After winning their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors are preparing to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs. The Cleveland/Toronto series will be a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, with each team having some new additions. While the Raptors defeated the Bucks 4-2, the Cavaliers swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round and have been waiting for their next opponent. Game 1 in the series tips off Monday evening in Cleveland.
Below, a look at the series awaiting the Raptors.
It’s difficult to make too much of anything from the season series between these two teams. With the third of four meetings happening on Dec. 5, the first three contests — all Cleveland victories, by a combined 11 points — came early in the season when both teams were still finding their way. The fourth meeting was the final game of the regular season, with the Cavs resting players and the Raptors limiting starters minutes. Toronto won the game easily, but the victory came without DeMar DeRozan who was ill, while Cleveland rested Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James.
Though these two teams faced each other in the playoffs a season ago, each have new additions to their respective rosters. Cleveland’s big acquisition came when it traded Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams and a future draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for sharpshooter Kyle Korver. The Cavaliers also added veteran point guard Deron Williams to their roster.
The Raptors were extremely active at the deadline, making deals that make them deeper than a season before. Toronto sent Terrence Ross to Orlando in exchange for Serge Ibaka, while also trading Jared Sullinger to Phoenix in exchange for P.J. Tucker. The pair of veterans immediately upgraded Toronto’s defence, while also bringing toughness to the roster. Though this is the first postseason for Tucker, he has plenty of experience playing in big games from his time overseas, while Ibaka has made a trip to the Finals and four trips to the Western Conference Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In Toronto’s first-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, it was a 25-point Game 3 blowout loss that led to a switch up in the starting five. Veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas went to the bench and sophomore swingman Norman Powell moved to the starting five. Powell’s insertion give Toronto the boost it needed on both ends of the floor almost immediately. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has been quick to say that in the next series, or even game-to-game, the X-factor could be another one of his players. With Patrick Patterson coming up big in the final minutes of a Game 6 series-clinching win against Milwaukee, and Ibaka’s presence around the rim changing and denying shot attempts from the Bucks, either of those players could emerge as a key piece for Toronto. Of course, betting against Powell seems unwise.
For the Cavaliers, a shooter like Korver playing on the same floor as James is a dream. Add in the rest of Cleveland’s scorers and that dream becomes an entire dreamland. A season ago, Channing Frye made the Raptors pay when defensive miscommunications led to open looks. In last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers defeated the Raptors in six games. In their four wins, they made 44 percent of their 3-point field goals, with Frye connecting on 58 percent of his attempts from deep. Adding another offensive weapon like Korver only makes the Cavs more of a threat from beyond the arc.
For the Raptors, the first round showed ups and downs from the DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry All-Star backcourt. Lowry, with just a handful of regular season games under his belt after missing six weeks following wrist surgery, had his highs and lows, but still made the Raptors a much better team when he was on the floor.
DeRozan followed up an eight-point performance in Game 3 with a 33-point, nine-rebound, five-assist, four-steal performance in Game 4. He then helped to close out the series with an empathic dunk in Game 6 that served as an exclamation mark of sorts. It was his second 30+ point performance in this postseason and it was the sort of performance — and play — that’ll be remembered well beyond this season’s playoffs.
Dwane Casey has always said that the Raptors go as Lowry and DeRozan go. While this is largely true, the backcourt received a boost from teammates in their first-round series against the Bucks. Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas each played their own roles well against the Bucks. Toronto hopes this will continue in the second round.
When it comes to Cleveland, everything begins with LeBron James. A season ago, James averaged 26.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists on 62 percent shooting against the Raptors in Cleveland’s Eastern Conference Finals win. It is impossible to stop James, but trying to increase his difficulty level is crucial when facing the Cavaliers.
DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker are expected to be gifted the unenviable task of trying to slow James, while Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and Patrick Patterson will also likely get their turn as well. In addition to facing James’ superstar skill and athleticism, he’s also one of the absolute best playmakers in the league, seeing plays develop well before anyone else on the floor. James’ ability to control and dominate a game in so many different ways is second to none.
James dominates any conversation about the Cavs, and for good reason. Against Indiana, he averaged 32.8 points, 9.3 rebounds 9.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 54 percent from the floor and 45 percent from beyond the arc. Joining him was point guard Kyrie Irving who averaged 25.3 points per game in the four-game sweep and Kevin Love was the team’s third-leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists against the Pacers.