Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Raptors vs Cavaliers

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The 2016 Eastern Conference Finals are upon us, and it will be a matchup of Royalty. For Cleveland King James reigns supreme. In Toronto, the Raptors are the Princes of the North, with the entirety of Canada behind them.

Neither Cleveland nor Toronto have ever had the honour of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy before, and both franchises will look for the opportunity to win raise that coveted banner for the first time. Toronto has never even made it to this point in the Playoffs before, their last opportunity coming in a final effort heave by Vince Carter fifteen years ago that missed left.

The Raptors have struggled thus far in the Playoffs, with their two All-Star guards Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry playing abysmally for most of the post-season. Each however have had their high points, and Game 7 against the Miami Heat was one for both, especially Lowry who ignited for 35 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds and 4 steals. He was a +31 on the night, and shot the ball beautifully from distance. After struggling with his stroke since the Indiana series, Lowry found it today, going 5-7 from behind the arc to make the ACC erupts time and time again. It seems like the back-court have started to hit their stride.

Cleveland had a much easier path to the Finals and have yet to lose a game, sweeping both Detroit and Atlanta. Toronto will look to put up more of a fight this time around.

Cleveland Keys to the Series:

For Cleveland the key to success is to just keep doing what they have been doing. They lit up both the Hawks and Pistons from behind the arc, nearly breaking the record for most 3 pointers made in a series against the former. Of course everything hinges on Lebron James and his brilliance. He certainly has the ability to elevate the Cavs to the finals on his own, but Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have been equally fantastic. If all are healthy then they are a three-headed dragon that have been completely unstoppable. Love in particular has been unbelievable, and has really found his stroke from deep. The Cavs have been running great action to have him fading to the short corner after screening for either Irving or James, who are so adept at penetrating that the defences have been forced to leave Love open.

Cleveland have not just shot the ball well, but against Atlanta they completely dominated the glass on both ends of the court. With no second chance points against and ample opportunity to put-back missed shots, it is little wonder why they swept the Hawks. Millsap and Horford are great players, but they pale in comparison on the glass to Biyombo and Valanciunas. Can the Cavs continue to win the rebounding battle?

Defensively they will have to shut down Lowry and DeRozan, and while Irving is poor on that end of the court, Jefferson, Shumpert, Dellavedova and James certainly make up for it. Channing Frye and Love won’t offer much resistance against Patterson, Biyombo or Valanciunas, but Thompson is one of the best rebounders there is in the league, grabbing 21% of all available defensive rebounds. Not a great rim protector by any means, Cleveland will have to limit penetration from Toronto’s relentless attacking players.

Toronto Keys to Success:

The Raptors have had up and down games so far, but do not count them out just yet. Obviously priority number one is to throw as many defenders at Lebron James as possible. Demare Carroll is a superb defender, and has played excellent defence against James in the past, but expect Toronto to utilize Norman Powell, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson to take turns checking the best player since Michael Jordan. The problem here is that Powell, Carroll and Ross are all under 220 lbs and simply don’t have the weight to consistently keep James out of the paint, and Patterson’s will be otherwise occupied guarding stretch bigs like Frye and Love. So far James Johnson has been in garbage time minutes, except for a short 5 minutes in game 2 against Miami. Tough, athletic and 250 lbs, he is James physical match, and should be given time to play.

Hopefully for all Raptors fans Jonas Valanciunas will be available for the conference finals, as the big Lithuanian will be the singular matchup nightmare for the Cavs. Mozgov would be the obvious choice to guard him, but he has been relegated to the end of the bench since Tyrone Lue took over. Neither Frye nor Love can guard Valanciunas in the post, and even though Thompson is a physical and active defender he is listed (generously) at 6”9, meaning that the Raptors’ center can shoot right over him. Biyombo has been magnificent while Valanciunas has been injured and Toronto will need him to carry his excellent play into Cleveland.

So far Toronto have played Indiana and Miami, two teams who struggle to shoot the three, but as mentioned the Cavs are a different animal and the Raptors must run Cleveland’s shooters off the line and funnel them towards the big bodies of Valanciunas and Biyombo.

Finally and most importantly, Toronto need even more from DeRozan and Lowry. It cannot be one or the other, but both to play the best basketball of their careers if they want to reach the finals.

Prediction

Despite having to play in two game 7’s Toronto is a good team, the best that Cleveland will have played to date. They have multiple athletes and can hassle James, Irving and Love. Cleveland also won’t have the advantage on the boards this time around, closing the gap between the two teams. In the end however, Cleveland simply have too much talent and experience to the young group from the North. If Valanciunas is healthy, the series will be closer than any Ohio native will feel comfortable admitting, but the Cavs should still close it out in 6 games.