For the third straight postseason and second straight year in the Eastern conference semifinals, the Toronto Raptors will face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This is the Eastern conference dragon the Raptors have to slay. The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons had the Boston Celtics. Jordan’s Chicago Bull’s had the Pistons. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James got together to overtake the “Big three” Celtics. On the way to a championship there is always a conference foe to fight, a bully to overcome.
The “cultural reset” was solely about overcoming the hurdle that is the best player of this generation and the most well-rounded player of all-time. Not only have the Toronto Raptors given themselves their best chance to dethrone the Cavaliers, they have a better chance than any of the other teams that LeBron has left in his wake during his run to the NBA Finals over the last eight years.
Here is why:
LeBron James played all 82 games for the first time in his career. He then followed that up with a seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers that required him to play 40 plus minutes a night. After claiming he’d play the whole game in game seven he retreated to the locker room with cramps missing five minutes of game action.
His next task is to now travel across the border to play one of the deepest teams in the league. While speaking to reporters after Game 7 against the Pacers, he revealed he was “tired” and did not talk about Cleveland’s second-round matchup with the Raptors because “he was burnt”. At the very same time the rested Raptors were on the practice court at the Biosteel Centre preparing for the Cavaliers.
They assembled for practice again the next morning, getting on the court twice before James could turn his attention to his next opponent saying the Cavs will have to “wing it” to start round two. This is the first time in the 23-year franchise history that the Toronto Raptors won a playoff series and had to wait for their next opponent.
The Raptors should be more rested and more prepared.
The $1.5 million annually Lebron spends on health and wellness is being put to the test.
It’s not just that the Raptors are well rested, their stars have been used judiciously in the hopes of keeping them healthy for this very moment. Both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have had playoff struggles in the past, but some of that was attributed to the fact they were a mixture of injured and exhausted by the time the playoffs came around.
Not the case this year. DeMar DeRozan played just 2,712 minutes this season which ranked 15th. Kyle Lowry trailed him playing 2,509 minutes which was 31st. Those numbers are even more eye popping in comparison to James who during the season played 3,026 minutes (No. 1 in league). Those number stayed true to form in the playoffs where James played 288 minutes, again the most in the NBA and 86% of the seven-game series versus Indiana. DeRozan played just 218 minutes which is 21st and Lowry played 217, 22nd.
With Kevin Love carrying a thumb injury, the Raptors all-stars are healthier and more rested to start the series than the Cavaliers all-stars.
In game seven versus Indiana, James played 43 minutes shooting 16-25 from the floor. All other Cleveland players played 197 minutes, shooting 16-49.
In the first round, James scored over three times as many points as Kevin Love, the Cavaliers second leading scorer. James scored or assisted on 59% of the Cavaliers baskets. Even if LeBron goes off offensively, there isn’t enough complimentary offensive firepower to keep up with the Raptors top-five offence, or to worry the Raptors top-five defence.
The Raptors averaged 122.7 points per game against the Cavaliers this season. That’s the team’s third most points per game against any opponent. The Cavaliers aren’t a good defensive team but specifically struggle against Toronto’s new and improved offence with the infusion of ball and man movement. LeBron can go for 40 or even 50 but the rest of the Cavaliers roster is not equipped to score in the 120’s or stop Toronto from getting there.
In last year’s playoff series, the Cavaliers outscored the Raptors by 102 points on three-point shots. That is tied for the biggest differential at the three-point line in a series sweep in the last 20 years.
But this season the Raptors were plus 30 from three in this year’s season series against the Cavaliers and took 10 more attempts per game in those contests. The Raptors actually took more threes than the Cavaliers this year, ranking third in attempts and fourth in makes overall in the league. That proficiency has held true as Toronto was plus 54 from beyond the arch in the first round against the Washington Wizards. Eleven different Toronto Raptors hit a three-point shot in round one.
The depth of three-point takers and makers means Toronto can keep up with the math issues the Cavaliers historically present from beyond the arch.
The Cavaliers net rating of minus-6.3 is the worst by a winner of a first-round series since the NBA adopted the best-of-seven format for the opening round in 2003. But as much as this matchup is about what the Cavaliers aren’t doing it is equally about the Raptors are capable of doing.
After the dual all-stars on both teams you can make an argument the next best 5-6 players in this series are all Raptors. The Cavaliers are still experimenting with starting lineups while the Raptors are utilizing their rotation virtually the exact same way they have the entire season.
This is the first time since 2008 James has been an underdog before the NBA Finals. It’s not a coincidence. The numbers say the Raptors are expected to beat the Cavaliers. Now they just have to believe the data that they have produced for the better part of a season will hold true in the playoffs.