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The Cavs Are Obliterating The Eastern Conference

Another Cleveland playoff game, another hopelessly one-sided rout. With a 108-89 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night, LeBron James and the Cavaliers kept their perfect 2016 playoff record intact, piling up a 10th consecutive win, and it looks like nothing will stand in Cleveland’s path to the NBA Finals. Where does this run rank among historical playoff starts?

It’s near the top. The Cavs’ 10-game streak is tied for the third-longest to start the playoffs.1 One way to quantify the impressiveness of those streaks is to use Elo ratings to judge the competition. The Cavs’ opponents have had an average rating of 1572 — lower than that of comparable teams like the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers (who were swept in the NBA Finals) and the 2012 San Antonio Spurs (who went on to lose four straight games to the Oklahoma City Thunder). And it leaves them far short of the 2001 Lakers, who went 15-1 en route to the championship.

YEAR TEAM WINNING STREAK AVG. OPPONENT ELO
2001 Lakers 11 1653
1989 Lakers 11 1573
2012 Spurs 10 1602
2016 Cavaliers 10 1572
1982 Lakers 9 1558
2010 Magic 8 1578
1950 Lakers 8 1550
2005 Heat 8 1518
2009 Cavaliers 8 1499
Longest playoff-opening winning streaks in NBA history

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

But you can only beat the teams you play, and the Cavs haven’t just beaten them 10 straight times — they’ve made the Eastern Conference look like a high school tournament, embarrassing opponents in huge blowouts.

In the playoffs thus far, Cleveland is winning by an average margin of 13.4 points per game, fourth-highest among conference finalists since 1984 (through two games of the third round). And they rise even higher after adjusting for strength of schedule and the championship leverage of each game. Because the Cavs have beaten better teams by more points in the games that have mattered most — to the extent any game can really be considered pressure-packed when you sweep every series — Cleveland’s adjusted margin of victory in these playoffs is 19.8 points, giving them the most dominant start to the playoffs since 1984.

POINTS PER GAME MARGIN
YEAR TEAM WINS LOSSES RAW ADJUSTED
2016 Cavaliers 10 0 +13.4 +19.8
2014 Spurs 10 4 +9.5 +18.3
2001 Lakers 9 0 +11.3 +17.9
1986 Celtics 9 1 +13.2 +17.1
1996 Bulls 9 1 +14.3 +16.9
2009 Nuggets 9 3 +13.4 +15.6
1992 Trail Blazers 9 2 +10.6 +15.2
2000 Trail Blazers 8 3 +7.0 +14.7
2010 Celtics 10 3 +6.2 +14.4
2008 Lakers 10 2 +8.8 +14.2
Most dominant playoff starts since 1984 (through first two games of conference finals)

Adjustments are for schedule strength and championship leverage

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

The next-best performance by this measure came in 2014, when the Spurs eventually beat LeBron in the NBA Finals. Perhaps those Spurs also illustrate a shortcoming in this metric — they did lose four games by the time they were two games into the conference finals — but they got three of the losses out of the way early in the playoffs, when the games have comparatively less effect on the championship. And they won by an average of 18 points a game from Game 7 of the first round on through our cutoff.

Either way, between the two measures, we can strike a balance between only crediting a team’s wins and giving it a bonus for the margins by which it crushed opponents. And by that standard, the current Cavs’ run is only rivaled by the hot start of those fabled 2001 Lakers.

So can the Cavs keep it going? Well, they’re still a long shot to go undefeated in the playoffs and cap off the long-unattainable Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ Fo’. Our model gives the Cavs just a 29 percent chance of winning the next two games and sweeping the Raptors (which would be the first Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ ever, since the first round only went to seven-game series in 2003) and a 1-in-80 chance of going 16-0. Still, that’s up from about 1-in-5,000 before the playoffs started; the Cavs’ title chances have also risen from 8 percent before the playoffs to 30 percent now.

Those daunting championship odds owe a lot to Cleveland’s potential NBA Finals opponents. Unlike the ’01 Lakers, who got to face the relatively weak Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland will have to power through either Golden State or Oklahoma City, whichever of the two wins the most stacked conference final in recent history. As dominant as the Cavs have been, the real work is yet to come.

Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

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Footnotes

  1. The longest playoff win streak, period, belongs to the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, who won 12 straight games.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Andrew Flowers writes about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.

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