The Cavs of Cleveland do not have to win in Toronto on Friday night in Game 6 — not in a narrow, immediate, technical sense.
The Cavs could lose. Heck, they could even get drubbed by the Raptors. It wouldn’t matter in the Eastern Conference Finals — not in all likelihood. LeBron James and head coach Tyronn Lue could return to the Q on Sunday night and thump Toronto by 30. Much like the 2008 Atlanta-Boston series, the top seed would be extended to seven games and yet never encounter a moment in which its advancement was legitimately threatened.
Yes, Cleveland doesn’t have to win Game 6. It’s not a must-win situation within the context of Eastern Conference competition.
Yet, if the Cavs are serious about winning the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise (and city) history, they might want to consider pursuing this game with Game 7-level desperation.
One could say this about Cleveland heading into Canada on Friday: Game 6 might not rate as a must-win situation, but it’s a trust-win situation.
The Cavs must be able to trust themselves at a higher and deeper level.
Here’s what we mean.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, should they meet the Cavs in the NBA Finals, would be the lower seed. They have demonstrated that they can beat the best teams in the league on the road. They’ve won twice in San Antonio during these playoffs. They won once in Oracle Arena and could make it two if they prevail in Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors. Sure, the Cavaliers went 4-0 on the road in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks are not the Thunder.
Cleveland could certainly bring its best brand of ball to the NBA Finals without winning Game 6 in Toronto. It could be that playing a Game 7 on Sunday — which would create a short layoff before the Finals — will keep the Cavs in “game rhythm” and thereby help them versus the Thunder (should they meet OKC on the big stage).
However, if we do get an OKC-Cleveland Finals, the Cavs should consider — on their short hop to Canada for Game 6 — what a win in Toronto might mean for them in June.
Let’s say the Cavs lose in Game 6 and win Game 7 versus the Raptors. They would enter the Finals as the clear inferior in terms of winning road games against top-5 playoff teams. Oklahoma City would own at least three, if not four. The Cavs would have zero going into the Finals. If the Thunder managed to gain a split in Cleveland and take a 1-1 series home to the South Central Plains for Games 3 and 4, the Cavs would take the floor in Chesapeake Energy Arena with a considerable degree of uncertainty.
The “trust-win situation” facing the Cavs in Game 6 against Toronto is that they need to enter the Finals with a big road scalp. If they can remove the idea that location — and little else — affected the outcome of every East Finals game, they can face the Thunder knowing that winning in Oklahoma won’t feel like an extremely difficult chore. It won’t be easy, regardless of the outcome of Game 6, but everyone in that Cleveland locker room will own a lot more belief if the Cavs can conquer Canada this Friday.
It’s not a must-win, but it’s a trust-win for the Cavs in Toronto. The outcome won’t guarantee anything in the Finals, but for a franchise in search of its first Larry O’Brien Trophy, every small measure of advantage or disadvantage is something to be pursued.