As measuring sticks go, LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers are a lengthy one. They're the defending champs, armed with one of the most powerful offenses ever assembled, and led by the greatest player of his generation, who just so happens to have made the Finals in six consecutive seasons.
This is the test the Raptors have been preparing for since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals ended last year.
Three close losses to the Cavs in the season's first six weeks served as tester exams. They highlighted the flaws that still existed within the Raptors fabric that would need resolving before their inevitable playoff reckoning.
Scoring came easy in those games; Toronto's first two months were borderline historic offensively, and the Cavs' defense was just as buttery then as it is today. But as 121-117 and 116-112 losses on on November 15th and December 5th respectively illustrated, Toronto was always going to fall short in a track meet with Cleveland. LeBron and his cast of shooters is are too potent. Defensive reinforcements were required to help even the fight.
Because of the regular season series' quirky schedule, Monday's Game 1 will be the first look at what the revamped Raptors, featuring P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka, will look like in practice against the team that was in Masai Ujiri and Jeff Weltman's minds heading into deadline season. The task of the two newest Raptors: help keep it close.
If there's a silver lining to being supreme underdogs, it's that the Raptors aren't burdened by the expectation of winning. That isn't to say, however, that the Raptors don't have achievements to unlock in their rematch with Cleveland. A sweep, or second-straight series loss by more than 100 NET points could bring about the same questions that a first round failure against Milwaukee might have. If two major additions, a deeper supporting cast, and a vastly improved DeMar DeRozan can't show at least some growth against Cleveland, what more can possibly be milked out of this core group?
The 51 wins, the deadline moves, the third playoff series win in two years -- those were all a pleasant prelude to the meat of the Raptors' 2016-17 season. Toronto's quest for competitiveness starts tonight. Here's what to watch for.
Dwane Casey's decision to swap Norman Powell for Jonas Valanciunas in the starting five might have been the pivot point of the Raptors' six-game win over Milwaukee. Powell's defensive quickness and off-ball skillset were a perfect fit against the Bucks' transition offense and rangy trapping scheme.
Expect a restoration to the norm (pun oh so very intended) to start the Cavs series. Jonas Valanciunas looks like a misfit in this matchup. Outside of Tristan Thompson, every freaking guy on the Cavs is a three-point threat. If Cleveland roles with Kevin Love or Channing Frye at centre in reserve units, Casey will be making a mistake by having Valanciunas on the floor.
JV's most logical place in this series is as a ceremonial starter across from Thompson. As much as Valanciunas can be minced in the pick-and-roll, his rebounding will be essential when both Thompson and Love are on the court. Beyond the opening eight-ish minutes of each half, Toronto might be best served opting for alternative situations at the five. Ibaka needs to play there a ton. Patrick Patterson and even the spry Jakob Poeltl might make some sense in lieu of Valanciunas as well.
DeMarre Carroll's starting job will almost certainly come into question during this series too. While his defense was solid against Milwaukee after a nightmarish Game 1, he's less of a tailor made LeBron pest than Tucker. If Carroll is getting battered in the precious opening minutes of games, the Raptors could quickly find themselves in an inescapable hole.
Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Ibaka and Valanciunas will probably be the starting five in Game 1; there's no sourcing with that assumption, it's just a guess made with Casey's conservative approach to change in mind. A prediction: the starting five that closes the series will feature Tucker. If Casey's is proactive, it will to start the series as well.
This is Why They Brought Them Here
When you look at how the Raptors got exploited in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the thinking behind the additions of Ibaka and Tucker becomes crystal clear.
Bismack Biyombo had stellar moments in Toronto's two wins over the Cavs, but his rebounding and rim-protecting came at the expense of the Raptors offense. His inability to make plays on the catch (or you know, make the catch), decayed Toronto's scoring potency. At times he put the Raptors at a 4-on-5 disadvantage on that end.
Ibaka is different. He’s show in his brief time with the Raptors that he’s unafraid to shoot, and that he’s pretty damned effective when he does, whether he’s jab-stepping a mid-range jumper from the post or firing up a pick-and-pop three. He can also provide a touch of playmaking on the short roll — a useful skill to have if the Cavs try to replicate Milwaukee’s trap-focused defense. That Ibaka can provide all that offensive utility while also offering Biyombo-level rim protection is a bonus against most opponents, and a necessity against Cleveland. He’ll be the counter to Cleveland’s stretchiest lineups, and has the offensive chops to punish those looks on the other end. Without back-to-backs to worry about, look for Ibaka’s minutes load to be heavy.
Tucker, as mentioned in the previous blurb, is the best hope the Raptors have had against LeBron since he entered the league. He’s probably somewhere in the seven to 10 range when it comes to wing defenders in the entire league. That’s a handy too to have against The King.
Sending double teams LeBron’s way is always tempting — how could you not want to force the ball out of the hands of one of the most unguardable scorers in league history? Of course the Raptors have seen the horror that sending doubles LeBron’s way incites. No one has mastered the skip pass quite like him, and with a perimeter dotted by a hodge-podge of Irvings, Loves, Korvers, Smiths and Fryes, the LeBron can turn any double team into an open three for his team.
The best hope against him is to adhere to a strict one-on-one policy, and pray that your best defender can hamper him enough to keep him from scoring 60. Tucker is that guy for the Raptors, and for the first time, it doesn’t entirely feel as though false hope is being assigned to Toronto’s no. 1 LeBron stopper. Maybe Tucker can actually make him work.
The Trappings of Aggressive Defense
One of the more fascinating wrinkles in this series will be to see Tyronn Lue’s base defensive strategy against Toronto’s guard-heavy attack. Last year, traps were the weapon of choice against DeRozan and Kyle Lowry more often than not. With so few secondary creators on the floor, it was a surefire way to stymie Toronto’s attack — or at at the very least drain seconds from the shot clock as Toronto’s scrambled to hit reset.
The scare Milwaukee put into the Raptors with their trapping is fresh in the minds of anyone who watched that series unfold. But it shouldn’t overshadow the strides the Raptors made in overcoming their Kryptonite this season. Against most opponents, DeRozan and Lowry were nearly trap-proof. Instead of forcing the issue or coughing up turnovers, Toronto’s All-Stars — DeRozan especially — placed trust in their teammates more routinely this season. Rather than having entire possessions smothered by aggressive pick-and-roll defenses, the Raptors turned traps into minor hurdles on the way to prosperity in most instances this year.
Milwaukee was a particularly tricky foe, and Cleveland doesn’t have the length, agility or bounty of defenders that the Bucks possessed. While their offense is next to unstoppable, the Cavs’ defense remains porous. Indiana’s offense was the epitome of average in the regular season, and managed to hang 111.0 points per 100 possessions on Cleveland in the first round. If the Raptors can carve up incoming Cavs traps with the same ease that they have against most non-Bucks opponents this year, they’ll force an already poor defense to defend with a numbers disadvantage. Edges are going to be hard to find in this series for Toronto. If Cleveland is going to hand them one with their defensive scheme, that’s a gigantic bonus.
Where to Watch: 7pm EST, TSN, Jurassic Park