TORONTO — P.J. Tucker watched Toronto's historic Eastern Conference final series against Cleveland last season, and the scrappy then-Phoenix Suns small forward thought about how much he could help the Raptors.
A year later, Tucker will get a chance to.
The Raptors open the Eastern Conference semis on Monday against the Cavaliers, and they believe they're a better team against their familiar foe after acquiring Tucker and Serge Ibaka at February's trade deadline.
"It's big," said DeMar DeRozan, on having Tucker. "He is known for his defence. He is one of the best on-the-ball defenders. Strength-wise he is up there with LeBron, being able to bang him up, put a strong body on him after DeMarre (Carroll) starts out on him. So it's great to be able to go our bench and have a guy like P.J. Tucker. . . pretty sure we are going to use that weapon."
The Raptors took the Cavaliers to six games in the team's first-ever conference final appearance last season. Then team president Masai Ujiri made a big defensive upgrade when he traded for Tucker and Ibaka.
Coach Dwane Casey said the team is now much better equipped to handle the Cavs.
"I think whoever we had to beat, I thought Serge and P.J. were great acquisitions for us to build a playoff style team," Casey said. "That was a great move for this organization to have. . . the versatility with both of them. I don't think you wake up dreaming 'We gotta make every move to beat Cleveland.' But to play playoff basketball, you have to have guys like that.
Obviously the biggest challenge for the Raptors is slowing down the freight train that is LeBron James, who averaged 26 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists in last year's series against Toronto. The 31-year-old Tucker said there is "no one" in the league like him. Tucker recalled trying to guard him in one particular game when James was with the Miami Heat. The plan was to force James to take long, 18-19 foot jump shots.
"That's what we were willing to live with. And he made like eight or nine of them in a row, like fadeaways," Tucker said, with a head shake. "We just brought it in (for a huddle) after the game. . . 'Whaddya gonna do?' I think when he has those kinds of games, just bring it in, there's nothing you can do."
Casey compared James to a free safety in football — roaming around on defence, ready to pounce on passes — and deadly on offence, on numerous levels.
"He's one of the greatest players in the world right now," Casey said. "You're not gonna stop a guy like that. You take away some certain things he likes to do and not let him get to where he wants to go as easily.
"What makes him a double-whammy is the fact that he's a great passer and a willing passer for his size," Casey added. "That's something that adds another element to the equation, the fact that you have to stop his drive, stop his jump shot, now also too you've got to worry about cutters behind you and weak side. They're the top corner three-point shooting team in the league by a large margin for a reason, because of him. He's the greatest. On time, on target. Kevin Love doesn't even have to move, just put his hands there and he's ready to catch it."
While Cleveland was the No. 2 seed in the East behind Boston, the third-seeded Raptors said the Cavaliers are unequivocally the team to beat in the East.
"Oh yeah, yeah," DeRozan said. "They still the champs. Doesn't matter what seed you are, once you are in the playoffs, they are still defending something they won last year."
Added Casey: "Right now, they're the champs. And to win, you've gotta go through the champs."
The Raptors were rattled at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena in last year's series, outscored 339-251 in the three road games. Casey and his players believe they're better prepared for the hostile environment that awaits them.
They said they can draw on the bruising, physical series against the Bucks, and the leather-lunged crowd in Milwaukee.
"I liked the fight we had to go through with Milwaukee," Tucker said. "I think that prepared us for this series for sure. That was a different kind of series where we had to get out of our comfort zone to beat them. We had to go out and really fight and get our hands dirty which in the past hasn't been one of the things you would say about the Raptors.
"But we had to do that to beat Milwaukee, we had to really go out there and fight and grind it out and I think we're going to have to take pieces of that series into this one."
Game 2 is Wednesday in Cleveland, then the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 on Sunday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press