The less-anticipated Conference Finals starts tonight in Cleveland. Can Toronto even make it interesting? Here are five questions they will need to answer.
1) Can Cleveland keep raining threes? The numbers are astounding (I would dare say Warriors-like if you ignore the fourth quarter of Monday’s game): Cleveland has taken 42.8 percent of its shots from three-point range this season and is shooting 46.2 percent on those. Both of those lead the NBA. For comparison, the Cavs took 35.2 percent from three in the regular season and shot 36.2 percent on them. Certainly part of that has been defenses that have done a poor job chasing the Cavaliers off the arc, but they are moving the ball and when they need to hitting contested shots. The only question is can they keep it up. The Raptors were a below average team at defending the three (teams shot an average amount of them but hit a high percentage), and the Cavaliers took advantage to shoot 50 percent from three against the Raptors in the regular season. Meaning look for it to keep raining threes in Cleveland, which is bad news for the Cavaliers.
2) Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will try to drive, but can they finish? At the end of the last series against Miami, the All-Star Kyle Lowry started to return — the high energy player who can attack off the dribble, hit threes, and keeps moving off the ball. That’s also the Kyle Lowry who averaged 31 points a game against the Cavaliers this past season (more than he averaged against any other team. The Raptors are going to need peak Lowry all series long to have a chance. Beyond that, DeRozan has struggled to finish drives in the playoffs (at least until Hassan Whiteside went out last series). He has to get into the paint, get buckets and draw fouls, and do so relatively efficiently. Overall these playoffs DeRozan and Lowry combined are shooting just 33 percent on drives to the basket; that will not cut it now.
Toronto relies on these two guards to create almost all of their offense. Expect the Cavaliers to go under picks and try to turn them into jump shooters — even if Lowry hits some threes Cleveland can live with those results over the course of a series more than those two getting into the paint.
3) Can DeMarre Carroll make LeBron James work hard for his buckets? This is why the Raptors went out and got Carroll in the off-season — to contain guys like LeBron James on a big stage. Nobody stops LeBron, Carroll will need help (as will Patrick Patterson, who also will draw some time on LeBron), but the idea is not to let him score and facilitate at will. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can make plays, but LeBron remains the head of the snake and the Raptors need to, if not cut it off, at least neutralize it.
Carroll looked better in Game 7 against Miami than he has all playoffs. That’s a positive sign for Raptors fans. But LeBron is a test of another level.
4) When does Jonas Valanciunas return? Can he punish the Cavaliers inside when he does? Cleveland has a lot of advantages this series, in terms of playmakers and skill. Try to find where Toronto has an advantage and thoughts turn to Valanciunas — he is a load inside and scores efficiently. Well, at least when Lowry and DeRozan bother to throw him the ball. Tristan Thompson is a good defender, but Valanciunas would punish him with buckets. Another advantage to his return is his size and scoring inside makes it hard for the Cavaliers to play their small/shooting lineups with Kevin Love and Channing Frye up front. But without him, it’s Bismack Biyombo and he can’t punish them inside make the Cavs pay.
Valanciunas is out for Game 1 and according to coach Dwane Casey likely will miss Game 2 as well due to a sprained ankle suffered against the Heat. The sooner he returns the better for the Raptors, they need him.
5) Outside of the two guards, who will step up for Toronto? Cleveland has its big three in LeBron, Irving, and Love, but throughout the playoffs they have gotten production from J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Frye, Matthew Dellavedova and on down the line. This is a deep team that is comfortable playing together.
Beyond DeRozan and Lowry, who steps up for Toronto? Valanciunas when he gets back, but the series may be lost by then. Carroll, Cory Joseph, Patterson, even Terrence Ross will have to contribute a lot more to make up for the depth advantage Cleveland has.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5. This could be another sweep, although I expect one insane Lowry game in Toronto to get the Raps a win. Toronto has had the greatest season in franchise history, their rabid should celebrate that. Savor being here. But this is where it ends.