LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James, pictured in the fourth quarter while playing the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Quicken Loans Arena on April 29, 2018 in Cleveland, will lead the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Toronto Raptors as underdogs in the second round of the playoffs. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It took 34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game from LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers to get by the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. James shot 55.3 percent from the field and had three 40-point performances, including 45 points on 25 field-goal attempts in Sunday’s deciding Game 7.

The league’s greatest player performed at his absolute peak against the East’s No.5 seed, and still, Cleveland barely survived to see the second round. It earned Cleveland a meeting with the Toronto Raptors, who led the conference with 59 regular-season wins and entered the postseason with an even better record than the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

On paper, it’s a mismatch. James is obviously the best player in the series, but Toronto is the superior team two through 12. The Raptors have home-court advantage, and the Cavs are .500 on the road.

Kevin Love, Cleveland’s second All-Star, was dreadful against Indiana with 11.4 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting. He was the Cavs’ second-leading scorer, and 37-year-old spot-up shooter Kyle Korver might have been the team’s second-best player.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry give Toronto one of the NBA’s best backcourts. Five Raptors averaged double-digits in points in the regular season. Toronto might have the league’s best bench, and they are the only team that has both a top-five offense and defense.

But the Raptors have red flags of their own. They needed six games to get by the No.8 seed Washington Wizards in the first round, struggling at times and providing a glimpse of their past playoff failures.

Toronto has reached the postseason and won at least 48 games in five straight years. The Raptors have no NBA Finals appearances during that time, and they’ve been eliminated by Cleveland in each of the last two years. The Cavs swept DeRozan and Lowry in the 2017 conference semifinals.

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical last year after Cleveland took a 3-0 series lead over Toronto. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

Following his best NBA season, Lowry missed two games with an ankle injury as the Cavs won all four games in last year's conference semifinals by an average of 15 points. The point guard averaged just 15.8 points in eight 2017 playoff games.

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

A year later, not much has changed for James. He's still in his prime in his 15th NBA season. He’s put up some of the best numbers of his career as he tries to make an eighth straight NBA Finals appearance.

Everything around James has changed. Following the Kyrie Irving trade—and the subsequent trade of Isaiah Thomas—James is no longer part of a “Big 3.” In fact, with the way Love has played this postseason through a hand injury, James is Cleveland’s only real star. He might need another historic series in order for the Cavs to upset the Raptors.

The Raptors finished nine games ahead of the Cavs in the standings. After another early playoff exit last year, the team decided they needed to change the way they play. Head coach Dwane Casey’s offensive adjustments made a world of difference, and those changes could finally help the Raptors defeat James and the Cavs when it matters most.

Toronto is sharing the ball more this season, going from dead last in assists to sixth in the league. The Raptors finished fourth with 11.8 three-pointers made per game after ranking 21st a season ago.

“The 3-point game is helping us evolve, it’s spacing us out a lot more,” Lowry told NBA.com early in the season. “I think it helps with everything — it helps us with spacing, pace, understanding where we all want to be on the floor. And it gives us the confidence to all do it. We all can shoot it without nobody bitching at you. No one cares who shoots the three. We want everybody to be successful.”

The end result was the No.1 seed in the East and the NBA’s second-best record. Toronto has the best odds to win the conference, and they are -205 favorites to defeat Cleveland. The Cavs have +175 odds, per OddsShark, to advance.

The Raptors’ playoff numbers are similar to those that they put up in the regular season. They made 11 threes per game on 41 percent shooting against Washington. Toronto ranks among the top half of postseason teams in assists, and they’ve got an offensive rating of 110.2

But the Wizards aren’t the Cavs, and John Wall is no LeBron James. It’s time to see what this new offensive system can do against the team that’s dominated the East since James returned to Cleveland in 2014.

It certainly didn’t do Toronto much good when they faced Cleveland twice late in the season. On March 21, James dropped 35 points and 17 assists as the Cavs overcame a 15-point, third-quarter deficit to win 132-129 at home. Less than two weeks later, Cleveland cruised to a 112-106 victory over the conference’s top team.

Lowry was held to a mere five points in the second game, while DeRozan was held to 19 points. The guards performed like they had so many times against the Cavs in the postseason, coming up short in the biggest moments.

DeRozan couldn’t get the job done last postseason as the team’s primary scorer, and he went just nine-of-27 from the field in the first two games of Cleveland’s second-round sweep. Lowry was shockingly bad at times in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, totaling just 31 points in Toronto’s first three losses.

Maybe the Raptors’ new offensive system will prevent the team’s stars from having any similar performances. Playing against a defense that ranks second-to-last in defensive efficiency should help.

Cleveland’s overall defense has improved during the playoffs, though they had no one that could stay in front of Indiana's Victor Oladipo. Toronto’s guards will prevent the same kind of challenges to the Cavs.

James can score 40 points every other night and play like he’s in Year No.5 instead of Year No.15, but it won’t matter if the Cavs can’t get stops on defense. The three-time champion is going to need more help than he got in the first round to survive a series with the Raptors.

With Cleveland’s season on the line in Game 7, James’ supporting cast did just enough for the Cavs to advance. As James rested for the final minute of the third quarter and the first 3:35 of the fourth quarter, Cleveland outscored Indiana by six points.

George Hill provided a spark off the bench after missing the previous three games with a bad back. Tristan Thompson played more minutes in Game 7 than he had the rest of the series combined, finishing with a double-double. Love made some big shots down the stretch, going four-of-eight from behind the arc with Cleveland’s season on the line.

If James can even get some assistance in the second round, it’d be hard to bet against him.

Series Prediction: Cleveland in six