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The Cavaliers dropping four straight to end the regular season seems like a long time ago after they finished sweeping the Pacers out of the Playoffs in four games – getting a week off to watch Toronto and Milwaukee duke it out in six.
The Raptors were eventually too much for the young Bucks and for the second straight year – after never previously meeting in the postseason – it’s the Wine and Gold locking horns with "We the North".
Last year, the Cavaliers returned to the NBA Finals after dropping Toronto in six games, losing their first two contests at Air Canada Centre before blowing out the Raptors in Game 6. In the series, the Cavaliers outrebounded the Raptors by 40 and won by an average of 28.5 points in their four victories – including a 38-point demolition in Game 5 at The Q.
Cleveland went 3-1 against the Raptors during the regular season, but their last meaningful matchup was back on December 5 – with both teams making significant changes in between that four-point win in Toronto and the throwaway loss in the home finale at The Q. In the first three meetings, the Big Three saw action in each and averaged over 21 points apiece in those victories.
The Cavaliers looked like themselves again in their four-game sweep over Indy. Now, with a week of rest, can they keep their momentum against an improved Raptors squad seeking revenge?
If LeBron James was worn down from the regular season, he sure didn’t look it in Cleveland’s four-game sweep over the Pacers – notching his 21st straight win over a First Round opponent along the way.
The four-time MVP doubled-up in all four games, averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 boards, 9.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks – becoming the first player in NBA history to average those numbers in a single Playoff series. James topped the 30-point mark in three of Cleveland’s four wins – running his postseason total to 87 games of 30+, trailing only Michael Jordan (109) and Kobe Bryant (88).
Against Indiana, James shot 54 percent from the floor and 45 percent from the arc. In last year’s six-game run in the Eastern Conference Finals, James did most of his work inside the arc – shooting 62 percent in the series.
He saved his best for last – notching his first 30-point game of the 2016 postseason in the decisive Game 6 win, finishing with a team-high 33 points on 13-for-22 shooting.
In Cleveland’s three regular season wins over Toronto this season, the King averaged 27.7 points on 51 percent shooting to go with 8.3 boards and 9.7 assists. It’s still to be seen how the Raptors intend to check LeBron.
In the small lineup that helped them beat the Bucks, Norman Powell got the start at small forward with DeMarre Carroll at the 4 and Serge Ibaka at the 5. Powell had a very strong First Round series against Milwaukee – going 10-of-11 from three-point range – but he’ll need help on this defensive assignment, looking to Carroll, P.J. Tucker and Ibaka.
The acquisition of Ibaka was key to the Raptors’ late-season success and they hope he’s a piece that can put them over the top. Toronto went 16-7 in the 23 games after his arrival in a deal that sent Terrance Ross and a first round pick to Orlando in exchange for the three-time All-Defensive First Teamer.
Over that 23-game span, Ibaka averaged 14.2 points, 6.8 boards and 1.4 blocks per.
The postseason is nothing new to the seventh-year forward, who’s played in 95 Playoff contests coming into the series.
In Toronto’s six-game series win over Milwaukee, Ibaka – scored in double-figures in four contests and grabbed double-digit boards in two more. With 14 blocks in the First Round, he trails only Marcin Gortat for most in the Eastern Conference this postseason. Although he started at center over the last three games of the Milwaukee series, the Raptors may have to re-calibrate against Cleveland. And that means Ibaka might spend the series keeping an eye on Kevin Love.
Against Indiana, Love struggled to shoot the ball over his last two outings – going 6-for-25 from the floor after turning in one of the most efficient postseason scoring games in history, finishing with 27 points on seven field goal attempts in Game 2. In the series, Love averaged 15.5 points and 9.3 boards – overcoming a poor shooting night to lead both squads with 16 rebounds in the series-clincher last Sunday.
Love doubled-up in all three games he played against Toronto this year – averaging 21.7 points and 12.3 boards. Against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, Love averaged 22.5 points over his last two outings, leading both teams with 12 boards in the Game 6 win that sent Cleveland back to the NBA Finals.
If the Cavaliers want to return to the Finals for a third straight season, they’ll have to go through some of the toughest backcourt combinations in the league – beginning with the one-two punch of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
DeRozan, an All-Star in three of the last four seasons, is coming off his best year as a pro. He willed the Raptors into the Second Round after struggling early, topping the 30-point mark in two of the final three games of the series after taking the collar in an eight-point, 0-for-8 effort in Game 3.
DeRozan went for 30-plus in two games against Cleveland in last year’s ECF, but Tyronn Lue’s staff seemed to figure him out later in the series, holding the eight-year veteran from USC to 11-for-26 shooting over the final two games.
In three regular season contests against the Wine and Gold this year, DeRozan is averaging 29.7 points per.
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will draw the assignment of trying to slow DeRozan down. After a nice run late in the regular season, Swish still hasn’t found his offensive rhythm – notching double-digits just once against Indiana despite an efficient 7-for-16 shooting from long-range. But Smith (and Shumpert) both were tasked with checking Paul George for the balance of the series.
Against the Raptors in last year’s postseason, J.R. tallied double-figures in three of them – including a 22-point effort, going 6-for-15 from long-range in Cleveland’s 15-point loss in Game 3 at Toronto.
The other half of Toronto’s lethal backcourt – Kyle Lowry – didn’t have a great series against Milwaukee, averaging 14.3 points in the six-game set (over eight points under his season average), shooting 43 percent from the floor, including 28 percent from beyond the arc.
Lowry’s been an Eastern Conference All-Star in each of the last three seasons and he’s had some monster games against the Cavaliers over the years – including a 43-point game in last year’s regular season and a pair of 35-point outings in last year’s East Finals.
Lowry’s done his normal solid work against Cleveland in four regular season meetings this year, but fellow All-Star, Kyrie Irving has been just a little bit better – averaging 24.7 points and 5.7 assists in three matchups with Toronto, shooting 47 percent from the floor and 47 percent from long-distance.
The Raptors held Kyrie in check for exactly one game in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals – shooting 3-for-19 in Cleveland’s Game 3 loss and shooting .545 in the other five contests. Irving – who’s now scored at least 20 points in 21 of his last 25 Playoff games – saved his best for last against Toronto last year, finishing with 30 points and a game-high nine assists in the Game 6 clincher north of the border.