent effectiveness against the four-time MVP would’ve been a big reason.
Come halftime, LeBron’s perfect shot chart glowed like an infrared scan of a nuclear reactor, his effective field goal percentage broke into the triple digits, and the Cavs were up 22. As the Raptors defense thinned out toward the perimeter to muffle Cleveland’s array of long-range shooters, Carroll found himself in an impossible spot: the only thing between LeBron and the rim. He looked like a man trying to tackle an avalanche — but when you actually get hit by a natural disaster, at least no one expects you to get back up. LeBron finished the night without making a 3, yet his effective field goal percentage settled in just south of 85, near his playoff career high. After missing most of the season with a knee injury, Carroll’s probably not 100 percent, and after one game, it’s clear the matchup isn’t fair: LeBron’s forces of nature are never more obvious than when he’s up against someone whose body can’t do what he wants it to.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 18, 2016.