When the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the last time in the regular season — a 112-106 Cavs win at home in March — few gave the Raptors a fighting chance against LeBron James & Co. should the two teams meet in the post-season for the third consecutive season.
Unlike their narrow 132-129 loss to Cleveland earlier that month, the Raptors didn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence in that final game, with James and his club holding a mental edge over the East’s top team and a Raptors nucleus that has been unceremoniously bumped out of the playoffs by the Cavs each of the past two years. It seemed entirely reasonable that, despite the newfound depth and stylistic changes Toronto made in the regular season, history was bound to repeat itself under the spotlight and pressures of playoff hoops (and, if we’re honest, it still does).
But then the first round happened.
After dropping two games on the road in Washington in an eerily reminiscent manner, going away from what earned them the number one seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs, the Raptors righted the ship and beat the Wizards 4-2. With key contributors like Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Pascal Siakam stepping up in the elimination game, the Raptors got back on track and played to their strengths that made them clearly the East’s best team in the regular season.
Meanwhile, it took the Cavaliers seven hard-fought games to get past the Indiana Pacers. James carried his team through the first round, averaging over 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and 41 minutes per game and will again— as ever— be the best player on the court. It took a Herculean effort to advance in seven games against a tough Pacers team, but one that just about everybody can agree is nowhere near as good as Toronto.
And so now heading into the first game of the second round, several U.S. pundits like the Raptors’ chances in the series— just less than half of ESPN’s 21 (!) ‘experts’ selected the Raps to beat Cleveland in the series, including the likes of Zach Lowe, Amin Elhassan, Kevin Arnovitz, and Bobby Marks.
Let’s take a look at what others are saying about the Raptors heading into round two:
Barkley: “We the North!”
TNT’s Charles Barkley has probably been the Raptors most vocal proponent among big-name analysts in the States this season, and it would appear that hasn’t changed as Game One approached. On Inside the NBA Monday night, Barkley made it official and picked the Raps to win the series. “This is the year,” he said. “This is a different Raptors team – they’re going to win this series. They got the best bench in the NBA, they got 3-4 bodies they can throw at LeBron.”
His cohorts, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith don’t agree. “The ‘it’ factor will be Kyle Lowry – like it always is,” O’Neal said. “I’m going with Cleveland – because of experience because they’ve been there.”
Smith also took the Cavs to win the series – a “tough” decision, he said — and mentioned that the Raptors’ depth meant the team relied less heavily on Lowry and DeMar DeRozan alone to produce, and were better off for it.
Cleveland.com — If you think LeBron James torments the Pacers, meet the Raptors
Cleveland.com columnist Joe Vardon takes a closer look at James’ historical dominance over the Raptors.
“Three 40-point games against Indiana, including 45 in the decisive Game 7 Sunday? How about at least 35 points in all four games of a four-game sweep of the Raptors in the conference semis last year?
Well, yes, but, how about LeBron’s teams eliminating the Pacers from the playoffs in five of the last seven years?
Sure, but the James and the Cavs pounded the Raptors in the conference finals two years ago, followed by last year’s sweep.
Fine, but what about James’ 34.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 7.7 assists in 41.2 minutes per game in the last series against the Pacers?
(Looks down at the floor, whispers) 36 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists against the Raptors last time around.
Oh, not to mention, Toronto hung 79 on the Cavs in the first half of a game on March 21. James scored 14 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, dished out 17 assists (with seven boards) and the Cavs won the game.
All of this, this mountain of evidence and destruction of two teams, is why the Raptors aren’t buying that James is tired ahead of Game 1 between Cleveland and Toronto in an Eastern semifinals rematch on Tuesday.”
The Ringer — Do the Raptors Have Any LeBron Stoppers on Their Team?
The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjakrs takes a look at who the Raptors can throw at LeBron James to try to stop him, focusing on Siakam and rookie OG Anunoby, two high-level defenders who aren’t always as consistent on the other end of the floor. As Tjarks points out, struggling to maintain scorers outside the paint has long been a Raptors struggle in the playoffs, one that the new personnel can help control.
“One of the recurring themes of Toronto’s playoff struggles has been its inability to guard elite perimeter scorers. Joe Johnson knocked them out of the playoffs with a throwback performance in 2014, and Paul George nearly did the same in 2016. Lowry is a tough-nosed defender, but he’s only 6 feet tall, while DeRozan is average at best on that side of the ball. The only player they’ve had with the same physical tools as Anunoby and Siakam is James Johnson, who never earned the trust of head coach Dwane Casey.
NBA athletes with the size and mobility to hold their ground against LeBron are rarely capable of doing much on offense. That was the knock on Anunoby and Siakam in the draft.”
Over on First Take, co-hosts and professional opinionists Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman both agree that the Raptors are the better team, but are divided when it comes to who they select to win the series.
The Fox Sports Ohio’s Cavaliers crew featuring ex-Cavs Campy Russell, Austin Carr and former NBA head coach Mike Fratello broke down the Raptors-Cavs series and mentioned that, while the Raps have dominated the glass and out-rebounded Cleveland in their regular season matchups, the return of Tristan Thompson to the Cavs lineup could swing that advantage the other way for the defending Eastern conference champs:
Meanwhile, on an appearance on the Dan Patrick Show on Monday, TNT’s Reggie Miller says he picks the Raptors to win in six games — not so much because of what Toronto will do, but because he says the Cavs will simply be worn down as the series progresses: