For the first time in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors have reached the conference finals. The main goal this year was to advance past the first round. However, after advancing to the second round, expectations weren’t as clear. Well, here we are. Our precious Raptors are in the Eastern Conference Finals against the King, LeBron James.
While Toronto was pushed to 7 games against both the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been waiting for an ECF foe since May 9, sweeping through the postseason thus far.
The team is only 4 wins away from an NBA Finals berth and while the odds are ultra-heavily stacked against them, the Raptors have proven to be a resilient team. This is the first time in franchise history that our team is part of the NBA’s Final Four, silencing any questions as to whether this is the greatest season in franchise history.
Everyone was ready to write off the boys from the Six and fast-forward to a Heat/Cavaliers ECF. However, the Dinos had other plans and now they face the King and the Land. This is arguably the best player in the league. LeBron has been to five straight NBA Finals, winning 2. Toronto is hoping to end that streak when game 1 tips off at 8:30PM in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Season Series Breakdown: Raptors won 2-1
Game 1: Nov 25, 2015 Raptors win 103-99
While it was close, the Raptors were able to come away with a victory in their first encounter with Cleveland. Kyle Lowry led the way with 27 points and 6 assists, followed by DeMar DeRozan who had 20.
While Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t present in this game. Bismack Biyombo stepped up big, though, registering a double-double in the form of 11 points and 12 boards. The Dinos allowed the Cavs to shoot 44 per cent from the field and 48 per cent from 3, winning the battle of the boards, 42-40, in the process.
To Cleveland’s credit, Kyrie Irving was injured. With that being said, Kevin Love and LeBron were still able to dominate scoring 21 and 24, respectively. Toronto was able to protect the paint, swatting 8 shots compared to the Cavs’ 5.
Game 2: Jan 4 2016 Raptors lose 122-100
This was the largest margin of defeat the Raptors suffered all season. Cleveland absolutely dominated us this game as they shot 55 per cent from the field, 52 per cent from 3 and 88 per cent from the charity stripe. Toronto, on the other hand, shot 49 per cent from the field, 42 per cent from beyond the arc and 69 per cent from the free throw line.
As a team, the DInos got rocked on the boards, losing that battle 40-26. The biggest take away from this game was the rebounding and free throws. Had the Raps been able to secure more rebounds and make a higher per cent of free throws, the game would have had a different outcome or at least a defeat less than 22 points.
Individually, Lowry had 23 points and 10 assists, DeMar had 19 and Patrick Patterson had 15 off the bench. JV led the team in boards with 8 followed by Bis, who had 5. Cleveland thrived this game as all their starters scored in double figures. Kyrie Irving led the effort with 25 points, 6 boards and 9 assists, followed by J.R. Smith‘s 24 and LeBron’s 20.
With Irving back in the lineup, this game was a demonstration of what Cleveland is capable of when at full strength.
Game 3: Feb 26, 2016 Raptors win 99-97
Kyle Lowry put on one of the best Raptor performances of all time. Not only did he lead the team with a career-high 43 points, 5 boards and 9 helpers, he also managed to knock down the game winner which put the Raps up by 2 with 3.8 seconds left to go in the game.
This was a good team win and an amazing individual game for Mr. Lowry. Toronto shot very well, going 51 per cent from the field and 35 per cent from downtown. Cleveland was able to shoot 47 per cent from the field and 50 per cent from the 3.
While the Raptors forced 14 Cavalier turnovers, the battle of the boards was once again in favour of Cleveland, 39-34. LeBron was a force, as usual, putting up 25 points, 8 boards and dishing out 7 dimes. Kevin Love also contributed with 20 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Kyrie Irving, however, was not a factor at all, scoring 10 points and tallying only a rebound and an assist each.
If it wasn’t for the last minute voting of several dedicated Lowry fans, this match up may have been between 2 All Stars from this year.
None the less, Irving has been an All Star in the past and is still young. Through 8 games in the playoffs, Irving is averaging 24.4 points, 5.5 assists and 1.3 steals. He’s scoring very efficiently too as he’s shooting 48 per cent shooting from the field and an insane 44 per cent from 3. However after averaging 32 points over the last 3 games against Miami, Lowry seems to have picked up his play. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Lowry on the other hand is averaging 18.6 points, 6.7 assists, 5 boards and 2 steals throughout this postseason. Those are good numbers before mentioning his shooting percentages of 37 per cent and 28 per cent from the field and beyond the arc, respectively.
The backup guards will be just as important as both Cory Joseph and Matthew Dellavedova are pesky defenders.
DeMar DeRozan has also struggled mightily in these playoffs. The All Star is averaging 20 points, 4.6 boards, 2.4 helpers and 1 steal. Again, those numbers aren’t so bad before mentioning that he’s shooting 36 per cent from the field and an abysmal 18 per cent from the 3. DeMar has been slumping but like Lowry, he seems to have picked up his game recently.
Bench players such as Terrence Ross and Norman Powell will also prove to be vital to this series. Ross made some key shots throughout the Miami series and the Raptors will need that same production off the bench as they face Cleveland.
J.R. Smith will match up with DeRozan this series. Smith’s averaging 12.3 and 4 boards while shooting 48 per cent from the field and 51 per cent from the 3. Smith can light it up when he gets hot. He’s proven to be a high volume scorer. meaning he takes a lot of shots to get his points. However, with those percentages, it looks as though he’s adopted a team first mentality which is a scary thing for Toronto.
Cleveland’s small forward happens to be this named LeBron James. The Raptors will need to minimize LeBron’s impact and that’s a tall task to achieve. James is averaging 23.5 points, 8.8 boards, 7.3 assists and 2.4 steals thus far in the playoffs. He’s also shooting 50 per cent from the field and 32 per cent from deep.
Speaking of DeMarre Carroll, he’s averaging 9.6 points, 4.3 boards and 1 steal a game. Those numbers don’t exactly pop out but DC is a high energy guy who’s known for his defense and 3 pointers, which he is currently shooting at a rate of 40 per cent.
In the only game LeBron matched up with DeMarre Carroll, the King tallied 24 points, 6 rebounds and 8 helpers. However, he only managed to shoot 38 per cent from the field. If Carroll is able to slow down James’ penetration, the Raptors might have a chance in this one.
The Raptors are still toying around with who their starting 4 is. While Luis Scola had the starting role throughout the regular season, Dwane Casey has tabbed Patrick Patterson as the starter in the playoffs.
Patterson has done a fine job averaging 8 points, 4.4 boards and a dime throughout the playoffs. The shooting percentages need to be better, however. Patterson is shooting 41 per cent from the field and 29 per cent from deep. The 4 is the position where the Raptors get the least production from, so regardless of who’s starting, that man needs to bring it.
As for the Cavaliers, they’ve got a rebounding and scoring machine in the form of Kevin Love. The former UCLA product is averaging 19 points, 12.5 boards and 2 assists through 8 games in the playoffs. His shooting percentages of 36 from the field isn’t good but his 44 per cent shooting from 3 means that Toronto cannot afford to sleep on him.
Before JV went down, the big man was playing some of the best basketball in his career. Through 10 games in the playoffs, Valanciunas was averaging 15 points, 12 boards, and an assist, steal and block each. He was also shooting 55 per cent from the field. He is out for game 1 and 2.
After an ankle sprain against Miami, JV was forced to sit out the rest of the series. In his place, Bismack Biyombo has been the next man up. As a starter, Bis is averaging 11 points, 12 boards, 2.5 blocks and a steal for the Raptors. Great sign for the Raptors moving forward.
The Cavaliers’ starting centre, Tristan Thompson, has been averaging 5 points, 8.3 boards and a block. His shooting percentages are not good, at 42 per cent from the field and 48 per cent from the free throw line.
This is a matchup the Raptors would be smart to exploit.
Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross and Norman Powell are the main bench players the Raptors rely on. So far those 3 have averaged a combined 20.3 points per game in the playoffs.
If they can keep that production up, or even increase it, the Cavs will need to find a way to combat it, whether it’s going small ball or sticking with a traditional lineup.
Cleveland also has some key players off the bench. Channing Frye is seen as a stretch 5, meaning he’s a center that can shoot the 3. Scary to think about when factoring in that Biyombo is more of an interior presence. The line-up of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Frye has absolutely killed teams.
Matthew Dellavedova also provides shooting as well as defence for the Cavaliers. Him and Cory Joseph are actually similar players.
Tyronn Lue has 3 big time stars and a good supporting cast around them. After becoming head coach, Lue seems to have found some sort of harmony between the 3, making the Cavaliers resemble the dominant bunch they are on paper.
Dwane Casey is the longest tenured Raptors coach in franchise history. He’s also won the most games and lead the team to the most wins ever in a single season. He’s also led the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time. Casey won a championship with Dallas in 2011, the same team that shut down LeBron James in his first season with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. This should be an interesting coaching dynamic, with LBJ really dictating a lot of what goes on with the Cavs.
Cage’s Keys to the Series
Defend the Perimeter
The Cavaliers were able to light the Atlanta Hawks up for 20+ 3 pointers in back-to-back games. The Raptors cannot afford to let that same thing happen or else, they’ll be toast.
As is stands, the Cavaliers are shooting 46.2 per cent from the 3, which is 6 percent higher than the Golden State Warriors. To make matters worse, that’s 16 per cent higher than Toronto. Not only does Cleveland shoot the 3 at the most successful rate among playoff teams, they also knock down the most 3 pointers at 17 a game.
The Raptors brought DeMarre Carroll in for this reason specifically. Patrick Patterson, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Cory Joseph are all capable defenders as well. There should be no reason for the Raptors to let the Cavaliers shoot the ball as well as they have thus far.
Protect the Paint
Whether it’s Bismack Biyombo or Jonas Valanciunas, the Raps have 2 big men that are capable of holding down the paint on both ends of the floor.
Bis specializes in defense as he’s averaging 2.5 swats a game when starting. Until JV comes back, Toronto must rely on Biyombo to defend the interior.
Reason being, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are able to drive and kick it out or do what they please when they are inside the paint.
If Toronto can limit the penetration by Cleveland, this series won’t be as difficult.
Just Bring It
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will need to bring their A+ games if the Raptors want to win this series and make it to the NBA Finals for the first time ever.
The All Stars might have gotten away with a lack of intensity against Indiana and through the early part of the Miami series, but that won’t work against Cleveland. LeBron James is on a mission to win his 3rd ring.
When he gets in playoff mode, he’s unstoppable. As it is, he’ll go down as one of the 10 greatest players ever. Toronto will need to limit his effectiveness and serve him a nightmare on defense.
Some of our writers chimed in with their thoughts on the series. Here’s their predictions:
My prediction: Raptors in 7
The Raptors have come a long way this season. Winning their first ever 7 game series and then another one to achieve their first ever Eastern Conference Finals Berth. Yes, I understand this is the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. This team is supposed to be the class of the East. However, I’m not convinced these Raptors are done yet. 21 years of heartbreak has come down to this season. The defensive intensity that the Raptors bring will prove to be too much for the Cavs as DeMarre Carroll’s defense will suffocate the King and the Raptors will reign supreme in the East.
JR: The Raptors and the Eastern Conference finals. That’s got a ring to it that hasn’t hit me yet. First two series I was very optimistic and so far my positivity has been rewarded. As positive as I want to be however, reality will hit the Raptors just as soon as they hit the floor in Cleveland for the first game. They matched up well with LeBron and the Cavs throughout the season, but they’re playing their best basketball of the season with a fully healthy roster. Because of the versatility of the roster, this’ll be a lot more of a competitive series then the Cavs’ last two against ATL & DET; it’s tough for me to realistically believe the Raptors have a chance of getting to the Finals. It hurts me to say it, but, Cavs in 5.
Sachin: If you had told me at the beginning of the season that the Raptors would be squaring off against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals, I would have been ecstatic. The Raptors have had an unbelievable season, and it’s just so exciting that they are 4 wins away from the finals. Now, nobody is really giving the Raptors a chance in this series. In fact, most aren’t giving them a chance to win a game. I don’t think that’s fair at all. This team was elite against the top tier teams, and beat the likes of Cleveland, OKC, and the Spurs. Kyle Lowry and LeBron James are the best two players in the series. If Klow can somehow play in the same echelon as LBJ, and JV returns healthy, we could have a series. Lowry should absolutely dominate Irving on both ends, and Patrick Patterson is a good match-up for Kevin Love. Also, given the fact that the Raps have never won a game 1, I expect the Raptors to win the toughest game 1 in franchise history, just because it would be the most Raptors thing to do. Cleveland may be perfect thus far, but they have been pushed in many games by Atlanta and Detroit. They are more beatable than people think. With that said, Cavaliers in 6 has to be my pick, unfortunately. At the very least, this will be a competitive series with the Raptors coming just short. I hope I am wrong.
Matt: At this point, the Raptors are playing with house money. No matter the results of this impending series, Raptor fans should consider this season a resounding success and should feel very proud of this team. The Raptors will obviously be in tough against Cleveland, who have looked unstoppable so far in the playoffs. I’m predicting Cavs in 6, but as an eternal optimist, I see a road map to victory for Toronto. This map involves some timely Cleveland injuries and some magic from Kyle Lowry, but as Kevin Garnett so wisely taught us: anything is possible.
RJ: Finally, the Raptors have made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Your reward? LeBron James. This may be the best Raptors team of all time with a wonderful regular season and finally getting to the ECF. But the Cavs are a new monster. They are a different team than the Raptors have played in these playoffs so far. The Pacers played us tough, the Heat had strong veterans and great play by Wade. But the Cavs have more talent than those teams by a long shot. LeBron is still probably the best all around player in the NBA, and he has a very strong supporting cast who is clicking at the moment. NOBODY is giving Toronto a chance. But that could be the edge that Toronto needs. We have nothing to lose. We spoiled the media dream of Heat vs LeBron. Everyone has Cleveland penciled in already. The Raps could play well as the underdog. Game 1 will be big, will Toronto keep their momentum going? Or will they be tired with much less rest than Cleveland? Can Carroll do what he was brought in to do? Slow down LeBron. This will be the biggest test to date for the Raptors. I’d love to see Kyle Lowry come off an all time great series by a Raptor and lead this team to take down LeBron and the Cavs and head to the finals. I’m going to be bold. The Raptors take down game 1 in Cleveland in overtime and hold ground at home to win the ECF in 6 games, taking us to the finals for the first time.
Aaron: Its no secret that Toronto are not favourites to win this series but the Vegas and others should know better than to sleep on this Raptors team. The main question is can the Raptors win this series? yes, even without Valanciunas and even without home court advantage. Will they though? I’m going to say no. Not saying its impossible or that it simply won’t happen but it seems like a task that is just slightly out of reach. Cleveland have a more rounded overall roster, they have had a huge additional break, they have found a really strong 3 point game and they have LeBron James who is well backed by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. For the Raptors to win they will have to pull some magic out the bag in regards to firstly stopping James and the big 3 but also in producing a strong offensive game that makes tough shots and protects the value of each possession. Toronto won the regular season series 2-1 but Cleveland and that rest factor will play its part. I don’t think LeBron James will have a huge series but I think his team comes through. Cavaliers in 6. More than happy to be wrong though.
Chetan: I am going out on a limb and saying Raps in 7. Also, if Cavs win this series and face OKC they win the NBA crown. Besides GSW, this is the worst match-up for a very strong but shallow Cleveland team. They run about 8 deep and have too many defensive liabilities in their starting 5. Lowry will have his way with Irving, on offense. On defense he won’t stop him but he will slow him down. Derozan vs Smith is the best match-up we can hope for. Derozan will feast on him on the offensive side, and since Smith is so one dimensional Dero will have an easy task on the defensive side. Carroll has the toughest task…LBJ. The positive is he doesn’t have to be a shutdown defender. As long as the other 4 Cavs don’t go off we just try and slow him down. Carroll can do this. For the bigs, Love vs 2Pat is a similar match-up to Derozan and Irving. 2Pat can try and slow him down but Love has no defensive aptitude and with respect to +/- it is a wash. JV/Biyombo vs Thompson. This is where the series is decided. Thompson does his thing against Biyombo, but if we get JV back by Game#2 he dominates the paint and we take the series. Call me crazy….but we live in crazy times. Go Raps Go!
Deighton: The Toronto Raptors have made it into unknown territory playing some of the most aesthetically displeasing playoff basketball that I’ve ever seen. With that being said there’s no better time for the Raps to start clicking than against the Cavs. When the Raptors play with nothing to lose, they’re at their most dangerous. LBJ is obviously going to cause Toronto problems. He’s a notorious Raptor killer and I wouldn’t be surprised if he went vintage King James and poured in a 50 point performance on the road. At this point in the season…anything is possible. This series comes down to star power and the Raptors stars will have to shine brighter than ever to pull this one off. The Raptors don’t know how to just roll over and die, so I think they’re about to surprise the hell out of Cleveland and the NBA world this series. Forget 7 games…Raptors are taking this series and going on to the NBA Finals in 5 games. This is our Cinderella story…believe it!