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Series Preview: Weary Raptors face challenge from rested Cavaliers

POSTED: May 15, 2016 9:46 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Can Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan continue to carry Raptors on their backs against a Cavaliers team which wants to get back to the Finals?

Narratives? The Toronto Raptors don't need no stinkin' narratives in the Eastern Conference finals. So what if LeBron James doesn't have any best friends on the Toronto roster against whom he is eager to face in the playoffs? Who cares that James never took his talents to "We The North" country to build a personal history with their coach and their crew, winning a couple of rings in the process?

It's enough for the Raptors that they have made it this far, pushing to within four victories of The Finals for the first time in franchise history. When this postseason began, Toronto never even had won a seven-game playoff series. Now it has won two of them by nailing down Game 7s, first in a tentative finish against Indiana and on Sunday in impressive fashion against the Miami Heat.

That -- assuming there's no just-happy-to-be-here satisfaction that creeps in for the Raptors -- has to be worth something as they get busy immediately to face the East's defending champions. So does Toronto's 2-1 edge against Cleveland in the regular season, if only from the confidence gained in winning twice at Air Canada Centre and shooting 50.2 percent in the three games.

Raptors-Cavaliers Series Preview

The GameTime crew talks about what they think the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals will be like with the Cavaliers facing the Raptors.

Will that, along with whatever momentum has from the Miami series, be enough to make the conference finals anything more than a booby prize for Toronto? It's hard to say. These are, after all, the Cavaliers in arguably their best edition ever too. They are rested, they are ready and, following James' lead, they are driven to get to The Finals again regardless of the opponent in front of them here.

This series offers several fascinating individual matchups, with the Kyle Lowry-Kyrie Irving clash at point guard dripping with talent and competitiveness. DeMar DeRozan will get the sort of VIP defensive attention from J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert that essentially shut down the Hawks' Kyle Korver in the last round. Then there's DeMarre Carroll, who as an Atlanta Hawk had to deal with LeBron James in last year's conference finals and will have the same assignment wearing a Raptors uniform.

The East's final two doesn't seem to offer the sizzle of what will be going on out West. The gap between the Cavaliers and the Raptors on paper seems much greater than that single game that separated them in the regular-season standings. But if Toronto can grab a game early and get its three home games, it can start writing some narratives with Cleveland that the teams could revisit for a few postseasons.

The Cavaliers will win if ...

They merely play as well as they did to in the first two rounds. Despite the sweep in Round 1, the Detroit Pistons challenged the Cavaliers in what was a real throwback series of playoff ball, heavy on physical play, hard fouls and a creeping dislike across four games. In the semis, Atlanta had all those veterans and that experience, yet got swamped as the Cavaliers' deep shooters found an extra gear. Toronto's strength defensively this season was guarding the paint, which now is downplayed in Cleveland's mad-bomber attack.

Out at the arc, things get more challenging for the Raptors. Their opponents shot 37.3 percent on 3-pointers in 2015-16, which ranked Toronto 29th in the league. Cleveland contributed to that bloat by going 43-of-86 from out there in the three meetings and the Cavs are hitting 46.2 percent through their eight postseason games. It's not just Smith and Kevin Love, either, what with Channing Frye added to the mix, Irving adding proficiency there and, when they get rolling, an everyone-into-the-pool contagiousness.

James almost has been in idle, relative to his past playoff workloads. He's been content to pick his spots and lean on the help available this year in Irving and Love (compared to the heavy lifting last year with Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson filling those spots). In fact, Irving is Cleveland's leading scorer through eight games, averaging 24.4 points to James' 23.5. He's at a point where conserving energy is the smart way to play, though he remains a potent, versatile weapon should the Cavs require that.

The Raptors will win if ...

Lowry and DeRozan play like the All-Stars they were this season -- and the ones who put the Heat away in Game 7. They combined for 63 of Toronto's 116 points and 49 of its 85 field-goal attempts in the clincher and will have to play similarly outsized roles against the Cavs. They're shooting a combined 36 percent, however, the source of their inconsistency through two rounds and the Raptors' need for the maximum 14 games.

Bismack Biyombo was a revelation against Miami, a 5.5 points-per-game guy reaching double figures three times in the series, including his 17 points and 16 rebounds in the finale. But Cleveland won't be as vulnerable in the middle as Miami was once Hassan Whiteside went down. In fact, the Cavs can throw multiple looks at Biyombo or any other Toronto bigs, starting with Thompson but continuing through Love, Frye, lumbering Timofey Mozgov or even James. Jonas Valunciunas was averaging 4.4 offensive rebounds before he sprained his right ankle. Biyombo is at 2.7 heading into this round. Those second and third opportunities will be vital the way the Raptors' main gunners shoot.

Toronto has been in need of frontcourt scoring ever since Valunciunas went down. If Carroll is too busy chasing James, some offensive punch seems mandatory from Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross and/or Norman Powell. They combined for 24.0 points in the regular season compared to 20.3 in the playoffs, and all three are lugging negatives in plus/minus through the 14 games.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Will Cleveland's long layoff or Toronto's quick turnaround matter most?

Both, with both schedule breaks favoring the Cavaliers. They didn't falter after an eight-day layoff between the first two rounds and surely welcomed the rest, recovery and avoidance of injuries during this nine-day gap. The Raptors get a few extra hours, thanks to Sunday's matinee, but it's still just a two-day turnaround on the heels of all the Game 7 emotions and fatigue, short prep time for a much nastier foe and a flight to Cleveland for Games 1 and 2. Anything short of a blowout victory for Cleveland in the opener will be a source of encouragement for Toronto.

2. Will Jonas Valanciunas make an appearance?

Valanciunas' ankle was a topic of interest after Toronto advanced, but updates weren't providing much help. He's considered "day to day" and is not expected to play in Game 1 Tuesday. Our man John Schuhmann tweeted that he peeked at the big man's ankle prior to the Sunday's game and reported that it still looked seriously swollen. The tricky part for the Raptors is, without Valanciunas early in the series to discourage James and Irving in the paint and at the rim, it might not last long enough for Valanciunas to fully heal and participate at all.

3. How important is Kevin Love in this series?

Perhaps more than any of the matchups -- yes, even beyond the familiar and traditional one in which Carroll labors to cope against James -- the ones dictated by Cleveland's Kevin Love figure to be the most problematical for Toronto. Luis Scola started at power forward in the three regular season meetings but has sat out nine of the past 10 games, so that's no help. Patrick Patterson's mobility will be stressed and, if Cavs coach Tyronn Lue goes to the Love-at-center lineup in surgical strikes, then even the remarkable Biyombo will be out of his depth defensively. Love averaged 18.3 points and 10.3 rebounds against the Raptors during the season and he's at 19.8 and 13.1 per 36 minutes in the postseason so far.

Making the pick

If we focus solely on the pressure in this series, then Toronto would seem to be in good shape. It has met, maybe even exceeded, all expectations internally and externally and now is comfortably in the realm of hoping and dreaming about a Finals run. Cleveland, of course, would be thrown into chaos if the Cavaliers didn't advance for another crack at the title. That said, pressure means nothing the way Cleveland was playing when we last saw that team. Its recent 3-point barrages have been as amazing to witness as they've been deflating to their opponents. And there doesn't seem to be any way for the Raptors to close the gap between their 20 points per playoff game on 3-pointers and Cleveland's 50. Factor in three stars vs. two and a healthy Cavs squad compared to Toronto's banged-up crew, and Toronto's best shot is to ride its home crowd to one victory.

Cavs in 5.

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

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