In the 1988 Eastern Conference Semi-finals, the Chicago Bulls would fall to the Detroit Pistons in five games, 4-1. The next year the Bulls would fall again to the Pistons, this time in the Conference Finals, 4-2. To counteract Detroit’s strategy of focusing their defense solely on Michael Jordan, new head coach Phil Jackson, alongside assistant Tex Winter, introduced the triangle offense and some new complementary players (e.g. Scottie Pippen). The move completely revamped the team’s style from Jordan shouldering the responsibility — to now sharing it.
Before you go crazy in the comments with this comparison, no, I’m not saying DeMar DeRozan is the best player in the league. Or the Raptors are as talented as the early 90’s Bulls. Or that the Bulls were going against the greatest player in his generation. What I am saying is, that Jordan and co. had significant trouble toppling the Pistons. That the Pistons had a psychological advantage over the Bulls. That the Bulls predictable method of attack was stomped by Detroit in years past. That it wasn’t until the Bulls changed their offense to emphasize teamwork that they could compete with Detroit.
It was after three consecutive playoffs — in which Detroit finished as a higher seed and came out the East — that the Bulls would take them down. In the 1990-91 season, after finishing first in the East, they would finally defeat a Detroit team that finished 50-32 in the regular season (once again, sound familiar?).
Let’s make it clear, this Raptor team is not the Jordan-led Bulls. But like Chicago overcame their playoff demons against Detroit, do the Raptors look at what happened 27 years ago and decide, this is the year?
We sure hope so.
Here are details for tonight’s game:
Where to Watch
TSN4, 8:00 PM EST
Toronto – Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Cleveland – George Hill, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
Toronto – None
Cleveland – None
Jonas Valanciunas has been great against the Wizards. He outplayed Marcin Gortat despite playing no fourth quarter minutes in the first four games of the series. In the fourth quarter of Game 5, he was the clear catalyst for the run to put the game away. JV was also crucial in the Game 6 close out game.
Against Cleveland, Jonas has looked impressive, especially when Kevin Love is playing the 5. In the three games against the Cavaliers this season, he averaged 15.7 points and 12 rebounds in just 20 minutes. Using Valanciunas while he’s on the floor is crucial because of how little he’ll be playing in the fourth quarters. If Tristan Thompson sees extended minutes, we may see more minutes for Valanciunas to help on the defensive glass.
LeBron Sitting? Take Advantage
In Cleveland’s win against Indiana in the first round, they had a negative point differential. In the four games they won, LeBron had to average more than 40 points. Cleveland’s role players have played abysmal against Indiana and may very well continue the trend this series.
This is where the bench mob is needed. With the return of Fred VanVleet in Game 6 against Washington, the bench was like their old selves. Pascal Siakam and VanVleet led the charge in the fourth quarter and put Toronto in the position to take down Washington in six. Those two were also very impactful against the Cavaliers this year and should continue their excellent play in the series opener.
The Cavaliers are coming off a grueling, physical, physically draining series against the Pacers. Unlike past seasons from LeBron-led teams, this first round series took the maximum seven games to determine the winner. Give credit to Victor Oladipo and the Pacers for pushing Cleveland to seven games in a series where many felt Indiana was the better team.
After all that intensity from Game 7, we can expect the Cavaliers to come out a little flat. The Raptors need to come with early energy and have a great first and third quarter. If the Raptors can do that, we can expect Cleveland, particularly LeBron, save their energy for Game 2. Winning the 50/50 balls, getting on the offensive glass, and giving multiple efforts on defence can give Toronto the edge against a tired Cleveland squad.