For a third straight season, the Toronto Raptors will need to beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in order to advance in the NBA playoffs.
The first two times were not successful, but this year feels different.
Here are five reasons why the Raptors will slay the dragon, and finally defeat LeBron & Co. in a playoff series.
1. Kyrie’s gone
The Cavs were forced to trade All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics this offseason and they haven’t been able to adequately replace him. Searching for a suitable point guard all season, Cleveland tried out Isaiah Thomas, Jose Calderon, and Derrick Rose before acquiring George Hill at the trade deadline.
None compare to Irving.
Irving averaged 25.2 points per game during the 2016 playoffs and 25.9 last postseason, while chipping in around five assists per game. The best player the Cavs had not named LeBron, his absence has been felt in Cleveland throughout the regular season and playoffs.
2. Valanciunas has taken the next step
Jonas Valanciunas has been one of the most interesting Raptors players to follow this year. After being shopped in the offseason, the Lithuanian was brought back and has since taken his game to another level.
He started shooting three-pointers and dominating other big-men. That’s exactly what he did against Washington’s Marcin Gortat in the first round, averaging a very impressive 13.5 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Valanciunas has outplayed Cavaliers centre Tristan Thompson in previous meetings, which should be good news for the Raptors.
3. LeBron has no help
In their seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers, Kevin Love was the only Cavs player besides James to average more than 10 points per game.
The Cavaliers offence is LeBron, and LeBron alone right now.
If you slow down the King, you beat Cleveland. Easier said than done though (James had 45 points on Sunday).
4. DeRozan can shoot three-pointers now
When Toronto got swept by the Cavaliers last year, a big reason why was that the Raptors played too much ‘iso ball’ – something that was easy to defend. DeRozan changed the way he plays the game, adding the three-point shot to his game, making him that much more difficult to play against.
In the regular season, DeRozan shot 31% from three-point land on 287 attempts.
5. Home court advantage
For the first time between these two teams in the playoffs, the Raptors have home court advantage. The Raptors tied for the best home-court record in the NBA during the regular season, carrying a 34-7 regular season record at the Air Canada Centre. So far in the playoffs, they’re a perfect 3-0.
In three head-to-head meetings between the Raptors and Cavs this season, the home team won every game.