Two years ago, there was a sense that the Raptors had achieved their goal by just making it to Cleveland. Beating the Miami Heat in seven games was an amazing achievement, if not ugly in execution. The two home games against Cleveland were more an out-of-body experience than anything. The Raptors are in the Eastern Conference Finals... and there’s hope??? Last year felt like a horror show in comparison. Toronto was supposed to learn from their 2016 experience, but a mismatched and struggling supporting cast got exposed by a three-point barrage from Cleveland. The sweep was unmemorable and, eventually, unavoidable.
So yeah, it’s hard to use any of that as a predictor. Kyrie Irving is gone and this Cavaliers team more resembles the 2015 squad that LeBron dragged to the finals in Irving’s absence. There’s James, occasionally Kevin Love, and seven massive question marks. Forget the regular season too — the Cavs overhauled their roster at the trade deadline, and will likely play different lineups than they did when they beat Toronto twice in the last month of the regular season.
I have this inherent need to explain basketball through numbers, though; to make it easy to understand and predict worrying series such as this one. The thing is, basketball is susceptible to truly wild stuff when a generational talent is involved. On paper, these Raptors have the depth and ability to beat a Cleveland team that struggles on defence and lacks a reliable supporting cast. But still, LeBron James looms.
LeBron was indomitable in Cleveland’s Game 7 win over Indiana on Sunday. Scoring 45 points was one thing, but the public pronunciation of “I’m playing the whole game” before cramping up for a short stretch was just another reminder of his greatness. This is a player who, for 15 seasons, has been able to summon will and drag his team to the finish line. He did it on Sunday, expect it to happen again at least once in this second round series.
I’m sure I’m not alone as a Raptors fan, feeling a strange mix of confidence and fear going into this third matchup with the Cavs. It’s a hard series to predict, but undoubtedly one where Toronto should be favoured — they are deeper, have more ways to win, and a roster that can thwart a lot of Cleveland’s pet offence (save one guy).
There are a few storylines worth watching as this plays out, some more existential than others.
Jonas Valanciunas Remains the Key Piece in This Match-Up
In the two playoff matchups before this one, Valanciunas was almost laughed off the floor in matchups with the Cavaliers. The second Cleveland went small, with Kevin Love at the five, Valanciunas impact was negated — constantly out in no man’s land and unable to help at the rim. Dwane Casey couldn’t hide him on Channing Frye, either, who was notably murderous in the 2016-17 second round series.
This season, new schemes have unlocked Jonas’ potential. The Raptors run a safer defence that allows him to hang out closer to the rim and close possessions with rebounds. Also, the switch matchup is now Jeff Green in the power forward slot when Love plays at the five. In this look, with Valanciunas switched onto Green and Love guarded by Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have looked a lot better.
Cleveland is a good offensive team, though. Kevin Love will make some shots regardless of how mobile the big guarding him is (he’s 40% from deep in the playoffs). What matters for the Raptors is that Jonas Valanciunas can revive the role he played versus Washington — a strong rim-runner on one end, and an able rebounder and space-eater on the other. He’s already proven he can do it when guarded by Love.
This is important for a couple reasons. First, playing Valanciunas his usual 22-28 minutes ensures that the bench can play as many minutes together as possible (I already wrote about how big it is for these five to play together). It also keeps the starting five together. Any lineup with Jakob Poeltl and Serge Ibaka has been abysmal for Toronto this season.
Valanciunas has also proven to be the team’s only reliable rebounder in traffic, with Ibaka missing his spots, and the guards getting eaten by bigger players. If Tristan Thompson is going to be a bigger part of this series than he has been — a strong Game 7 (15 points, 10 rebounds) indicates that Tyronn Lue will keep him in the rotation — there’s not another player on the Raptors that can consistently keep a body on Thompson and keep him off the offensive glass.
Keep an eye on Valanciunas early in this series. How he plays, how his minutes look, and his impact on the floor will say a lot in how this series will go.
Can the Bench Force More LeBron Minutes?
If anyone can convince me that LeBron is mortal and not some kind of basketball alien, it’s this Raptors roster. Toronto will play ten players in this series (12 if the situation for Norman Powell or Lucas Nogueira comes along), while Cleveland will play some mash of nine guys, depending on which of their underwhelming acquisitions — Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, or Larry Nance Jr. — is scoring.
LeBron has to tire eventually, right? He led the NBA in minutes this season, played 45 minutes in Game 7, and averaged 41.2 minutes per game in the first round. Just one day of rest separates that Game 7 from tomorrow’s Game 1. The bow should eventually break.
From Toronto’s perspective, they have to at least ensure Cleveland doesn’t play positive without LeBron on the floor. This goes back to playing the five-man bench unit together, but it also means they need to be effective in slicing through the Cavaliers defence. Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright won’t see any rim protectors in this series, and if shooting is creating space like it did in Game 6 of the Washington series, they should be able to perform.
On the other hand, though, James is the master at active rest. He was rightfully clowned for this play, but two points vs. the impact of him leaving the court is one that he weighs regularly.
A big question is whether the Raptors can tire LeBron into making plays like this (or if LeBron tires at all).
Home Court and Attitude Adjustments
Finally, I really feel like home court is a huge asset for Toronto in this series. More so than against other teams, I feel like the Raptors clam up just a bit when Cleveland goes on a run — which is exacerbated by a raucous Cavs crowd. It’ll be important to withstand these runs to begin with, but it’s easier to do that at home, especially against a team coming in on short rest with just one day between all games.
This gets to the larger existential point, and that’s that the Raptors need to remove the King-sized block in their memory and truly believe they can beat a LeBron James team.
Psychology is a funny thing to quantify, but it’s certainly a factor anytime Toronto plays Cleveland. Having the attitude of a winner, of a number one seed, will be key for the Raptors if they’re going to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The early quotes from practice yesterday were encouraging. Now, it’s about putting it together on the court. Give me the Raptors in seven — expect a great series regardless of the outcome.