He’s 32 years old now, but LeBron James continues to be the arbiter of other teams’ demise in the Eastern Conference. The line of groups who have grown up and groomed themselves for success against LeBron is now ten years deep. There’s the Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose Bulls teams, the first iteration of Lance Stephenson in Indiana, and the 60-win Atlanta Hawks. All have ran into that human buzzsaw, the greatest to suit it up since MJ.
Now, it’s the Toronto Raptors stepping up to the plate. While the Eastern Conference semifinals is an earlier rematch than last year’s conference finals, LeBron and the Cavaliers may be a little more unready as a result. The Raptors have never had a better roster for facing the challenges presented by Cleveland, with the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker done seemingly with the Cavaliers exclusively in mind. An unsteady Cleveland defense may also factor in.
When you look at the matchups, there’s reason to be optimistic. Like Kyle Lowry is!
"I'm optimistic."@Klow7 spoke to the media from practice prior to the team departing for Cleveland.— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 30, 2017
Here are five keys to watch for as the Raptors-Cavaliers series plays out.
The biggest question mark coming into this series, on the injury front at least, is Kyle Lowry’s back. Lowry’s shot was inarguably affected by back stiffness, as the Raptors’ best three-point shooter made just nine of his 32 attempts against Milwaukee (28.1 percent).
Raptors fans are hoping three days off helps correct this situation, as Lowry is no longer looking across at Malcolm Brogdon and Jason Terry. Matched up with Kyrie Irving, Lowry will often be Toronto’s most important player on both ends — defending Cleveland’s second scorer, and filling that old basketball idea of “making him work on defense”.
In last year’s conference finals, Lowry shot a true shooting percentage of just 54.7. Hopefully this number can improve rather than worsen, but a back injury throws a lot of that into question.
DeRozan vs. Everyone
Coming off a Milwaukee series where he dictated the Raptors’ offensive flow with selflessness, DeMar DeRozan’s scoring and awareness will again be counted on in the second round. This season against the Cavaliers he averaged an awesome 29.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game in three appearances, mostly matched up with J.R. Smith.
There’s no reason to believe these numbers can’t continue. You saw it most noticeably on the series-clinching dunk over the Bucks, but DeMar DeRozan has become deft at finding the rim when rim protection is out of position.
DeMar DeRozan is out here trying to dunk the Bucks out of the playoffs... pic.twitter.com/hZeKoM23ij— Dime on UPROXX (@DimeUPROXX) April 28, 2017
In a series against a team with only one true centre in Tristan Thompson, those opportunities will be numerous. Cleveland was bottom-six in the league in blocks per game, averaging 4.0 as a team, and a lack of rim protection has been a pillar of their defensive drop-off in 2016-17.
DeRozan will be the best Toronto Raptors player for taking advantage of this. As he did with Milwaukee’s traps, he needs to recognize opportunities when they’re there, and get the easiest buckets possible.
Does “The Switch” Exist?
A lack of blocked shots isn’t the only thing plaguing the Cavaliers’ defense these days. One of the most talked-about storylines in the NBA has been their precipitous fall on that end of the floor, as they were the league’s second-worst defense (111.1 rating) after the All-Star break. A sweep over the Pacers didn’t do much to resolve concerns, as they only “improved” to 111.0 — this includes, as pointed out by Fear the Sword’s Justin Rowan in yesterday’s Q&A, a shockingly bad rating of 123.2 in first halves.
Clearly, the Cavaliers haven’t had to be concerned about defense up to this point, which is why the idea of “the switch” has become so prevalent. In the minds of many, they can turn it on when they want to, and will do so when challenged. After all, they’ve still had a week off, even through the numbers above.
The Raptors, though, are aligned better to defend an astronomical Cleveland offense, which may bring that side of the see saw (115.9 offensive rating) closer to even.
Toronto has a starting lineup that matches up with Cleveland’s more traditional look, with Jonas Valanciunas playing Tristan Thompson and Serge Ibaka going against Kevin Love. They can also shift small when Channing Frye comes in, with Ibaka flipping to the five and P.J. Tucker or Patrick Patterson coming in at forward.
Still, Cleveland can stretch you out in a number of ways. They have shooters up and down the roster — J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, and Irving all shoot over 40 percent from three. They’re more creative than just putting Frye at centre too. Late in the season in a pivotal matchup against Boston, the Cavs threw out a LeBron-at-centre wrinkle. The result was a flustered Al Horford, and a flurry of threes that put the game out of reach. The Raptors, god help them, do have the personnel to scurry around and challenge these looks. The problem is Cleveland can still make the shots.
In essence, the switch isn’t the biggest concern for Cleveland’s opponents. It’s hoping to stop them on the other end, trying to bring them down to earth, that’s the real problem. Toronto has the scoring to challenge — we saw that in a historic start to the season. It’s about execution on defense now.
Matchups with LeBron
Centring that defense will be any matchup against LeBron James. The idea of there being a LeBron stopper died around ten years ago, but the Raptors are tuned up with a few options that can hinder James in his forays to the paint.
The first will be P.J. Tucker, who was the most demonstrative option in the first round against Giannis Antetokounmpo. While he’s undersized, he can be more physical with James.
The key for the Raptors will be the change-of-pace minutes when Tucker isn’t there. DeMarre Carroll will be a candidate, and while he looked entirely lost in last year’s conference finals, he may be the only guy who can ably defend LeBron’s first step. Patrick Patterson will likely also get a look if he plays crunch-time minutes.
As with any superstar, it’s about giving different looks and trying to remove James from his comfort zone. It’s a tall task, but the Raptors have three guys for the job — many teams don’t have one.
Roles on the Road
Cleveland has home court in the series, and if the Raptors want to steal a game, they’ll need to execute better offense in Quicken Loans Arena. The difference between Toronto’s offense at home (108.5 rating) and on the road (94.2 rating) was massive this season, and it mostly falls on their shooters.
Right now those shooters are DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Patrick Patterson. All had better three-point figures at home — Carroll shot six percentage points better, Joseph five, and Patterson two.
This extended into the first round in mind-numbing ways. In the three games played in Milwaukee, role players straight up tossed bricks. Joseph and P.J. Tucker both shot 16.7 percent from the field, Patterson shot 27.3 percent, and Carroll shot 28.6 percent. If not for the blessed presence of Norman Powell (45 percent), we really might be writing player reviews instead of series previews today.
The Raptors need better shooting from their role players on the road if they’re going to gain home court. DeRozan and Lowry are typically more steady. It’s on the other guys to be the same way.