That’s about as plain as you can make it. As the air clears after Toronto’s epic – though not necessarily for the all the right reasons – win over the Milwaukee Bucks the team took Friday off to regroup and reassess, while the coaching staff spent the day going over their advance scouts work while figuring how to do what no Eastern Conference team has done since 2010: keep LeBron James from making the NBA Finals.
There’s a reason James is gunning for his seventh straight Finals appearance and his second successful defense of the NBA title and it’s primarily that even at age 32 and having played more NBA basketball- nearly 50,000 minutes– at that age than anyone in history has before, he remains a great force.
After putting up one of his strongest statistical seasons, averaging 26.4 points per game while setting career highs with 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists he led the Cavs in a sweep of the Indiana Pacers, upping his production to a Westbrook-esque 32.8/9.8/9.0. His 41-point triple-double as he led the Cavs back from a 25-point hole in Game 3 was just another of his bold-type playoff performances.
But James is just one man, and the Cavs can be beat. Here are five reasons why:
1. If James is still the King, the rest of his court isn’t up to his standards.
The Cavaliers were the NBA’s 22nd ‘best’ defensive team in the regular season and 29th- only a fraction better than the actively tanking LA Lakers- after the all-star break as the Cavs finished the year an anemic 12-15 and allowed Boston to scoop the first-seed in the East.
In this respect, history favours the Raptors (who finished with the NBA’s eighth-rated defense) as there has never been an NBA finalist that played regular-season defense as poorly as the Cavs did. And while the Cavs swept the Pacers and enter the second-round with the NBA’s top post-season offense, they allowed 111 points/100 possessions against the Pacers – five more than Indiana, 15th in the NBA, managed in the regular season. The long, hungry and pesky Bucks will make the Cavs feel like a scrimmage at times as Cleveland ranks near the bottom of the NBA in stats like deflections and transition defense. They don’t like to move.
2. DeMar DeRozan has figured out playoff basketball,a process that began against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago.
In his first four playoff series, DeRozan struggled mightily against the aggressive trapping schemes designed to speed up his decision making and force a previously deliberate score-first guard out of his comfort zone. It was a game plan used to great effect by Jason Kidd when he was coaching the Brooklyn Nets against the Raptors in 2014 and never more evident than against the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat last year as DeRozan scuffled into the Eastern Conference Finals shooting just 35.5 per cent. But DeRozan handled himself quite well against the Cavaliers in the ECF, shooting 50-per-cent from the floor while scoring 23 points a game. His 3.5 assists a game suggested a growing comfort as well.
But DeRozan- if under the radar a little bit- really showed his growth against the Kidd-coached Bucks. Throw out the Raptors collective Game 3 no-show and DeRozan averaged 26.6 points on 47 per cent shooting while grabbing six rebounds a game and helping with two steals in the other five starts.
And he was simply outstanding once the Raptors fell behind 2-1. They don’t win the Game 4 slugfest without DeRozan grinding for everyone one of his 33; he proved he’s solved the trap as he lightly spread around six assists in Game 5 and was a stabilizing force early, often and late in the Game 6 roller-coaster. This is not your same old DeMar DeRozan; he’s a better basketball player than he was even a season ago and he’s heading into the second-round playing the best ball of his career.
3. Serge Ibaka.
Even though this is a rematch of a playoff series from just 12 months ago, there is very little relevant recent data to draw on. The Raptors played the Cavs three times in the regular season’s first 21 games, before the trade deadline moves that transformed the Raptors and before the Cavs shook up their roster. The fourth game in the series was the season finale and neither team played their stars meaningful minutes.
But looking back it’s remarkable the Raptors were able to win even two games given the glaring hole they had at power forward. In the series last year Patrick Patterson started the first game and Luis Scola the next five. The total contributions the Raptors got from their ‘starting’ power forward over six games? 21 points, nine assists, three rebounds, three triples and not a single blocked shot. Total. A team in an NBA Conference Final got 3.5 points; 1 rebound, 1.5 assists and zero blocked shots a game from one of their starting five.
Ibaka will change that. The question is, how much?
The former OKC star was outstanding his three games against the Bucks at the ACC– 18 points, 8 rebounds, 2.67 blocks while shooting 56 per cent from the floor and 43 per cent from deep. He was much less so on the road against the Bucks, but even while shooting 29 per cent at the Bradley Centre he contributed 7.3 rebounds and two blocks per game. Even that is better than the Raptors were getting from his spot a year ago against the Cavs.
Let’s assume the veteran of 95 playoff games will see his home/road spits normalize against Cleveland. That combined with the options he provides the Raptors to switch positions 1-through-5 – crucial when the Cavs play James as a point-centre – while maintaining some paint protection are elements the Raptors didn’t have a year ago.
4. Rest and recovery.
Three days between the end of Game 6 and Game 1 on Monday will seem like an eternity to the Raptors. By playing to the limit in their first two series last year the Raptors never got a chance to properly prepare for Cleveland. They arrived at Quicken Loans Arena barely 48 hours after surviving Game 7 against the Heat. By that time they’d played 14 games in 29 days. They went on to play every other day against the Cavs for six more games. DeMarre Carroll said that by the time they made it the Eastern Conference Finals they hit a wall, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The schedule and their failure to close out teams early caught up with them. Dispatching the Bucks in Game 6 was even more important given the uncertain condition of Kyle Lowry’s lower back. It’s been bothering him since Game 3 and while he’s throwing his body around as ever, he’s not been as offensively impactful as the Raptors are going to need him to be against the Cavs. Remember his 35-point explosion in Game 4 last year? The Raps could use one or two of those. Three days between games can only help.
5. The Raptors have better depth and more directions they can go with their lineup.
The Cavs are thin and old. There’s a reason James played 44 minutes a game against the Pacers – the Cavaliers needed him to. According to Basketball-Reference.com he was the only member of the Cavs ‘Big Three’ to have a positive net rating against Indiana.
The Cavs roster has been a revolving door for most of the season and most of the additions- Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, as examples- haven’t helped them defensively and may have made them worse. Meanwhile adding Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the deadline made a major impact on the Raptors. They were the NBA’s fourth-best defensive team after the trade deadline and have the second-best defensive rating in the playoffs after their fight against the Bucks, with Ibaka and Carroll featuring prominently in several successful lineup configurations.
No one will stop James– that’s been proven– but in Tucker, the Raptors have a strong one-on-one defender who will get into James without fear. And with Lowry being out for 21 games after the all-star break Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was able to find lots of minutes for Norman Powell and Delon Wright in the backcourt down the stretch. That extra work paid off against the Bucks as Powell became the series breakout star and Wright changed the complexion of several games even in limited minutes.
The Cavs don’t have the same potential for X-factors.
Prediction? Raptors in seven.