Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Toronto Raptors (3)
How they got here: The Cavs swept the Indiana Pacers while Toronto overcame the Milwaukee Bucks in six games.
How the Raptors can win: Toronto is coming off the least convincing six game closeout game that I have ever seen in my life. They gave up a 25 point lead to a young Milwaukee team and only held on to win because the Bucks 22 year old superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was absolutely exhausted after playing 46:39 of the game.
These lapses will kill Toronto against an experienced Cleveland team. Whatever is causing the Raptors to seemingly fall into a daze whenever they hold a big lead is something they need to address or it will be lethal against LeBron James in the Cavs who pulled off the most famous comeback in NBA Finals history after Golden State got up 3-1 on them and also set a record in the first round by coming back from 26 down in game three against the Indiana Pacers.
If Toronto can’t establish and hold a lead, they won’t be in this series very long. They have to find another gear.
The Raptors also need a big performance from Jonas Valanciunas. He was a liability against the Bucks but becomes a need against the Cavs. JV is going to have to win the battle with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love down low. The Cavs will likely use switch both between JV and Tristan Thompson and Jonas has been awful against the offensively. He’s only shooting 38% against Thompson and 33% against Love, who is an excellent post defender. If JV can’t it going in the interior and the Cavs have to switch to Ibaka down low, they will open up a lot of scoring for Love outside. The Raptors need JV to be a presence for them and be able to prevent Tristan Thompson from dominating the glass and getting Cleveland into transition with outlets.
Toronto is also going to need Serge Ibaka to win the match-up with Kevin Love and prevent him from spacing the floor and opening scoring opportunities for Cleveland. This match-up could cause Toronto problems in certain situations as Love will bring Ibaka out to defend him which could potentially leave the Raptors vulnerable inside as they don’t have their best perimeter defender from the Eastern Conference Finals last season in Bismack Biyombo and JV hasn’t really proven himself to be up to the task. The Raptors need Ibaka to shut down Love.
Kyle Lowry is going to have to step up big. He’s got the worst shooting percentage as a starter in the shot clock era. That will be unacceptable if the Raptors are going to have any chance. He’s also going to have to step up as a defender and shut down Kyrie Irving. If the Raptors can neutralize Love through Ibaka and Irving through Lowry, this will allow them to hamper the Cavs secondary scoring.
The Raptors are also going to need to focus on taking away LeBron’s passing lanes. The King is going to score. Let’s not kid ourselves. I know PJ Tucker was acquired as a potential LeBron stopper but we saw how Giannis Antetokoumnpo shredded the Raptors defense. LeBron is still at the height of his powers, but limiting his abilities as a facilitator will mitigate the damage he can do. Somewhat.
DeMar DeRozan has to be the guy we saw in the last three games of the Milwaukee series and the dude who went 0-8 in game three. DeRozan was able to string together the three best games of his playoff career to help Toronto close out the Bucks. If DeRozan wilts under the pressure or plays inconsistently, the Raptors have no hope of winning this series.
The Raptors can also throw a variety of line-ups at Cleveland and hope that helps them get into rhythm and get a run going. Inserting Powell into the line-up and going small turned the tide against Milwaukee and it could prove useful in some situations, but Cleveland has far more answers to counter with than the Bucks did. They could counter Powell with Iman Shumpert, use Channing Frye to draw out Patrick Patterson and find combinations to prevent the Raptors from hiding anyone on defense in smaller line-ups.
The key for the Raptors is to make adjustments fast when Cleveland responds and to take full advantage of their depth off the bench to find the optimal match-ups in different situations.
How the Cavs will win: LeBron James. That’s really going to be the deciding factor in this series. Can the Raptors stop LeBron? I don’t think they can. I don’t even think they can slow him down to be honest. The King is the best player I have ever seen in my life. He can take over a game at will and as he proved against the Pacers, no lead is insurmountable when he’s on the floor. He guided the Cavs back from 26 down with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving on the bench.
The Raptors can try to cut off his passing lanes and force him to focus on scoring, but LeBron is one of the best facilitators in the league and has unparalleled court vision. He’ll find someone in any situation. If Toronto dares him to score, he’ll torch them. The Raptors couldn’t stop Giannis Antetokounmpo even when they used PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka to double him, they won’t stop LeBron. Daring LeBron to score is one of the worst strategies possible, but it’s really the only that any analyst arguing that the Raptors have a chance in this series is putting forward.
LeBron is also a defensive juggernaut with unparalleled court vision. He is leading the playoffs in steals and will make the Raptors pay for their often careless ball movement. Whichever Raptor, LeBron finds himself defending will not be a factor for the duration of that assignment either. There’s just no answer for the best player in the world at the height of his powers.
The Raptors consistently blow leads and the Cavs are one of the best teams in the league at coming back from them. If Toronto suffers one of its characteristic lapses, the Cavs will make them pay.
The Cavaliers set an all-time mark for made threes in a game with 25 this season. They can heat up and absolutely torch the Raptors from downtown. Cleveland’s bench is full of experienced scorers like Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Deron Williams who can let go from three. JR Smith could also cause major problems for the Raptors as a starter if he heats up. The Cavs just have too many weapons that could really mess up Toronto’s defensive sets and have an ability to score at will.
Kevin Love is also highly underrated as a post-up defender and has also grown in his ability against the pick-n-roll. Love can and will come out and take smaller guards on switches. He has excelled in those situations and has even gotten the better of elite guards like Steph Curry and John Wall. Counting on Love to be a mismatch on defense would be a grave mistake for the Raptors.
It’s important also to consider that Cleveland swept the Pacers without Kyrie Irving really getting going. He’s been an abysmal 21.9% from three point range. That won’t last. If he gets going on offense and the Raptors have to make switches to contain him that could cause a lot of problems for them. Irving also will catch a break with defending Kyle Lowry, who is hurting with a back injury and wildly inconsistent in the playoffs.
The Cavs have too many weapons and too many ways to counter any possible Raptors line-up and Toronto hasn’t shown the consistently on defense to counter that.
Who will win? The Raptors will prove they are who they thought they were and once again self-destruct at key moments and prove to be more of an obstacle to their own success than anything else.
DeRozan and Lowry will once again turn in inconsistent performances when they are needed most and while Ibaka and Powell will continue their stellar play from the Bucks series, Cleveland will prove to have far too much of an offensive arsenal.
The Raptors will play the Cavs tight and even catch them with the right match-up at different times in the series, but Cleveland will just come back and counter with the only weapon that will matter in this series: LeBron James.
Prediction: Cleveland in five.