The Raptors continue their 2017 playoff tonight at 7:00pm against the Cleveland Cavaliers. To help prepare, we asked the HQ staff to answer a few questions about their expectations for the series. Since LeBron James is involved, there is a certain inevitability to some of the answers.
Our contributors (and their Twitter handles): Russell Peddle, Daniel Hackett, James Park, Adam Iafrate, Dan Grant, and Daniel Reynolds.
As always, on to the questions.
What will be the biggest surprise for the Raptors in the series?
Russell Peddle: No one expects this to happen, but I could see the Raptors stealing one of the first two games in Cleveland. The Cavaliers will have had more than a week off when this series starts and rust might be a factor. The Raptors, meanwhile, are coming off three straight wins, including one when they looked like an idealized version of themselves (Game 5). The Cavs stink on defense and I don’t believe in their proverbial switch to flip, so I could see them underestimating the Raptors — the league’s sixth-ranked offense this season — because of their first round missteps.
Daniel Hackett: In spite of the role he played in the last series, the surprise will be how small a role Norman Powell will play in this one. With the matchups set up opposite to the Bucks (traditional big in the starting lineup, stretch as backups), Powell probably won't start, and with the Cavs less able to trap like the Bucks did, more of the offense will go through the two star guards.
James Park: This may seem like a cop out, but I think a sizable amount of Raptors fans will be surprised at LeBron James’ dominance. Many have said that this is the Raptors’ best chance at beating the Cavaliers, pointing to rugged defensive stopper P.J. Tucker, and a legitimate rim protector in Serge Ibaka. While I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment, I learned long ago that regardless of who else is on the court, Lebron James, a participant in the last six NBA Finals and seven of the last ten should never be doubted. Although I’d like nothing more than to see the Raptors slow LeBron down, after averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9 assists per game in round one, I’m not holding my breath.
Adam Iafrate: Kyle Lowry’s reemergence. For the Raptors to compete in this series, both DeMar DeRozan and Lowry need to be firing on all cylinders. The Cavs, like the Warriors, can put up a flurry of points in mere minutes, so consistent scoring from the All-Star backcourt is an absolute necessity. Lowry will be hovering around 20 points per game in this series.
Dan Grant: Remember in the Matrix when the little bald kid in the waiting room teaches Neo that 'there is no spoon?'. I think the same mantra can be applied to the Cleveland Cavaliers defense: 'There is no switch'.
For weeks now, we've heard that at some point the Cavs are going to 'flip the switch' like the great champions of the past -- the Shaqobe Lakers, are the example cited most frequently. The Raptors are likely to be the toughest test Cleveland faces in the Eastern Conference, so now would be a good time, no?
Teams that have nothing left to prove in the regular season often save their best effort for the post-season, conserving energy, because they know that their season is going to be 100 games long, not 82. In theory this makes sense, but a cursory glance at the Cavaliers roster betrays this reasoning as folly; just who, exactly (beyond LeBron James and Tristan Thompson), is going to dial it up? Channing Frye? Deron Williams? J.R. Smith? None of these players is a premium defender, even on their best day. This Cavaliers team is what it is.
Daniel Reynolds: Now that the Raptors have gotten past the freak show that is the Bucks, we’ll see something of a return to form. Yes, if you can believe it, the surprise of this series with the Cavs will be Toronto’s improved performance. There’s no doubt that Cleveland is better than Milwaukee, but the dimensions and actions of its roster are far more definable, attack-able and, yes, even reasonable. The Raptors know what they’re dealing with here — even the impossible LeBron James is a known quantity at this point. I can’t believe I’m about to say this but — huge shocker — this series may even entertain.
Who will be the Raptors' X-factor?
Russell Peddle: It’s got to be P.J. Tucker. He didn’t stand out all that much in the first round (apart from a few strong defensive stretches on Giannis Antetokounmpo), but the Raptors essentially acquired him for this series as someone who has the defensive ability needed to at least make things challenging for LeBron James. It’ll be interesting to see if Dwane Casey sticks with Norman Powell in the starting five or puts Tucker in and assigns him to LeBron from the jump in every game.
Daniel Hackett: Jonas Valanciunas. The team will rely on Lowry and DeRozan to score, and role players will need to hit threes, and Ibaka, Tucker and Carroll will need to defend well. But the swing factor might be how effective Valanciunas can be on both ends. If he struggles in the Thompson matchup, the Raptors start to run out of front court options over 48 minutes very fast.
James Park: Serge Ibaka. Everyone already knows that Lowry and DeRozan have to get theirs for Toronto to have a chance in this series. P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll will do their best to make life difficult for LeBron. While those two try their best to keep in front of James, or at least attached to his hip, it’ll be up to Ibaka to provide not just aggressive, but intelligent help side defense. The idea of coming hard to contest a LeBron drive is easy. Deciding when, how and if to help depending on matchups? Let’s hope that Serge is up for the challenge.
Adam Iafrate: The Toronto Raptors went 0-3 in regular season games with LeBron James participating this season. LeBron and the Cavs are plenty familiar with Lowry, DeRozan, and the supporting cast, having faced off ten times in the last calendar year. The Cavs stars however have not seen this group since the addition of Serge Ibaka. Ibaka provides the ability to protect the paint on a LeBron drive to the rim, allowing his teammates to keep tabs on the plethora of shooters in the wine and gold.
Dan Grant: P.J. Tucker needs to be the best role player on the team for Toronto to have their best chance at success. He needs to continue to play his bloodthirsty, ball-hungry brand of defense, and hit open shots. He did the first really well versus Milwaukee; the second was a work in progress, to say the least, as he shot just 3-of-13 from three in the series. He's likely going to be on LeBron duty, so having the energy to stretch the floor on offense is a tall task, but it says here that Tucker is up to the challenge.
Daniel Reynolds: Ready for this? Patrick Patterson! We already know what Ibaka and Tucker are going to bring — it’s why they’re here — but the guy the Raptors had all along to help against the Cavs needs to be huge. Here’s what Patterson can do: switch between LeBron, Frye, Love, and Thompson on D; hit 3s at, ideally, a 40 percent clip; move the ball in a smart way. This, my friends, is a recipe for success against the Cavaliers — and here’s hoping we see this best version of Patterson (who once upon a time was the Raps’ third most important player) on the floor.
What's your favourite storyline heading into this series?
Russell Peddle: The Cavaliers horrible defense and whether or not they can “flip the switch”. They had the 22nd-ranked defense this season (108.0 defensive rating) and were no better in the first round against the Indiana Pacers (111.0 defensive rating). They may have swept that series, but their defense wasn’t really tested like it will be in this matchup with the Raptors and their sixth-ranked offense (109.8 offensive rating this season). This is exactly where we’ll see if that so-called switch is actually a thing.
Daniel Hackett: Is this the best Raptors team ever? A win over LeBron James or even a truly competitive 6- or 7-game series would cement it in my view. The stakes are high as well — does ownership go onto the tax if this team gets crushed by the Cavs? Need to show they belong among the top teams.
James Park: All roads in the East go through Cleveland. This is no less true this year, as no one outside of Boston considers them a true number one seed. As a longtime fan, I’m interested in the implications this series has for this team’s future from the perspective of ownership. If the Raps manage to win the series, or take it to 6 or 7, maybe management can sell ownership on the vision of being a piece or two away from true championship contention as they head into the off-season. If it’s a quick series? Maybe ownership thinks that building around the Lowry-DeRozan core isn’t work investing in.
Adam Iafrate: Can this Raptors team finally get over the hump? If Toronto wants to be respected as one of the league’s best teams, a statement series against an opponent like the Cavs would be required. It’s going to take a whole lot of guts and resilience, but this edition of The North looks more primed to do the unthinkable than any that came before.
Dan Grant: The re-emergence Norm Powell has been wonderful. I'd love it if he continued his excellent play against the toughest possible competition. His 6'11 wingspan and activity on defense could be a real asset for the Raptors, especially if he continues to shoot the lights out from three. After being inserted into the starting lineup, Norm went 9-of-9 from deep (which is a decent and completely sustainable percentage!) and added an element that's been missing for this Raptors team since Terrence Ross packed his bags for Florida.
Daniel Reynolds: I love to contextualize this rematch as the match-up the Raptors wanted. The team slogged through 82 games, had to deal with injuries, had to integrate new players (brought in for a very specific reason), and then had to re-assert and re-discover their identity in the first round series vs. the Bucks. And now, after all that, the prize is a slugfest with LeBron James, the most unstoppable force in pro sports today. The Raptors probably won’t win, but they want to measure where they are and this is the purest test imaginable. Let’s see how the Raptors respond.
Which member of LeBron's supporting cast has you worried the most?
Russell Peddle: I don’t know if we should be picking a role player or if the other two members of the “Big Three” are fair game, but I’m concerned about Kevin Love. He averaged a whopping 21.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game in three contests against Toronto this year, despite shooting only 38.8% from the field. Jonas Valanciunas can’t hang with him on the perimeter and I don’t like the idea of him dragging Serge Ibaka away from the rim, so that matchup presents a real problem on defense for the Raptors.
Daniel Hackett: Kyrie Irving. As much as I think he's overrated by many, the Raptors in particular have struggled with dynamic point guards in the pick and roll. If he's shredding the defence without LeBron having to be involved, the path to a Cavs win becomes a lot easier.
James Park: Kevin Love. As mentioned above, Ibaka’s ability to patrol the paint will be key in Toronto’s ability to challenge the Cleveland attack. If the Cavs play small, forcing an Ibaka-Love matchup, Serge will likely have to stay tied to Love at the three point line, making it that much more difficult to help out on LeBron’s drives in the paint. There really isn’t a right answer to the question of help and leave Love for an open shot from beyond the arc, or let LeBron score lay-up after lay-up. Whatever the lesser of two evils is, hopefully Dwane Casey and Serge Ibaka can figure it out.
Adam Iafrate: Kevin Love. Raptors fans know just how prolific a 3-point threat Kevin Love can be, and he’s not the only one. LeBron’s embarrassment of offensive riches will serve as a constant reminder as to why this group is nearly impossible to defeat in the playoffs. Essentially, the Cavs force opponents to pick their poison by either providing help on James, leaving sure-fire open shooters like Love, Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, and Irving open, or allowing LeBron to attack the paint against one, unlucky defender. Thankfully Tucker and Ibaka should be more effective negating LeBron’s rim runs.
Dan Grant: There's a long list to choose from here, but I'm going to go with Kevin Love. The Raptors have become a really good rebounding team since the Ibaka/Tucker acquisitions, particularly on the defensive end, but if they employ the same strategy they did against Milwaukee and abandon offensive rebounding so that they can limit Cleveland's transition game, they might be in trouble. Love and his lethal outlet passing can create easy scores against the best transition D, so ceding defensive rebounds to him seems foolhardy. Love's ability to stretch the floor on offense also might render Jonas Valanciunas unplayable in spurts, thus impacting the Raptors rebounding even further. If he has a big series, Toronto is probably toast.
Daniel Reynolds: I don’t see how this answer is not Channing Frye nine times out of ten (which is approximately his shooting percentage on 3s against the Raptors). On paper, playing Frye at the 5 should open things up for the Raptors on offense — they could have a larger presence on the boards, they could attack the paint, they could even make things work more effectively in the pick-and-roll. Frye isn’t a huge deterrent there. But for the Cavs, Frye just completely obliterates Toronto from range, and he makes at least one of their players (Valanciunas) totally unplayable. It won’t take much for LeBron to use Frye to cut up the Raptors with dagger after dagger. I am terrified.
What's your prediction for the series?
Russell Peddle: I really and truly believe that this is the best Raptors team we’ve ever seen and that the gap between these two squads is much smaller than it was last year. Prior to the playoffs, I was all in on the idea that the Raptors had a shot at dethroning the champs if the two matched up, but I’ve cooled a bit on that after a few horrible moments against the Bucks. I like the Cavaliers to win this in seven, but it should be a much closer series than last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Daniel Hackett: Raps in 7. If this Raps team can't do it, it's hard to envision any Raps team ever doing it. They are designed to take down the Cavs. JV to keep Thompson off the boards. Tucker and Carroll to hound LBJ all game. Ibaka and Pat to guard their stretch bigs. Defensive guards with energy in Powell, Joseph and Wright to throw out there when needed. And two star guard scorers to attack the Cavs where they are weakest — on the perimeter and in pick and roll actions.
James Park: The fan in me says Cleveland in 7. The amateur analyst has Cleveland in 6. While the Raptors have improved since last year, it’s not like Cleveland has gotten worse (Kyle Korver, Deron Williams). Also, the Cavs are one of the few teams that can truly flip a switch and turn it on in the playoffs. Barring injuries, I don’t think the Raptors have what it takes to take Cleveland to an elimination game.
Adam Iafrate: Ughhhh. It pains me to say but Cavaliers in 7. This series will be closer than most predict.
Dan Grant: I don't need the Raptors to win this, but I need them to make it a series. I'll say Cavaliers in 6, but I'd love it if Toronto could push it to seven, so that this group can have something to build on heading into what could be a tumultuous off-season.
Daniel Reynolds: Cavaliers in 6 (again), but this time a couple of the road losses for Toronto won’t feel like abject blowouts. What that means in the bigger picture for the Raptors is still very much up for debate but, hey, baby steps.