2017 NBA Playoffs
2017 NBA Playoffs

Series preview: New faces add new flair to Cleveland Cavaliers-Toronto Raptors matchup

Late-season roster changes to both squads provide unknowns as series nears

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner NBA.com

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Apr 28, 2017 12:26 PM ET

The role players around superstars DeMar DeRozan (left) and LeBron James have been upgraded significantly.

Regular season meetings don’t often provide blueprints for how a pair of postseason opponents might -- or should -- play against each other. Usually, though, they’re at least helpful to sketch out likely strategies, assess strengths and weaknesses and offer a tiny glimpse into what lies ahead.

Good luck applying that to the Cleveland-Toronto Eastern Conference semifinals series that begins Monday at Quicken Loans Arena (7 p.m. ET, TNT). The Cavaliers and the Raptors met four times in 2016-17 but three of those were crammed into the season’s first six weeks. Their fourth clash came in game No. 82, a game where Cleveland rested LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and Toronto’s starters played limited minutes.

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What will it take for Cleveland or Toronto to win this series?

Both teams were significantly different in roster make-up and results back on Dec. 5 from where they wound up over the past four-and-a-half months. The Cavs’ starting lineup was intact, but its bench had an entirely different look, with Mike Dunleavy, DeAndre Liggins, Chris Andersen and Jordan McRae sitting in spots held now by Kyle Korver, Derrick Williams, Deron Williams and Kay Felder.

Toronto reconfigured itself as well, adding Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and shedding Terrence Ross in the Ibaka trade. The Raptors were better late, closing at 18-7 to the Cavs’ 12-15 after the All-Star break. Although they were both 51-31 this season, the Cavs have homecourt thanks to them winning the season series 3-1.

3 quick questions and answers

  1. How much will the difference in turnarounds matter? It would have been a bigger disadvantage for the Raptors had they not ousted the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 to snag a few extra days of rest before taking on the defending champs. Some “teachable moments” were exposed by the Bucks, so cleaning up some of the ways Toronto handles traps and contact might save the Raptors some lost possessions and points now. The Cavaliers, of course, got precisely what they wanted by sweeping the Indiana Pacers: rest and prep time, with a full week between rounds. They say any rust or staleness will show itself early in Game 1, but Cleveland had an identical layoff between beating the Detroit Pistons and facing the Atlanta Hawks last spring and jumped on the Hawks 30-19 in the first quarter of Game 1.
  2. Who guards LeBron? This goes directly to the biggest change in Toronto’s attack this season, thanks to additions Ibaka and Tucker. DeMarre Carroll was brought in last season, but wasn’t up this task in strength or in good health last season. The Raptors’ hope is that Tucker is sturdy enough to play physical vs. James, with Ibaka, Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Norman Powell available for different looks. (Good luck with that, of course.) James had one of his best seasons at age 32, topped his key stats a bit in the three early clashes with Toronto and was even better (32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 54.3 FG pct.) in the sweep of Indiana.
  3. Who are the possible “X” factors? For Toronto, Powell could bring a boost not unlike his work vs. the Bucks. When the Raptors went small, the 6-foot-4 Powell’s quickness and explosiveness could give Cleveland trouble similar to what Milwaukee dealt with. He also was Toronto’s third-leading scorer in the season series (12.3 ppg on 70 percent shooting). For Cleveland, one of its new faces -- Korver or Deron Williams -- could challenge Toronto coach Dwane Casey’s rotations. Then again, the Cavs might have been better served adding some help defensively, given their season-long issues against the sort of pick-and-rolls Toronto loves to run.

The number to know

32 -- The Cavs (101) took 32 more free throws than the Raptors (79) over their four regular-season meetings. The Cleveland defense ranked 22nd in the regular season and ranks 13th in the playoffs, but it does one thing well. The Cavs have had the third lowest opponent free throw rate (FTA/FGA) both in the regular season and in the postseason, and the Raptors' free throw rate of 22 attempts per 100 shots from the field against Cleveland was their lowest rate against any Eastern Conference opponent. Toronto did not shoot well, take care of the ball well, or give itself many second chances in its first round series against Milwaukee. But it did get to the line 35 times for every 100 shots from the field and free throws have been a big reason DeMar DeRozan (who shot 92 percent from the line in the first round) has become an efficient scorer without a 3-point shot over the last couple of years. But DeRozan averaged just 5.5 free throw attempts in the conference finals last year and trips to the line may again be hard to come by against the Cavs. If the Raptors are to have a chance in this series, they'll have to take advantage of the Cleveland defense in other ways. -- John Schuhmann

Making the pick

Toronto feels it has toughened up since last spring’s Eastern Conference finals, a series Cleveland dominated even while dropping two games. Center Jonas Valunciunas was limited by a bad ankle in that series, too, but averaged a double-double against Cleveland in 2016-17. Toronto did have the scoring edge during the season, 104.5 to 103.5, and ranked higher defensively in 2016-17 almost across the board. But Cleveland has “that man,” whose 132/98 offensive and defensive ratings in last year’s conference finals were better, by far, than anything he’d put up in a regular season. This might be the Cavs’ toughest round of three in the East. But nothing greater than that. Cavaliers in 6.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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