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Which strategies will we see from the Raptors and Cavaliers in Game 1?

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As we did for the Wizards series, let’s look at in-game strategies that will (or should) be employed by the Raptors and Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors - Game Four Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Raptors managed to subdue the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs, but they did not quite overwhelm them entirely. Still, the way Toronto played overall showed so much promise and hope as they move on to the next round.

Up next for the Raptors: LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Or just LeBron James. Maybe. Regardless, LeBron still has to play with four other guys on the floor, so expect things from coach Tyronn Lue defensively and offensively to help James do what he does.

Let’s look at what both the Raptors and Cavaliers might (or should) come up with for the series.

Before we go on specific team adjustments, I think it’s important to emphasize that these two critical defensive match-ups might dictate the series:

  • OG Anunoby/Pascal Siakam on LeBron James: How effective will either be against LeBron
  • Serge Ibaka/Jonas Valanciunas on Kevin Love + (Jeff Green/Tristan Thompson/LeBron James): How will Dwane Casey manage this match-up defensively?

For the Cavaliers

Potential Starting Lineup Adjustments

LeBron at the point - Go Big: Cavs go big with LeBron James-Kyle Korver-Green-Love-Thompson. They can switch easily with this lineup and play a pseudo-zone defense, loading up the paint. It's weakness? Transition D, and the rotations once the Raptors start moving the ball around the perimeter. We could see a lot of, say, Kyle Lowry blowing by Korver here.

LeBron at the point - Go Small: Cavs field a LeBron-JR Smith-Kyle Korver-Jeff Green-Kevin Love. They get to open up the floor with more shooters, better defenders on Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But it’s susceptible to JV’s hard rolls to the basket, and once the Raps get past the first defender, it’ll be easier to either go for a layup or kick out to the perimeter.

On Defense

The Cavaliers have past historical success against the Raptors on both sides of the floor. I would expect Lue to try what has worked in the past, and what he might have in store as well.

Blitz Kyle and DeMar on Pick-and-Roll (PNR): They tried it in the regular season, and it didn’t work. The Wizards tried it in Game 1, and the results were the same. It looks like the Raptors have solved the PNR blitz. However, keep in mind that the personnel for the Cavs last year was different:

  • JR Smith/Iman Shumpert + Tristan Thompson (2/5 PNR)
  • JR Smith/Iman Shumpert + Kevin Love (2/5 PNR)

Iman Shumpert’s quickness, strength, and reach gave DeMar DeRozan issues last year, especially in the first few games of the series. Thankfully he’s gone. However, we haven’t seen Thompson on a blitz this year because he was in the doghouse for most of the season. I would expect the Cavs to use Tristan to blitz the PNR action.

Counter: JV’s hard rolls. If JV can replicate his PNR game against the Wizards, the Cavs might be hesitant to blitz the Raptors All-Stars. Also, DeRozan should be aware that once he gets past the blitz, it’s OK to get into the midrange/foul line area, but be mindful that there are two if not three perimeter shots available to pass into as the Cavs’ defense would collapse in the paint and leave the shooters open.

Hedge/Double on DeMar’s post-ups: DeMar likes to get the ball down the block to post up his man, and the Cavs effectively sealed this by sending a weakside defender immediately to double him, or to hedge low in anticipation for the drive.

Counter: As part of the “Culture Reset,” we haven’t seen this that much, although it’s a play that shows up every once in a while. I think there’s some value to this if DeRozan can efficiently use this as a drive-and-kick opportunity.

Force the Raptors bigs to make plays: Since the playoffs last year, the Cavs would sag off Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas when they are open on the perimeter, daring them to shoot it. However, once they got the ball in post position, the Cavaliers would send a double right away, pressuring them to make a decision with the ball. Ibaka is a turnover waiting to happen if he tries something else other than a decisive shot or a swing pass. JV’s passing is below average (though it has improved!), and if he decides to dribble drive against quicker defenders, or force the issue against a double team, most likely it will end up with a turnover.

Counter: Here’s a sample list of what the Raptors can do.

On post-ups:

  • Back cut/quick cut for the entry passer (we’ve seen this chemistry with JV and Lowry);
  • Communication: know where the help defender is coming from, and moving to the open spots on the perimeter and/or paint; and
  • Quick, decisive move (don’t wait for the double team).

On perimeter sags:

  • Let it fly, Ibaka; shoot the 3, JV! Anything but not shooting (e.g. Patterson-ing it); and
  • DHO (Dribble hand-off to Lowry/DeRozan or another three-point shooter out there).

Jeff Green solo coverage on DeRozan: It wasn’t instrumental in stopping DeRozan in the regular season, but it enabled the Cavaliers to defend the rest of the Raptors straight up.

Counter: DeRozan has to diversify his attack on Green, and when I say “diversify,” he has to look for his teammates. The Cavs are not a good defensive team, and they are much worse than the Raptors when it comes to ball watching. With that being said, DeRozan’s teammates have to take advantage and move into open spots (and create good angles for DeRozan to pass the ball).

On Offense

Attack the Bench Broskis: Jakob Poeltl is susceptible to getting into foul trouble. Fred VanVleet has obvious size limitations, and along with C.J. Miles, can be taken advantage of by using the three-point-shooter plus some LeBron baseline screen action.

Counter: Punch first! Push the pace, make it a track meet. Pressure the ball handlers full-court. The Bench Broskis would be coming in against Cavs starters with mileage on their legs.

Get Korver open: I believe Korver is the key for the Cavs to get over the hump, and it’s important for the Raptors to contain him. Here’s a good video on how the Cavs use Korver.

Counter: Use the same Wizards strategy on C.J. Miles. Aside from that, pray he doesn’t get the ball, or if he does, it should be contested enough and pray again that he misses. Kidding aside, whoever Korver’s man is should only be thinking and looking at Korver — no ball watching. Make firm and quick decisions on Korver’s screen actions — are they switching or not? — since the Raptors can’t afford to have a split second to get confused. Lastly, make the game fast enough that Lue is forced to put more defenders on the court because the best defense on Korver is to keep him on the bench.

Target JV on Kevin Love: In case the Cavs elect to go small with Love at centre, historically, JV drew Love on defense. The Cavs have taken advantage of this match-up because of the JV’s issues:

  • JV will drop on a pick and roll action, and in this case, Love would almost always “pop” for the three-pointer;
  • JV’s instinct on defense after a change in possession is to go back down the middle, and Love would try to get into the corner for a three;
  • JV will bite hard on Love’s three-point shot fake for a blow by (not really a blow by, but a step into a long-two/midrange uncontested); and
  • JV’s instinct to “help”, making him “ball-watch.” Love would float to an open spot on the perimeter;

Counter: Unless Casey can get Valanciunas to focus on looking at Love at all times (I’m pretty sure Casey can live with Love’s step-in long 2s), it should be Ibaka on Love, to force Lue to take advantage of JV covering Green.

LeBron on “Horns Rub” play: We saw this play destroy Toronto over and over in the 2016 playoffs, despite our father Bismack Biyombo’s heroics. This play would most likely be effective against the Raptors’ ultra-small-ball (VanVleet-Lowry-Delon Wright). I would expect Lue to use this against the Raptors until it's proven to be ineffective.

Counter: Seriously, I don’t know any aside from excellent switching defense and letting LeBron make a move for a shot rather than a pass to an open shooter.

Shooter+Lebron baseline screen action: The Cavs like to run this play every once in a while — Korver and LeBron with a screen action around the baseline near the paint, with Korver attempting to go to the corner three spot, and LeBron showing up under the basket. If the switch on LeBron is late, it’s an easy layup for LeBron. If the switch on Korver is late, Korver is wide open for the corner 3. If Korver’s man is Lowry/FVV/Miles, it’s barbecue chicken for LeBron. We’ve also seen this play run with George Hill or Jose Calderon instead of Korver.

Counter: I haven’t seen the Raptors solve this, but here are some suggestions:

  • Ball pressure on the entry passer;
  • Quick double on LeBron/hedge off a non-shooter; and
  • Strong top-lock defense (Korver is stronger than he looks, once you fail on the top-lock, both he and LeBron will be open).

For the Raptors

Looking back at the previous series, here are a few things that the Raptors should have learned, and things to keep in mind in the next round:

  • The effectiveness of hard screens (from Gortat/JV) and hard rolls;
  • Stay true to the team’s offensive “culture reset” schemes;
  • Value of staying in front of your man (the Wizards targeted the help defender’s man);
  • Take care of the ball;
  • It’s the playoffs, be physical;
  • Shoot your shot (don’t “Patterson” it);

I kept mentioning “Patterson” in this article — and this is a homage to the great Patrick Patterson, the +/- Raptors god off the bench. He’s a capable three-point shooter — except, whenever he got the pass for a wide open three, he would often hesitate and gum up the works for Toronto.

Moving on, here’s what to expect from Dwane Casey and the Raptors:

On Defense

OG/Siakam on LeBron: Straight-up defense, no double team, no hedging if possible. Ball denial — make LeBron work to get the ball, or at least eat up some clock. LeBron is prone to jacking up 3s or long twos if he doesn’t have time to operate.

Watch out for: LeBron’s back cut if OG/Siakam is overly aggressive in their coverage

Stay with the shooters: No ball-watching. Don’t let them open. Seriously, why is DeRozan ball-watching as if he’s going to help when he can’t even keep his man in front of him.

Watch out for: Screen actions to free up their shooters

Ibaka on Love, JV on Green: Self-explanatory, already covered above.

Watch out for: Cavs going small ball with Love-LeBron up front. What will Casey do?

In this case, offense is your best defense. If Toronto can get LeBron to log heavy minutes, they’ve got to keep pushing the ball to hopefully tire him out. He is still just a man, right?

On Offense

JV in the PNR: We’ve seen Jonas do damage against the Wizards, and we’ve seen this work against the Cavaliers in the regular season. This particular play should be the very first play for the Raptors, with none of those JV post-ups on Love to start the game because they don’t tend to work.

Transition Game/Push the Pace: The Raptors need to take advantage of LeBron’s mileage in the playoffs, and the best way to do this is to keep pushing the pace. We’ve shown that Toronto could hang with the Wizards’ transition game, and against a slower team, there’s no reason why the Raptors shouldn’t be capable of doing this again. This strategy should create mismatches and potentially either easy baskets or wide open threes.

The key will be to execute the offense, getting going as early as possible in the shotclock to avoid the Cavs from resting. Then, push the ball on Cavs misses, and try to force live-ball turnovers.

Drive and Kick: The Cavaliers are bad at rotating, and they almost always collapse in the paint when there’s a penetration, which is great for Lowry and VanVleet. Expect a lot of drive and kick plays from Lowry/VanVleet/DeRozan/Wright in this series.

Watch out for: The drive and kick strategy for Lowry+Broskis is not as effective if Lowry is the creator and there’s no VanVleet on the floor. If it’s just Wright and Lowry, Lowry should play the part of the shooter.

Parting shot: I anticipate OG and Siakam to change the baton around the 9-10 minute mark in the 3rd quarter, so the question here is: Will Casey ride Siakam until the end of the game or bring back OG? Something to keep an eye on.

Now, on to Game 1.