Sorry, Toronto: Heat vs. Cavaliers is the Eastern Conference finals we all still want


It was all set up so perfectly, the playoff matchup everyone wanted to see. LeBron James vs. Pat Riley, err, Dwyane Wade, in the Eastern Conference finals.

We wanted to see if LeBron James would be booed, really booed, for the first time in Miami. We wanted to see how Riley would react if his team exacted payback for how James strung the Heat along only two summers ago and then high-tailed it back to Cleveland, stunning the basketball world.

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So no disrespect to the Toronto Raptors, but no, we don’t want them to put away the Heat on Friday night in Miami to gain their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. We want to see Miami do what no other team has ever done before in the playoffs — twice come back in the same playoff season from being down 3-2.

Keep the dream alive. Not just our dream, mind you. James was so bored with the Hawks, after winning the opener over the Hawks in the second round, he went out of character and allowed himself to look ahead to a showdown with Miami and his old teammate.

“It’d be great to play against those guys in the postseason,” James said. “Throughout my whole career, I’ve always wanted to go against Wade in a playoff series. We’ve always talked about it even before we became teammates in ’10. It’s not been heavy on my mind, but it’s crossed my mind throughout my whole career.”

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If it doesn’t happen, it won’t be the first time that a highly anticipated series didn’t come off. When these playoffs started a month ago, we couldn’t wait to see the 73-win Warriors against the 67-win Spurs in the Western Conference finals. But the Thunder completed its stunning upset Thursday night, sending the Spurs home early and perhaps Tim Duncan into retirement. By the end of the series, it was if Game 1 had never happened.

Back in 1997, the Knicks and Bulls were on a collision course to meet for the Eastern Conference championship. A day after the Knicks took a 3-1 lead over the Heat in the second round, Michael Jordan and company closed out the Hawks. Now the Bulls were waiting for just one more Knicks win and Jordan and the defending champs would try to send the Knicks into summer for the sixth time since 1990.

Despite their previous failures against Jordan in the postseason, the Knicks were confident that they could finally break through, even with the Bulls assured of having the homecourt edge after winning 69

games in the regular-season.

“To this day, I really liked our chances,” then-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. “I’ve always thought that was my best team. We were big. We were tough. And we were deep.”

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But in the end, they were derailed and never got to go up against Jordan. In Game 5, the Knicks and Heat brawled in Miami during the Heat’s 15-point win, resulting in record suspensions. New York got the worst of it, losing six players, including their two best, Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston, over the next two games. Undermanned, the Knicks lost Games 6 and 7 and Jordan ended up cruising into the Finals with an easy five-game win over Miami.

Now, we might not get Miami-Cleveland, and that would be a shame. In a league devoid of feuds, this has the makings of an old-fashioned grudge match. Toronto-Cleveland wouldn’t have the same distaste factor going for it.

After the Heat were blitzed in the 2014 Finals by the Spurs in a five-game series that seemed more like a sweep, Riley had sent a not-so-subtle message to James as he was about to enter free agency. “You got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts,” he said in a press conference. “And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”

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But LeBron discounted Riley’s tough-love and ran out the first door, all the way back home.

So there was Riley, “knocked on my a—” by the bad news, as he later told a friend, because LeBron didn’t even respond to his texts in the hours leading up to his decision to defect to his original team.

The wound is still there. When LeBron returned for the first time with the Cavs, for the Christmas Day game in 2014, he got the James Jones treatment on the big scoreboard. His video tribute for leading the Heat to four straight Finals and two titles from 2011-14 ran exactly 60 seconds, the same as the one for Jones, who also left Miami for Cleveland in the summer.

No, Pat Riley doesn’t forget. Once it was established that he would have to rebuild, someone asked him, without mentioning James’ name, about going forward.

“No more smiling faces with hidden agendas,” Riley said.

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So what better way to get everything out in the open than to have Cleveland and Miami meet for the right to go to the Finals? If it comes to pass, it might not be much of a competition.

The Cavs remain the only unbeaten team, going 8-0 in the playoffs, and LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have never looked better. They’ve still yet to lose a playoff game when they’ve all been together. (It is worth noting that the Cavs went 1-2 against both the Heat and the Raptors in the regular season, though.)

But now getting Miami-Cleveland has to be considered a long-shot, what with the Heat missing their two star big men, Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh, more than the Raptors have missed their starting center, Jonas Valanciunas.

Miami-Toronto has been an ugly war of attrition, as Luol Deng and DeMarre Carroll might not be able to play in Game 6 due to serious wrist injuries both suffered in Game 5. So even if the Heat manage to beat the odds and win the series, they could go into the Cleveland series mortally wounded.

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But this also isn’t Charlotte anymore. Just when it was looking as if Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were again wilting under the pressure of the playoffs, it appears that they have finally figured it out. After combining for all of six baskets and 19 points in their overtime loss in Game 4, they shredded the Heat for 59 points in Game 5. That’s the most they’ve teamed for in one game in the ’16 playoffs.

Now Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic have to win their match-up against the Raptors’ backcourt twice, including once back in Toronto in a Game 7. Those are the stakes for a Heat-Cavs matchup. The odds are long, but the payout would be terrific.

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