East Conf. Semis: Toronto Raptors vs Cleveland Cavaliers - Preview, SWOT Analysis, and Prediction
The Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers meet up in the postseason for the third season running, and for the second consecutive time at the Conference Semifinals stage. Both teams got pushed to the limit in the first round by opponents who matched up well against them, but the Raptors have 3 extra days of rest and homecourt advantage this time around.
The departure of Kyrie Irving from the Cavs' ranks last summer makes this a much more even series than the last two. In fact, given both teams' performances up to this point of the season, it could be argued that the Raptors are legitimately the favorites to advance through this round for the first time in recent memory.
The Raptors' bench has been a big difference-maker for them in the postseason too, and their All-Star duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have so far been exceptional. There's something about this version of the Raptors which does make it seem very different to what it was over the past 4 years.
What has not changed, however, is the looming, daunting challenge in their path - a 6'9", 250-pound beast who is unequivocally the best player in the world today. Especially given The King's superhuman display in the first round, when he willed the Cavs past the Pacers who outscored them by 40 points over the course of the series.
LeBron James, however, has the least help that he's had in the last 8 postseasons, with none of the other Cavaliers touching the 20-point mark even once despite having 7 opportunities to do so. The series will rely primarily on how well the Cavs respond to their respective matchups on offense, and whether they can get over the anemic displays of the previous round to give their leader enough support this time around.
Let's take a look at the factors that will determine how the games play out this time around:
The Raptors were the only team in the league this regular season to finish among the top 5 in both defensive and offensive efficiency. Their net rating on a per-100-possessions basis was 3rd behind only the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. By all accounts, they are a team which has the capability to win the game with a strong performance on one end of the court - or also on both sides of the ball.
They play a run-and-game style of offense that has allowed them to maximize the impact of Kyle Lowry - a deadly spot-up shooter whose gravity opens things up inside the 2-point region for the rest of the team to capitalize on overcompensating defences. They share the ball remarkably well as a team and improvise on a per-game basis in half-court sets to bring the best out of each individual on offense.
As a team, the Raptors are currently first among surviving playoff teams in 3-point percentage at 41%. They are averaging 11 made 3s per game - the 3rd-highest figure among teams remaining in the bracket.
Their switch-heavy scheme on defense, given their personnel, serves them remarkably well. The likes of Lowry, Ibaka, Poetl, Siakam, Anunoby, Delon Wright and VanVleet are all capable of handling a variety of defensive assignments.
At their best, the Cavaliers are a fast-paced team that plays an exciting brand of basketball and has dominant rebounders in interior defense to cut off possessions. They have an intriguing bench unit which is capable of going toe-to-toe with its best competitor in the league on its night - the Cavs have a better net rating with LeBron off the court than with him on it for the first time in 4 seasons.
The likes of Kevin Love, George Hill, JR Smith, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver are all capable of getting really hot. The Cavs ran a Larry Nance-LeBron James pick-and-roll combo with great effect for most of the first round, and they could actually do a better job against the Raptors who will often have slow-footed Valanciunas and Poetl on the floor playing center.