In order for the Toronto Raptors to be the best, they’re going to have to beat the best.
And they’ll have to do it in the second round. They can do it.
The Raptors begin a playoff series against defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday. Cleveland, you might remember, ended Toronto’s season last year with a six-game Eastern Conference Finals win.
LeBron James and Co. will be a tough match-up for the Raptors considering the meetings during the regular season mostly went Cleveland’s way.
But this year could be different.
Here are seven reasons why the Raptors can best the Cavaliers:
1. DeRozan is a force
The man has been a machine in the playoffs so far.
DeMar DeRozan averaged 23.5 points in six games against the Milwaukee Bucks last series, which included a dominant 32-point showing in Game 6.
During the regular season, he averaged 27 points per game on his way to finishing fifth in league scoring.
If this same DeRozan shows up in Round 2, the Raptors’ odds of beating the Cavaliers rise.
This year, the Raptors have come equipped with players that can share the workload.
The introduction of Serge Ibaka to the team in February has not only helped the offence, but his defensive presence under the rim has been a huge upside as well. Look for him to match-up with Kevin Love.
Players like Norman Powell have already stepped up, as the 23-year-old averaged over 14 points per game in the final four games of the series against the Bucks. In order for the Raptors to pull off the upset, they’re going to need more contributions like this from role players.
3. An improved Raptors defence
The Raptors won’t be able to stop James, there aren’t many players who can.
But they can slow him down.
Ranked eighth in limiting opponent scoring this season, the Raptors’ defence will be up for the challenge of taking on the postseason’s top offensive team.
P.J. Tucker will be the key defensive player, attempting to make James’ time on the court troublesome. Since Tucker’s addition to the team at the trade deadline, the Raptors’ defence has become the fourth-best in the league.
4. Cleveland’s defence won’t be up for the challenge
At the tail end of the season, the Cavs lost four straight, including a 98-83 loss to the Raptors in the season finale.
While Cleveland swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round, their defence hasn’t been good.
The Cavs ranked 20th in opponents points per game during the regular season, with 107 points allowed. In eight of their last 10 games, Cleveland has allowed 100+ points to opponents.
The Cavaliers’ offence is expected to carry them, but with an improved Raptors defence, they’ll need a more well-rounded game.
5. More rest than last year
Last season, the Raptors went through two seven-games series before playing Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s a lot of basketball.
This year the two teams meet in the second round. The Raptors made sure to finish off the Bucks in Game 6, securing three days of rest before starting this next series.
Fewer games and more rest equates to better play and a much better chance to win.
6. James is all that the Cavs have
While the Raptors are boasting a deeper lineup, the Cavaliers can’t say the same.
During the season, both teams continued to strengthen their roster but so far in the postseason, the Cavaliers have relied heavily on King James. Their other ‘stars’ and additions simply haven’t stepped it up in the same way.
The four-time MVP is playing a crazy amount of time, averaging 43.8 minutes per game. In comparison, DeRozan plays 36.8 and Lowry plays 38.5.
If the other Cavs don’t manage to show up, Toronto could take this.
7. Anything can happen
The wonderful thing about sports is that anything can happen, especially in the playoffs.
If the Raptors steal a win in Cleveland and get the job done in Toronto, it may just be enough to grind out a series win.
The taste of being so close to the finals last year is this team’s driving force. It’s time to take revenge for last year’s playoff exit.
Raptors in six.