No. 1 Toronto Raptors (59-23) vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32)
This is it. If it’s going to happen for the Toronto Raptors, for this iteration of the best and most accomplished core in franchise history, it has to happen now.
The Raptors have home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which tip off Tuesday night at 8 p.m.. They’ve had three full days to rest up and prepare since knocking off the Washington Wizards, a series in which no Raptor averaged more than 36.4 minutes per game. The Cleveland Cavaliers got one full off-day, Monday, after needing to work deep into the weekend to outlast the Indiana Pacers in a seven-game slugfest during which LeBron James was life-saving and total — 34.4 points, 10 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, 55 percent shooting from the field — but had to be for nearly 42 minutes per game, a gargantuan workload just to get out of Round 1.
“I’m tired,” James said after scoring 45 points on 43 minutes to carry his team to the conference semis for the 13th straight season. “I want to go home.”
Instead, he goes on the road, north of the border to Air Canada Centre. It’s a gym where the Raptors have been dominant this season, with 36 wins against just seven losses, blistering opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions during the regular season and the Wizards by nearly 12 points-per-100 in Round 1. It’s also one of many that James has turned into his personal stage in recent years … including just six weeks ago, when he went into the Six and put up 35 points and 17 assists without a turnover to bring Cleveland back from a 15-point halftime deficit, helping spark yet another springtime crisis of confidence in Canada’s largest city.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a six seed or a three seed or a two seed, eight seed,” James said a couple of weeks before that win. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, I can be very challenging.”
Nobody in their right mind would dispute that, but this time — in this particular set of circumstances, with this particular set of teammates after this particular Cleveland season to date — it feels like the Raptors are better equipped to meet that challenge than they’ve ever been before, and better equipped than any team LeBron’s faced in the East since he returned to Northeast Ohio. This time last year, on the way to a disappointing four-game sweep, Kyle Lowry was telling reporters that “nobody’s closing the gap on” LeBron. Now, the Raptors believe they have.
By the end of the win over the Wizards, Toronto seemed comfortable again, confident that the identity that produced 59 wins and the East’s top seed — many hands make light work, reduced reliance on individual offensive creation by All-Star guards Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, increased emphasis on moving the ball and their bodies and on a haymaker second unit made complete once again by the Game 6 return of linchpin guard Fred VanVleet from a series-long battle with a shoulder injury — really could carry the day in the postseason. Time to find out.
It starts, as all things do, with the question of how Toronto will defend James. They won’t stop him, because no defense on the planet’s been able to stop LeBron when he decides he’d like to start something, but they’ve got to at least be able to slow him down. No matter who they’ve deployed in the job — DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, James Johnson, Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker, Norman Powell — the Raptors have never had any success in doing that. If they can’t at least impede his progress and complicate his problem-solving process more than Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Lance Stephenson and Nate McMillan just did, they’re going to be in trouble.
To that end, Casey figures to rely heavily on two bright young forwards — rookie OG Anunoby, one of the league’s top isolation defenders against drivers this season, and second-year man Pascal Siakam, whose versatility shined when Casey deployed him to stifle All-Star point guard John Wall in Round 1. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound Anunoby saw the bulk of the James assignment during the regular season, logging 106 defensive possessions on LeBron during three meetings, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Siakam was second, with 57 possessions in the three games.
As is the case against virtually any individual defender he faces, James did more than his fair share of damage against Toronto’s young twosome, with Cleveland averaging 114.1 points per 100 possessions on which either Anunoby (who fared a tick better per-possession) or Siakam checked the King. But the floodgates opened to a “the elevators in ‘The Shining'” degree whenever anybody else got the job: 80 Cavalier points on 52 possessions with other Raptors at the tip of the spear, an obscene rate of offensive efficiency (153.8 points-per-100) that’s basically like if you multiplied the Rockets by the Warriors by Thanos.
So, yeah: those guys are going to shoulder the grim responsibility with limited aid from double teams and help defenders. At this stage, doubling LeBron, especially in lineups where he’s flanked by four shooters, is signing your own death warrant, though it’s tough to avoid whenever he works out of the post, which could be a nightmare for the smaller/thinner Anunoby and Siakam to deal with. It’ll be up to the rest of the Raptors to make sure that if James is scoring 40 on his own, he’s not also producing 30 for everybody else. (Similarly key: Anunoby and Siakam have to be offensive factors, knocking down shots, making smart cuts and dives, and making the extra pass, to make LeBron expend energy on the other end and ensure that Casey can afford to keep them out there.)
That means the Raptors have to stay at home on the gang of Cavs shooters who stumbled through Round 1, not allowing LeBron’s pass-catching targets to develop a rhythm. Kevin Love and George Hill scuffled through injury throughout the Pacers series, but showed up when it counted in Game 7, with Love knocking down four 3-pointers and Hill making a surprise appearance in the second half to attack his way to 11 free throws in 19 positive minutes off the bench.
J.R. Smith went 3-for-8 from deep and attacked the offensive glass. You shouldn’t bank on Kyle Korver missing four of five from deep too often, and if Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson can locate their touch, it could be a long (or short) series. How effectively Toronto can stay on their marks and protect the arc will go a long way toward determining their chances of defanging a Cavs attack that can be absolutely lethal when cranked up. The good news there for the Raps: they allowed the second-fewest attempts and fewest makes during the regular season, before leading both categories in Round 1.
A big piece to watch on that score: how Cavs coach Tyronn Lue configures his lineup, and how Toronto’s Dwane Casey matches up in response. Love has the potential to be a game-breaker against these Raptors, whether as a pick-and-pop problem for Jonas Valanciunas to check when he’s at the five spot, or as a post-up attacker when Cleveland’s able to force switches in the screen game or cross-matches in transition.
The Raptors should match up better defensively in that situation by downshifting with Serge Ibaka and Siakam in the frontcourt, but Ibaka’s been a net negative against the Cavs this season and his bouts of inconsistency can make that a troublesome solution for Toronto. (Ibaka might be the single biggest X-factor in this series.) If Lue opts to stick with what worked in Game 7, when the returned-from-exile Tristan Thompson put up 15 points and 10 boards in a huge and arguably series-saving performance, that actually might benefit the Raptors, allowing them to rely more heavily on the standard two-big lineup that they’ve rolled with all season and that beat up on Washington in Round 1.
No matter how Cleveland lines up to start the game, though, Toronto has to make the Cavs pay for every second James spends on the sideline. The reserve corps of VanVleet, Siakam, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl barely saw the floor in Round 1 due to VanVleet’s absence, but it was one of the best five-man units in the league this season, even against top-flight competition. The Cavs, on the other hand, have struggled mightily to get consistent contributions from the likes of Hood, Clarkson, Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr., both in Round 1 and late in the regular season; there’s a reason LeBron played all 82 games and logged all those minutes.
Toronto has staked an awful lot on the idea that organizing their “culture reset” around a formula in which DeRozan and Lowry loosen their grip on the offense and trust their teammates to come through when it counts. The Raptors racked up a litany of wins this season by turning games that were close through three quarters into no-doubters in the fourth on the strength of a hellacious closing kick by the defensively ferocious and offensively versatile second unit that Masai Ujiri built and Casey fostered. It helped put away the Wizards, with Wright, Miles, Siakam, Poeltl and VanVleet all having a hand in the Raptors’ four wins while also alleviating the pressure and workload on Lowry and DeRozan, who have seemed gassed and burnt out by the time they hit the biggest stage in each of the past two postseasons.
They’re fresher, now, and better equipped to handle the looks Cleveland’s thrown at them in the past. DeRozan’s better at handling traps now; he proved it enough against the Wizards to eventually dissuade them from continuing the tactic. Lowry’s looked more capable of controlling the game even if his shot’s not falling, and of grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck when the shot does go down. They’ve been charging up all year long for this opportunity, and they think they’re ready for it.
“I knew that [we could be special] after we lost in the playoffs last year,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports back in March. “Understanding how hard I was going to work. Understanding how hard Kyle was going to work. Understanding how hard the organization was going to work to make sure we needed to be where we needed to be. You know, we always got so close. It was always right there. But I always had that confidence. Ever since that Game 4 in the playoffs last year. The next day.”
The Raptors believe the past doesn’t matter, and that a new tomorrow starts today. I feel closer to believing that than I have before … but I’ll still need to see it first.
Prediction: Cavaliers in 6
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