Keys to the Game presented by: Key Bank

Five Keys: Cavaliers at Raptors - Game 1

David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Key: Take Off to the Great White North

In the past two postseason meetings between these two Eastern Conference heavyweights, the Wine & Gold came into the series without having dropped a single game. But this year, both teams come into the Second Round with some lumps from a tough initial matchup.

The Pacers – Cleveland’s toughest regular season matchup - took the Cavaliers to the limit before another herculean effort by LeBron James carried them into the Conference Semis with another white-knuckle win on Sunday.

The Raptors, who won 59 games and were the first team in the league to clinch a Playoff spot, went toe-to-toe with Washington in their First Round matchup, finally knocking out John Wall and Co. on Friday night in D.C.

After thumping the Cavaliers by 34 points in the first regular season meeting of the year, the Wine & Gold got a pair of comeback wins at The Q to take the season series.

The Raptors took Cleveland to six games back in the 2016 Playoffs before being swept out in four games last spring, with the Cavs winning each game by at least 15 points. But – and here’s that line again: both teams are very different than the squads that tangled in the previous two years.

Both tired teams will get a barometer of where they’re at when we tip off on Tuesday night at Air Canada Centre.

Key: Heavy is the Head

In the First Round series against the Pacers, LeBron James became the first player since ... well, LeBron James ... to score at least 40 points in three or more games in a single playoff series. (He did so in the 2015 Finals.)

LeBron averaged 45.0 points per over the last three home games of the series against Indiana and posted a triple-double in the opener. Of course, the King came up big when his squad needed him most, notching 45 points in Game 7, going 16-for-25 from the floor to go with eight boards, seven assists and four steals in 43 minutes of work.

Including that series against Indy, LeBron has now notched at least 20 points, five boards and five assists in 14-straight playoff games and comes into the matchup with Toronto as the 2018 Playoffs’ leading scorer at 34.4 points – shooting 55 percent from the floor and 82 percent from the stripe, adding 10.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.4 steals per.

Historically speaking, James is one steal away from being the first player in NBA history to snag 400 steals in postseason play and he’s eight rebounds away from becoming just the seventh player in league history to grab 2,000 boards in the playoffs.

Numeral 23 was especially good in the last two regular season meetings against Toronto, netting 35 points and handing out 17 assists without a single turnover in the March 21 victory and doubling-up with 27 points and 10 boards in Cleveland’s comeback win at The Q on April 3.

Key: Double Trouble

Although the Raptors have changed the construct of their roster this past season, Toronto’s big guns remain their All-Star backcourt duo.

DeMar DeRozan has been outstanding all season long and is coming off a career-high 28.8 ppg effort in the six-game series against Washington – knocking down 10 triples and piling up 29 assists. The former USC star, who notched a postseason career-high 37 points in Game 2 against the Wizards, holds the Raptors franchise mark for 30-point games in the playoffs with 14.

DeRozan, who averaged a career-best 5.2 assist this season and handed out at least five helpers in 50 games, was relatively quiet in his three games against Cleveland during the regular season – averaging 17.7 points per on 43 percent shooting. In last year’s postseason matchup with the Cavs, DeRozan went off for 37 points in Game 3, but was also held to a five-point effort on 2-for-11 shooting the previous contest.

Kyle Lowry was held to five points in the final regular season meeting against Cleveland this year, but went for 24 points on 7-for-10 shooting in Toronto’s March 21 loss at The Q.

The former Villanova star, who led the league this past season in charges drawn with 37, was injured for the final two games of last year’s sweep – but averaged 20.0 points and 8.0 assists in the two contests he was able to suit up for.

Key: Front and Center

The Cavaliers' bigs might just have saved their best for last in the First Round matchup against Indiana. Kevin Love, who struggled on both ends throughout the series, notched eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter of Cleveland’s Game 7 win, giving the Wine & Gold some much-needed relief with LeBron on the bench.

In the series, the five-time All-Star – who grabbed 17 boards in Game 1 – averaged 11.4 points and 9.3 boards, shooting just under 34 percent from the floor.

Like most of his teammates, Love struggled in the first game of the season against Toronto, but he was very good in the next two – doubling-up in each victory, averaging 20.5 points and 13.5 boards in those contests. In last year’s four-game sweep, Love doubled-up in Game 3 with 16 points and 14 boards but was held pretty much in check in the rest of the series.

Love had started at center through the first six games of the First Round before Tristan Thompson dusted himself off for Game 7 – setting the tone with his energy and aggression early and finishing with 15 points and 10 boards in the victory, going 5-of-6 from the floor and 5-of-6 from the line, snagging half of his 10 boards off the offensive glass.

If Thompson starts again in his Toronto homecoming, he’ll take on the man that was drafted one spot behind him back in 2011 – Jonas Valanciunas.

This year, the Lithuanian big man led the Raptors in double-digit rebounding games (29) and double-doubles (26) while ranking eighth in the league in field goal percentage (.568).

Valanciunas was even better from the floor in three games against Cleveland this season – going .667 from the floor (20-for-30), averaging a double-double (15.7 ppg, 12.0 rpg) in the process.

Key: Reserve Judgement

The Cavaliers bench had been one of the team’s strong suits all season long – ranking seventh in the NBA with a 41.2 ppg average. But Toronto’s second unit was even better – finishing fourth overall at 41.8 ppg (first in the league after January 1 at 44.3).

This transformation, more than any other, marks the biggest difference between this Raptors team and the one Cleveland’s faced in the previous two years.

In the last two regular seasons, Toronto’s second unit ranked 26th in each, but they’re a different squad now – with Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and former Cavalier, C.J. Miles, all stepping up for Dwane Casey’s squad.

Toronto’s second unit gave the Cavaliers fits over the regular season, outscoring Cleveland’s reserves by an average of 59.0-30.0 – buoyed by the January 11 drubbing in Canada when Toronto’s bench – led by VanVleet’s 22 points – outscored the Cavaliers’, 74-48.

Cleveland’s second unit was a disappointment in the First Round. Jordan Clarkson, the league’s second-highest bench scorer during the regular season, topped double-figures just once against Indiana, as did Rodney Hood. Larry Nance Jr. was solid in limited action.

George Hill, who missed the previous three games, was big off the bench in Game 7 – netting 11 points, going 9-for-11 from the floor in the second stanza of Cleveland’s four-point victory.

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