2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Semifinals: Raptors (1) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Series Preview: Toronto Raptors get another shot at LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Series marks 3rd straight playoff meeting, but this time Toronto has home-court advantage

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Indiana, which overachieved all season relative to NBA insiders’ expectations, got a real booby prize for its trouble. The Pacers snagged the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and immediately were eyeball-to-eyeball with LeBron James and his defending champion Cavaliers.

Now it’s Toronto’s turn to face — one round earlier than they might have hoped or expected — Cleveland in the conference semifinals. It’s a matchup the Raptors would have preferred to delay or duck entirely. But in truth, it’s one they ought to embrace, not just for some advantages they hold over the Cavs but as an opportunity to be pro-active rather than reactive in their burgeoning growth as a legit title contender.

Toronto spent last summer and this season becoming less reliant on its All-Star guards, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and the results have been impressive all around. Offensively, defensively, statistically and stylistically, the Raptors were better than their 2016-17 selves and, aside from a late 3-5 swoon, the class of the East.

Cleveland, by contrast, leans more on James than it has at any point since the 2015 postseason. Judged by their point differential, the Cavs at 50-32 probably won half a dozen games more than they “should” have. The roster makeover at the trade deadline has been a mixed bag, delivering younger players who presumably fit better. But the learning curve has been bumpy for the new guys and the holdovers alike.

Cleveland ousted Toronto in each of the past two postseasons. It has won six consecutive playoff games against the Raptors in doing so, and any team with James is a threat to snatch the home-court edge the instant the series begins. Yet there are big difference between this year’s showdown and those that came before.

Previously, the Cavs came in rested and ready. This time, however, they had to battle through seven games against the Indiana Pacers. This time, Toronto was the team with a little time off, courtesy of its six-game triumph over the Washington Wizards. The Raptors are a better team than Indiana but they’ll have to show it on the court, with James double-dog-daring them, hoping he can stay in DeRozan and Lowry’s heads a bit longer.

Three quick questions and answers

1. Who guards LeBron? This should be the first question of every preview of every playoff series of every season of James’ career since he first started qualifying in 2006. Toronto’s past two defensive-minded wings – DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker – didn’t get the job done. Now the Raptors will be leaning on rookie OG Anunoby, who gives up precious bulk. James helped Cleveland to its 2-1 record in the regular season showdowns, scoring more (29.3 ppg) and shooting better (57 percent overall, 40 percent from the arc and 80 percent from the line) than he did against the rest of the league.

2. Who are the X factors for each team? The Raptors’ Fred Van Vleet is first among backup equals on Toronto’s bench, the league’s best. Twenty-three of his 35 games scoring in double figures came in the second half. Cleveland has no one like that off its bench, going more with traditional second-unit players rather than reliable instant offense. For the Cavaliers, then, it’s a starter, Kevin Love, who could make or break his team’s trek to a fourth consecutive Finals. Love found his errant 3-point shot in the finale against Indiana, but there’s no guarantee it won’t drift on him again. He hasn’t played up to his paper status as Cleveland’s second-best player after You Know Who, but Love did thrive in the season series against the Raptors (17 ppg, 12 rpg, 8-13 from the arc).

3. Which team wins from long distance? In league rankings, the Cavaliers and the Raptors were pretty close in 3-point attempts (fifth and third, respectively) and makes (third and fourth). But in the three games they played against each other, Toronto launched 10 more per game (36.7 to 26.7) and outscored the Cavs by 8.4 points. Cleveland is at its best when shooters such as Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Love are spaced out and hitting from distance. That’s why Indiana tempered its double-teaming of James, lest he find one of those guys open. Chasing the Cavs when they’re scoring by 2s is hard enough; they prefer to have you chasing their 3s. Lowry and Van Vleet are the Raptors’ biggest threats from the arc, with DeRozan more than doubling his attempts and makes from last season.

The number to know

26 percent — In their series against the Raptors, the Washington Wizards took just 26 percent of their shots from 3-point range, the lowest rate in the first round and down from 31 percent in the regular season. The best way to defend opponent 3-point shooting is to prevent 3-point shots, and the Raptors were the most improved team in that regard this season. They allowed their opponents to take just 29 percent of their shots from beyond the arc in the regular season, the second lowest rate in the league and down from 33 percent (the eighth highest rate) last season. In their sweep of the Raptors in last year’s conference semifinals, the Cavs outscored Toronto by 25.5 points per game from on 3-point shots, taking 41 percent of their shots and shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc. The Raptors are taking more 3-pointers themselves this season, but more important (especially against this opponent) is that they’re preventing them on the other end of the floor. — John Schuhmann

Making the pick

Indiana was successful in keeping its series against Cleveland all about basketball, even in defeat. Toronto, in being ousted by the Cavs in 2016 and 2017, has endured more of a psychological test. Specifically, DeRozan and Lowry seemed to have let James get into their heads. That’s the reason James was beating his chest, hollering “I’m still a problem!” late in an early April smackdown. But this is a deeper, more versatile and multi-faceted Toronto team, and Cleveland has taken a step back. Plus DeRozan, Lowry and the rest of them have just seen the Pacers push James and his crew to the brink. This time, stepping up in class in facing the Raptors and dealing with the cumulative grind of two long series means trouble for Cleveland. Raptors in 7.

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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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