The Eastern Conference Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers is the five-minute series.
No, this isn’t a reference to the length of time in which these games cease to be competitive; it’s a reference to an old saying about climate change (in the older and less political sense of the term):
Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.
That’s what Raptors-Cavs has been.
Stop and absorb how baffling these East Finals have been. Filter this statement through a very simple cognitive frame: Compare your postgame reaction after Game 2 with your reaction after Game 3… and then Game 4… and then Game 5.
The shifts in this series aren’t unprecedented — the 2008 first-round series between the heavily-favored Boston Celtics and the markedly inferior Atlanta Hawks acquired this basic trajectory. Boston rolled in the first two games at home and had everyone thinking “sweep.” When Atlanta won Game 3, everyone thought it was a cute little aberration born of desperation (a trailing team down 2-0, returning home in a must-win contest). When Atlanta won Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2, the league collectively said (though not on Twitter, which hadn’t reached critical mass at the time), “Wait, WHAT?”
Boston then ran wild in Game 5, reaffirming the idea that it was never in danger of losing the series.
Yes, we’ve been through this before. Now it’s up to Toronto to win Game 6 at home and carry the East Finals to a Game 7 resolution point on Sunday. It would replicate Hawks-Celtics in 2008, when the East’s No. 1 seed had to win an elimination game… and did so by a large margin akin to what the Cavs posted in Game 5 on Wednesday against Toronto.
We have been here before, yes, but we don’t arrive at this intersection very often. Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, Game 5 — four extremely different reactions have greeted the senses in this series.
Given the way the East Finals have jerked us around — cognitively, emotionally, and otherwise — it’s not going to be easy to render a final verdict on this series and the teams involved.
Naturally, the NBA Finals will offer the ultimate verdict on the Eastern Conference champion, so in that sense, it’s not even that useful to spend time on the winner of this series. That matter can wait. The more interesting angle which can be dealt with when the East Finals end is how the losing team will be (and ought to be) perceived. To an extent, the NBA Finals will affect that issue, but given that this theater of events near the Great Lakes is internal to the Eastern Conference, an evaluation of the East — by itself, not in relationship to the West or the larger NBA — can be formulated.
What will that evaluation say, though? We’ve had to wait five minutes whenever we haven’t liked the answer.
Toronto was a fraud (after Game 2)? Not after Games 3 and 4… but after Game 5? Wellllllll…
Cleveland was a juggernaut (after Game 2) in position to storm to the NBA title? Not after Games 3 and 4… but after Game 5?
As Ben Sieck wrote at The Comeback, the buffet of blowouts in these playoffs hasn’t prevented the larger competition from being compelling. It’s quite counterintuitive, but true.
The games are turn-offs, boring as hell and really good for hockey ratings, baseball ratings, or TV show ratings. The series, however, have provided richly fascinating and emotionally complex story lines after a regular season which seemed to present a very simple and limited NBA power structure. It is simultaneously enthralling to see the Cavs and (especially) the Golden State Warriors struggle so much, and disappointing to see a pair of conference finals with so few fourth-quarter finishes.
So many contradictions exist in the midst of Raptors-Cavs, which — having reached a Game 6 — has marked itself as a long series. The chief contradiction towering above all others is that a long series — which suggests a robust and vigorous level of competitive quality — has lacked any competitive quality with the sole exception of Game 4.
Has Cleveland done well to respond to Toronto’s flurry?
Has Toronto exceeded all expectations in this series, given Jonas Valanciunas’s absence?
Have the Cavs underperformed?
Have the Raptors erased the memory of the rough-edged Indiana and Miami series with their performance in the East Finals?
“Yes” is a valid answer to all of those questions, three of them meant to shed a positive light on this competition… and yet, the nightly drama of this series has barely registered. Game 4 marks the only conference finals game out of nine (five in the East, four in the West) in which both teams played well in a close fourth quarter.
Raptors-Cavs is a long series bereft of in-game drama… but laden with hugely fascinating plot twists, emotional swerves, and evaluation-based questions.
Don’t like the verdicts being rendered by #NBATwitter on this series?
Well, you know what to do: Wait five minutes.