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The Cavs Have Restored the East’s Status Quo, but Don’t Expect Them to Walk to the Finals

While there may not be a clear challenger to Cleveland’s Eastern throne, the cluster of sub-elite teams beneath it could do just enough to let randomness take its course

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“I’ve been to six straight Finals, man,” LeBron James told reporters on the eve of Wednesday night’s highly anticipated Cavaliers-Celtics game, which promised to settle the layout of the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. “I’m the last person to ask about a regular-season game, dude. Sorry.”

Then, less than 24 hours later, the game started.

Maybe it felt like a sucker punch, but it was undeniably Cleveland in postseason form. The Cavs flexed some of their most impressive ball since the All-Star break in a 114–91 beatdown in Boston. It had all the hallmarks of a resounding Cavaliers playoff victory: a brilliant extra-gear effort from James (36 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and a plus-32); more than 30 attempts from behind the arc; alert and swarming gang defense; and dominance on the offensive glass of a kind that the Cavs have rarely been able to assert in a season when they’ve gone from one of the best offensive-rebounding teams in the league to one of the worst. It was the switch-flip we’d all been waiting for and seemed to understand was inevitable.

Champions contain multitudes, and the Cavs are no exception: Even as the team is struggling to pull itself out of a recent tailspin, it’s won its past four games. One perfect outing against the Celtics doesn’t absolve its defensive woes. The Cavs struggle on switches and don’t always put in the effort to recover; they have complete sieves at the lead guard spot without a consistent rim protector to caulk up the seams. Since March, they’ve given up at least 120 points to opponents on six different occasions. If that happened to the Lakers, you’d pat them on the head and say, “Good tanking.” For the defending champs — the team with the second-highest odds in Vegas to win the championship — shrugging off such dismal defensive play shouldn’t be that simple. But it is, because they are the one team in the league that employs LeBron.

I’m the last person to ask about a regular-season game, dude. The self-assuredness of LeBron’s answer wasn’t something that could be transferred down to the second or third in command. As fellow star teammates like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love hyped up the game with the Celtics as a sort of measuring stick for the team heading into the postseason, leaning on platitudes expected of stars in a high-profile matchup with consequences both real and imagined, James floated above it because he could. And because the no. 1 seed seems to mean more to everyone else.

In how comprehensively the Cavs dismantled the Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference finals (Cleveland won by an average of 15.5 points in the six games, including wins of 38 and 31), it might come as a total shock to remember that the Raptors were only one game behind the Cavs in the standings by season’s end. In the past six seasons (four with Miami and two with Cleveland), LeBron’s teams have been the East’s second seed in four of them. Two-thirds of his unfathomable string of six consecutive Finals appearances have been spent as an underdog on paper. But his power over the Eastern Conference renders seedings useless in any debate that’s involved the Heat or Cavs over the past six years — James’s teams have taken up a palatial residence atop the logical leaderboard for what feels like ages. They are, in a word, immune. “I don’t look at them as a team where they stand by the numbers,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Tuesday. “I’ve seen in the past what they are capable of.”

You might not want to put respect on LeBron’s name, but you’d look pretty stupid casting doubt on it.

On Wednesday afternoon, FiveThirtyEight’s postseason projection model had three teams in the Eastern Conference with at least a 3 percent chance of winning the NBA championship. None were the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were projected to have a 2 percent chance of winning the title, lower than the Celtics (6 percent), Wizards (4 percent), and Raptors (3 percent). After the win over Boston, the Cavs now have a 5 percent shot, with the cluster of Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards all sitting at 4 percent or lower. FiveThirtyEight sits at the nexus of all bad win-probability jokes — sports or otherwise — but its predictive models do what they were meant to: present a snapshot of a precise moment in judgment. There is more equality at the top of the East than we’ve seen in over a decade, yet in one of the most consequential games of the late season, a statement game from Cleveland was all that was needed to rearrange the conference’s brief moment of wild parity back to the status quo.

The East has historically been overwhelmingly top-heavy. Over the past 15 seasons, the gulf between best record in the Eastern Conference and fourth-best has been, on average, 12 games in the loss column. This year, it’s currently sitting at four. The East hasn’t seen this kind of parity in the upper echelon of playoff teams since 2002–03 (coincidentally, the season before LeBron was drafted), when only three games separated first and fifth place; that year, the 1-seeded Pistons were the lone 50-win team in the conference. The Cavs and Celtics have hit that mark this season; it’s possible that both the Wizards and Raptors will join them. It’d be the first season with four 50-win teams out East since 2011.

The Eastern Conference’s high end has flattened out, leaving an uninspiring oligarchy ruling the upper half of the playoff race. It’s not a sexy reality, but it will have ramifications come postseason. Each of Cleveland’s top competitors has reasons for optimism heading into the first round. Despite the spanking from the Cavs, the Celtics have won nine of their past 12; the Raptors have won nine of their past 11 and have a fully healthy Kyle Lowry back just in time; the Wizards have struggled comparatively, splitting their past 10 games down the middle, but have the size, perimeter talent, and athleticism to make it as far as their short rotation will take them.

Simply posing a threat and putting up a fight is enough to let entropy take its course. In each of James’s past two seasons with the Cavaliers, the road to the Finals produced a grand total of two losses (two sweeps, and one six-game series) before meeting the Warriors. The East’s new parity suggests things could be different this time around, that the Cavaliers won’t be waltzing into a championship series unobstructed. The Cavaliers have a plus-31 point differential in their four games against the Celtics (inflated by Wednesday’s 23-point win), plus-four in three games against the Wizards, and a plus-11 in three games against the Raptors, whom they will face in a likely meaningless final game next Wednesday. Even if the quality of competition hasn’t improved much on the top end, the baseline has risen significantly; that, combined with the Cavs’ decreased margin for error when taking into account their structurally porous defense, means there is more than just a sliver of hope for the rest of the field. For the past 10 years, that’s all any team out East could have asked for.

James is the closest thing the current NBA has to cultural hegemony. He’s shown, over the past decade, the influence to redirect leaguewide trends in offensive and defensive ideology. He gives opposing Eastern franchises clues as to how to wall up against a version of a LeBron-led team, only to shape-shift (and by proxy, switch up the style of his team). The Bulls, Pacers, Hawks, and Raptors in recent years have all had a chance to disrupt the King’s reign, and have all undergone identity crises (to varying degrees) in the aftermath of their failures. It’s the collateral damage James leaves in his wake that bolsters his influence as much as anything. Occam’s razor says the Cavs will make it out of the East’s densely packed shrapnel bomb — not because William of Ockham was a Cavs fan, but because LeBron, by nature, makes complex problems on the court simple.

On the night the Cavaliers reassumed pole position in their conference, the Warriors clinched the league’s best record for the third consecutive season. After all the tumult on both sides, it appears as though the stars have once again realigned to see the finale to this trilogy through. But the Warriors’ blown 3–1 lead last June set off a chain reaction that extends far beyond the championship bubble we’ve consigned both teams to. The Celtics breaking the seal on the no. 1 seed for a hot second was more significant for symbolic reasons than anything tangible; it showed that the Cavs won’t hold dominion forever. Foregone conclusions are now meant to be broken. That we can’t envision LeBron’s Finals streak ending just yet might be the point.