For the first time in their 21-year history, the Toronto Raptors have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs.
Narrowly escaping with first and second round Game 7 wins against the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, the Raps will face their biggest challenge starting today, against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.
All games can be seen on TSN or Sportsnet:
Toronto took two out of three games against Cleveland in the regular season, but the Cavs come into the series as heavy favourites, having swept their first two opponents in this year’s playoffs.
Here’s how each team’s current starting rotation matches up against one another.
|Toronto Raptors||Cleveland Cavaliers|
|PG Kyle Lowry||PG Kyrie Irving|
|SG Demar DeRozan||SG J.R. Smith|
|SF DeMarre Carroll||SF LeBron James|
|PF Patrick Patterson||PF Kevin Love|
|C Bismack Biyombo||C Tristan Thompson|
The biggest duel to look out for is the point guard battle between Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving. Lowry has heated up since struggling immensely in the back-half of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs with inflammation in his right shooting elbow. Although Lowry claimed his shooting slump was purely mental, it no longer matters.
Kyle Lowry, right now pic.twitter.com/zwRrKcUAb5
— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) May 4, 2016
Lowry scored 30+ points in three of the last five games of the Miami series with an efficient field goal percentage. He’ll need to be equally as prolific for Toronto in this series.
Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving has the best field goal percentage among remaining point guards in the series, a list that includes superstars Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Irving has become the primary scorer in the postseason for Cleveland.
DeMar Derozan will be heavily guarded by J.R. Smith in this series. Smith has built a reputation as being a sniper from the three-point line, but he’s a very underrated wing defender as well.
If the Raptors have any hope of winning this series, they will need a Herculean effort from DeMarre Carroll.
Carroll will be tasked with guarding LeBron James, just as he did in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals when he was a member of the Atlanta Hawks. James is one of the greatest players of all-time, so Carroll has his work cut out for him. James averaged 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists for Cleveland during the regular season.
Patrick Patterson and Kevin Love are both stretch four’s that can really expand the floor with their shot making ability, though Love has started to show off his post moves. Love has averaged 18.9 points and 12.5 rebounds in the postseason, more on par with how he performed as a true star back in the day with Minnesota. Patterson didn’t start a single game for the Raptors during the regular season, but has been penciled in as one for the last eight games.
Bismack Biyombo’s presence on the court has been very pleasing to see, but the absence of Jonas Valanciunas will be dearly missed in this series. The injured Raptors centre is still limping around, trying to work his way back from a brutal ankle sprain suffered in Game 3 against the Heat.
The Cavs have resorted to small ball, and spread the floor well with fellow Canadian Tristan Thompson at centre. Although Valanciunas is a liability defensively at times and could get exposed, it would be nice to have another primary scorer down low not named Lowry or DeRozan. Valanciunas is already listed as out for both Game 1 and Game 2 in Cleveland.
Point guard Corey Joseph and small forward Terrence Ross will play a vital role in this series. Joseph was the Raps’ most consistent player in round 1 against Indiana, but struggled a little bit in the Miami series. Ross has the ability and skill-set to turn it on at any time, but can get in the way of himself by being hesitant, or with poor shot selection.
For Cleveland, their bench is very deep with the likes of sharpshooter Channing Frye, lockdown defender Iman Shumpert, veteran Richard Jefferson, and feisty backup PG Mathew Dellavedova.
Five years in, Dwane Casey is statistically the greatest coach in Raptors history, and rightfully so. Tyron Lue, on the other hand, is new to this. After former Cavs head coach David Blatt’s firing back in late January, Lue was named head coach after being an assistant for the team the prior season.
Lue has since seemingly taken control of the Cleveland locker room, something that Blatt was seemingly unable to do. He even confronted LeBron James about his behaviour and lack of leadership at one point during the regular season.
With two early round sweeps, Cleveland has had a bulk of time to rest up for this matchup. Toronto, on the other hand, has had to play two seven-game series and is without their starting centre.
Although James and Irving were limited to below average performances in the three games against Toronto in the regular season, the Cavs’ experience will shine through. The Raptors will give it a good effort, but the Cavs will win in five games.