The Eastern Conference Finals get underway later this evening in Cleveland. The series will feature the Toronto Raptors, in their first ever Conference Finals, versus old-hand LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. James is appearing in his sixth consecutive ECF, and looking to head to his sixth consecutive NBA Finals, a feat that puts him (and James Jones, somehow) in the elite company of the 1960's Boston Celtics, and pretty much nobody else.
LeBron's Cavaliers have absolutely rolled their opponents so far this post-season, turning in a perfect 8-0 record and looking dominant while doing so. Their net rating is +10.4, and they're averaging a playoff best 117.0 points per 100 possessions. Toronto, conversely, rates out to a -2.1 so far these playoffs, and have the lowest offensive rating (99.4) of any team that didn't get bounced in the first round.
When coach Tyronn Lue took over from David Blatt, he immediately preached the need for the Cavs to play faster and more efficiently, eschewing the plodding iso-ball style that often bogged down their offense early in the season. It turns out he was half right -- Cleveland is still playing incredibly slow, averaging a meagre 91.63 possessions per 48 minutes, but have become one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league during the playoffs, shooting 46.1% overall, and 46.2% on a whopping 36.3 attempts per game from three point range.
Some context: the Raptors, who fans have crucified for dragging out offensive possessions, have averaged 91.95 possessions per 48 minutes, slightly more than Cleveland. And the Cavaliers three point attempts thus far put them at 6.3 more per game than the vaunted Golden State Warriors. Cleveland has scored an insane 46.6% of all their points this post-season off of 3's. A distant second in that category is the dearly departed Portland Trail Blazers, at 34.0%. What's more, is that 85.5% of those triples have been assisted baskets; Cleveland has turned in an NBA best 2.20 assist/turnover ratio, averaging 23.1 assists and just 10.9 turnovers per game.
So they're milking the clock, moving the ball (and taking care of it) and burying three pointers at world-beating rate. For a Toronto team that's leading the league in points per-game off turnovers this post-season (17.5) and was 29th in the NBA at defending the three during the regular season, it's not a good recipe. Here are your keys to the series.
The Cavs, in absolutely dummying both their opponents so far, have opened the door to one of the eternal playoff quandaries: is it better to be rested or rolling? The Raptors will undoubtedly be riding high after their Game 7 blowout of the Miami Heat. Dwane Casey has been playing the 'nobody believes in us' card, and Kyle Lowry finally looks like Kyle Lowry again. Could Toronto steal Game 1 on the road? If they're going to have any shot at an upset for the ages, this is the place to start. Cleveland hasn't played a game since May 8th and have only played eight times in the past calendar month. There's a chance their shooters could be rusty -- Toronto fans know how contagious that kind of thing gets.
With that said, there's a chance the Raptors are beginning to burn out. Just how hurt are they? Jonas Valanciunas has been officially ruled out for Game 1 and appears doubtful for Game 2. DeMarre Carroll is battling a litany of injuries. Is DeMar DeRozan still tying a shoelace around his thumb? Is Kyle Lowry's elbow still barking?
Toronto needs to be at 100%, or as close to it as possible, if they're going to get in Cleveland's kitchen.
So Clean, Clean
Toronto can't afford to play ugly, indecisive basketball anymore. They got away with it against Indiana and Miami because they had a distinct size advantage and were able to get themselves second chance points (14.65 per game, second in the playoffs behind OKC). It won't be so against Cleveland. Even if the Cavaliers go small with Kevin Love at the 5, they still have solid rebounders at perimeter positions, and Love himself is no slouch on the glass. They can also field lineups featuring Tristan Thompson or the towering Timofey Mozgov. Atlanta was one of the worst rebounding teams in the league this season, so the Cavs playoff numbers might be a touch inflated, but Toronto needs to understand that the 12.5 offensive rebounds they've been grabbing so far this post-season is likely to shrink greatly.
Toronto needs to swing the ball effectively and hit their open shots. On that note, Patrick Patterson needs to step it up. 2Pat has been doing all the little things well since stepping into the starting lineup, but Toronto badly misses his shot-making, as he's hitting on just 28.9% of his attempts from deep. He was especially bad against Miami, making only 3 of 21 three's in the series. He's likely to spend some time guarding LeBron when Carroll is on the bench, so it's a big ask, but Toronto could really use the secondary offense as it's unlikely to come from the offensive glass.
Ain't Nobody Dope As Me
LeBron James will be the best player in this series. Toronto only has a chance to win if Lowry and DeRozan are the second and third best guys on the floor. This is something that might change game by game, but cumulatively, it needs to be true. I'm not going to back this one up with hard numbers -- it's common sense. They need to be constantly attacking, creating for their teammates, and efficiently and effectively outplaying the complementary players for Cleveland.
If Kevin Love is hitting threes and getting on the glass like he did to Atlanta, Toronto is done. If Kyrie Irving is allowed to catch fire and take over a game or two, Toronto is done. If J.R. Smith has a game where he makes a dozen threes, Toronto is probably done The Raptors need to push that triumvirate out of their comfort zones and do everything they can to take them out of their rhythm. You're not going to rattle the King. But you might be able to smother his knights.
So Follow, It's Showtime at the Apollo
The Love-Frye-James-Smith-Irving lineup is the deadly bomber unit that keyed the Cavs to an NBA record for made three pointers in a single game and a four game series, and gave both the Pistons and Hawks fits. Toronto struggles to defend the three point shot percentage wise, but has actually done a very good job running shooters off the three point line and limiting opponent attempts. The Raptors have still allowed their opponents to shoot 34.7% from deep, but they're giving up only 19.6 attempts per game, third fewest in the league. Given that Cleveland has taken 36.3 attempts per game (as mentioned above), something has to give here. Toronto would be wise to try to get into the paint versus the Frye/Love combination and force Cleveland to insert Thompson or the mothballed Mozgov as much as possible.
On the same tip, Kyrie Irving is a terrible defender. Just straight up bad. He gambles for steals and can't stay in front of anybody. Go at him relentlessly. It doesn't matter who he's covering. DeRozan and Carroll can both post him up and Lowry can rip him apart in the pick and roll. Don't let him rest, don't let him relax.They won't have anywhere to hide him. You need to torch this man, or he will torch you.
I'll admit it: the numbers alone make it seem like the Raptors don't stand a chance, and that seems to been the prevailing sentiment among the media. Toronto took two of three meetings from the Cavs during the regular season, but this Cavaliers team has since found a different gear. Zach Lowe and Jeff Van Gundy agreed on the Lowe Post podcast Monday that it would be a victory if Toronto took even one game from Cleveland and similar opinions have been echoed elsewhere. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's enough, as they say, just to be nominated.
No matter what happens, the Toronto Raptors will be able to point at this season and say they set a franchise record for wins, won two hard-fought playoff series, overcame major injuries, shooting slumps and self-doubt and went to their first Conference Finals against a team led by one of the greatest players ever to lace 'em up.
It doesn't feel like the ultimate destiny of this team, though. They don't feel like a team that's going to go quietly. Like a team that's going to say 'thanks for the opportunity, see you next year'. They've been through too much, overcome too much, for that to feel like the right way to go out.
They might go down. They probably will, in fact.
But when they do, they're going to go down swinging.