It’s a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, but with a different feel. This is deeper Raptors’ team that matches up a little better with Cleveland. These Cavs aren’t as fearsome as a year ago. Will all of that even matter? Let’s break it down with three things to watch.
1. Can the Raptors stop LeBron James from winning this series? This is THE question of the series. The only one that really matters. In the two points below I will lay out the ways the Raptors may be able to exploit the Cavaliers’ flaws, but none of that matters if LeBron takes over games (and lifts up his teammates enough to get Cleveland wins in the process). Just ask the Pacers. Indiana had its moments and made every game close against Cleveland, but LeBron averaged 32.8 points, 9 assists, and 9.8 rebounds per game and won his team the series. LeBron has been the single best player in the postseason so far.
LeBron as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, 2-on-2 with shooters spacing the floor, is going to be very difficult for the Raptors to stop. Toronto went out and got P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka at the deadline specifically thinking of Cleveland and LeBron. Tucker will get the bulk of time on LeBron, as will DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson, and Ibaka will get switched onto him as well from guarding Kevin Love and Channing Frye (both of whom were a real problem for the Raptors when they faced each other last playoffs). The challenge with Toronto playing Tucker a lot is the Cavs don’t really have to cover him on offense, allowing easier help.
LeBron isn’t going to be stopped, but the Raptors need to slow him and force the other Cavaliers to beat them if they are going to have a chance in this series.
2. Will the Cavaliers care about defense at all? There seemed to be a sense among some fans that Cleveland “flipped the switch” and played better defense against the Pacers in sweeping the first round. No, they didn’t. For one thing, the Cavs’ sweep was by a total of 16 points, they did not dominate the series. Certainly the Cavs played better defense for stretches — a quarter here, a quarter there — but in the first round they gave up 111 points per 100 possessions to Indiana. That’s Lakers regular season defense level bad. Play disinterested defense this series and the Cavaliers will lose.
With the rest between series the Cavaliers need to have sharpened up their pick-and-roll defense — a weakness all season — because the Raptors are one of the better pick-and-roll teams in the league and they are going to go at the Cavs’ defense hard. As the series goes on Cleveland will get better at forcing the ball out of the hands of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and force other Raptors to beat them — Norman Powell and Delon Wright will need to have their moments. However, the guy that could have a big series because the Cavaliers can’t match up well with him is Jonas Valanciunas — if he breaks out this series it’s good news for the Raptors (but him against the Cavs bench will not work well).
3. Which team’s star plus bench lineup wins the day? During the regular season, Raptors coach Dwane Casey would start the second and fourth quarter with a Kyle Lowry plus the bench unit, and it outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions. He tried a variation of that in the first round against Milwaukee (with Valanciunas off the bench) but it was basically neutral.
In the regular season, Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue would start the second and fourth quarter with a LeBron James plus the bench unit, and it outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions. That lineup saw less action in the first round sweep of the Pacers, but was plus 18.1 per 100 in the couple of games it was used.
Both coaches are going to try this again. Whichever one has better success will have a big leg up for their team in this series.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6. Toronto is better than a year ago, Cleveland is worse than a year ago, but it doesn’t change the outcome of this series. Still, if any team in the East is going to knock off the Cavs, the Raptors have the best shot.