The NBA Eastern Conference playoffs are starting to heat up. One of the matchups is between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. The Cavaliers took care of business in the first round, sweeping the Indiana Pacers. It was no easy task, though. LeBron James was his usual self, but the Cavs still have a ways to go. The Raptors had to scratch and claw their way in their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. They were led by DeMar DeRozan and got big performances from Norman Powell as well to win in six games. They will have to pull out all the stops to have a chance in round two. This Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors series preview breaks down how this rematch from last year might shake out, with some new players in prominent roles on both squads.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors Series Preview
At First Glance
Both of these clubs have had drama over the last few months. The Cavs seemed checkout out for the last few months of the regular season, and the Raptors offense was inconsistent in the first round. Cleveland beat Toronto in six games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. You know the Raptors remember that all too clear. That said, this series should have plenty of glitz and glamour.
As for this year’s regular season meetings, the Cavs took three out of four. There’s not much to read into those contests, though. All three of Cleveland’s wins over Toronto came before the turn of the year, and Toronto won a battle of just role players earlier this month. The rotations of both teams are much different now than those early season meetings, too.
Great Matchups Across The Board
I expect these games to be high scoring. These teams had the top two offensive ratings in the Eastern Conference this season (per nba.com), and that was with a bunch of roster moves. Cleveland was third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, and Toronto was seventh (per teamrankings.com). Credit goes to the stars on these teams for taking the share of playmaking duties to get these new pieces involved. Midseason acquisitions like Kyle Korver and Deron Williams proved to be major contributors for Cleveland in the first round.
Along with that, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have provided a constant defensive presence for the Raptors since they were traded north of the border. Thanks to the last two few months, Toronto was eighth in defensive rating for the regular season. Ibaka has been a solid rim protector, whereas Tucker has been stout on the wing. It will be interesting to see how these guys do against players like Kevin Love and LeBron on both ends.
Often times in these kinds of star-studded series’, it’s the role players that can make the difference, though. Let’s not forget about the two All-Star point guards either, as Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry will both control the pace of their offenses and have to pick their spots in choosing when to score and faciliate. In last year’s conference finals, these two were completely different at home versus on the road. This time around, I expect these stars to be more consistent throughout. The first round had its up and downs for both of them, though.
Contrasting Offensive Styles
These two teams are deep and talented offensively, as I touched on earlier. Both have considerably different approaches to generating buckets, though. The Cavaliers fit more of the pace-and-space mold of the current NBA. General Manager David Griffin has surrounded LeBron with three ball specialists, and that’s the Cavs preferred method of scoring. They were second in the league in both three point percentage (38.5 percent) and made threes per game (13.0) this season according to teamrankings.com.
Outside of LBJ and Kyrie, there’s not a whole lot of attacking off the dribble. Channing Frye, Korver, and J.R. Smith thrive when Cleveland is moving the ball around the horn for open threes. Toronto will have to stay disciplined with their assignments and not let the King pick them apart when the D collapses.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Raptors are going to attack off the bounce and try to get to the free throw line via isolation. DeRozan was fifth in the NBA in made free throws, and tied for sixth in free throw attempts this season (per Basketball Reference). As a team, the Raptors had the second-highest percentage of their points come from the charity stripe. In round one, that was on display against the Bucks. Cleveland will have their hands full in trying to keep DeRozan and company off the line.
However, if they are going to keep pace with Cleveland, they’ll need to be more efficient from the field. With DeRozan and Lowry still struggling in long stretches in the playoffs, Toronto should look for Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas on the low block. That would put pressure on the Cleveland bigs, which could cause rim protector and rebound-extraordinaire Tristan Thompson to get in foul trouble.
Playoff Experience and Leadership
The one thing you can’t overstate this time of the year is the importance of playoff experience. Obviously, LeBron has played in a few big games in his career, along with many of the veteran-laden Cavaliers. With Irving and Love in their third playoffs, you have to think they’ll be locked in on this stage. Korver, Williams, and many others on the Cavs shouldn’t have too many jitters either. Head coach Tyronn Lue has had his share of critics, but he has pushed the right buttons for this Cavs basketball team when it matters most.
The Raptors have been here before, too. After getting blitzed by the Bucks in two of their first three games last round, they made adjustments and got the job done. Ibaka really helps them as well, with his playoff battles with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Dwane Casey, Lowry, and company always seem to be in battles but they are no easy out. For example, last year’s conference finals looked like a possible sweep after the first two games. The Raptors then came back and tied up the series on their home floor, before losing twice. Moreover, this series will be a chess match featuring deep rosters. The games will be as much mental as they are about the splash plays and breakaway jams.
This series has plenty of storylines, both on and off the floor. You have Kyrie going against one of the more under-appreciated guards in the league in Lowry. There should be a number of different Cavs defenders matched up in the mid-post against DeRozan. Thompson will be a handful for the Raptors with his offensive rebounding acumen as well. Love and Ibaka could definitely go back-and-forth, too. In addition, both benches have had their heroes in recent games, and I expect both to do big things at home in this series.
All things considered, there’s still that number 23 guy for the Land. LeBron will continue to play like the real league MVP in the postseason, when all games matter. I expect him to dominate, and especially when playing the Cavs small-ball power forward. With his playmaking and defensive tenacity leading the way, I believe the Cavs win in five.
TORONTO, ON – MARCH 1 – Serge Ibaka (9) of the Toronto Raptors after hitting a 3 point shot during the 2nd half of NBA action as the Washington Wizards defeat the Toronto Raptors 105-96 at the Air Canada Centre on March 1, 2017. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)