It’s well documented at this point how the Toronto Raptors are heavy underdogs heading into their Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s easy to assume the Cavs will plow through the banged up Raptors and advance to the NBA Finals for the second straight year, but to do so would forget one essential element of this Toronto team: they’re completely and utterly unpredictable.
Remember when we assumed the Raptors would plow through the Indiana Pacers in the first round, but it took seven hard-fought games? Remember when fans filed out of the arena in Game 1 against the Miami Heat with the Raptors down multiple possessions with seconds to play, only to hear Kyle Lowry had hit a half-court heave to send the game to overtime? There is no sense in predicting what this team will do, and it would be foolish to count the team out before the series has even begun. There is a road-map to victory for the Dinos, and it begins in Game 1.
This game day preview will be brief, as our own Manny Rao has done an extensive job sorting through the nuances of the series, you can read it here. It is, however, worthwhile to consider some of the Game 1-specific factors in play if the Raptors hope to steal this one on the road.
Rust vs. Rest
The Cavaliers last played a game on May 8, nine days ago. In a league in which players are used to playing every second day, the Cavaliers two sweeps have left them playing eight games in 31 days. The Raptors, meanwhile, have played 14 games in the last two weeks. Normally, fatigue could be setting in, but considering the team just played its best game of the playoffs two nights ago, I’m less concerned about that than I usually would be.
The Raptors need to pounce on this Cavaliers team with the same amount of intensity and energy as they did during the fourth quarter of their series-clinching win in Game 7 against Miami. This will hopefully accomplish a couple of things: First, it will catch the Cavs off guard, as they try to readjust to the pace and physicality of playoff basketball. Second, it will also…
Take the crowd out early
Cleveland fans are hungry for a title. They haven’t seen a winner in any sport in over 50 years (Leafs fans will relate). This means they will likely be rabid off the opening tip, but will be quick to get anxious at the first sign of trouble, especially because they haven’t seen much of a challenge through the first two rounds.
Once the home crowd settles in, the visiting Raptor fans need to make themselves known, as they so often do.
X-factor: Kyle Lowry
If the Raptors have any hope to win this series against the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, they need their leader to step up. Lowry is coming off three straight 30+ point performances against Miami, and has found his shot, which was absent for much of the playoffs. Lowry was magnificent in the team’s February 26 win against the Cavs. While it’s a lot to ask, he needs to do that at least four more times if the Raptors hope to advance to the NBA Finals.
Follow Matt Jamieson on Twitter @mattjamieson12