This postseason, there are two clear-cut favorites to reach the NBA Finals — the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
All season it's seemed inevitable that Warriors-Cavs III will tip off on June 1, and even with some ups-and-downs this regular season, nothing has changed in that regard.
But before either team can play that Finals rubber match, they'll have to get through their respective conference playoffs, and there are six teams — three from each conference — that could make that journey difficult.
The Toronto Raptors are one of those teams for the Cavs, and here are three reasons they could take down Cleveland this postseason:
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This is a whole new squad
The Raptors were the only team in the Eastern Conference to put any sort of a scare in the Cavs in last year's playoffs, but this is not the 2015-16 squad.
This squad is better, and that happened because of two tremendous mid-season trades.
The Raptors' midseason acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have completed an already good roster and made it a viable title contender.
Ibaka has brought the Raptors something they desperately missed — a rim protector who isn't limited to the paint on either end of the court.
There aren't many players in the league who can average two blocks and two 3-pointers a game — or more — as Ibaka can when he's at his best. That's a matchup nightmare for any team.
In Tucker, the Raptors picked up another defensive stopper who can guard multiple positions — an important acquisition considering how DeMarre Carroll has fallen off since arriving in Toronto.
Tucker has also had success in guarding LeBron James — one of the few players in the league that can boast that. Needless to say, that was worth two second-round picks.
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They're deep, flexible and strong defensively — everything the Cavs aren't
The Raptors don't have LeBron James. They don't boast Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, either, though Toronto's top two players aren't far off that level (if they're not better).
But the Raptors' defense is much, much better than the Cavs', particularly late in the season — they can thank their lineup flexibility for that.
If the Cavs are winning on the glass, the Raptors can go big and play center Jonas Valanciunas with Ibaka, Carroll, DeRozan, and either Lowry or Tucker, or they can play smallball and switch everything with Ibaka at the stretch-5 and Tucker at the 4.
Against LeBron, Norman Powell, Carroll and Tucker will all take turns. They have Cory Joseph, who could start for plenty of teams (how much would the Spurs like to have him back?) on the bench in case Lowry tires out chasing Kyrie. And while the Cavs lack any rim protector (other than LeBron, if he wants to patrol the paint), the Raptors might not even use one of the more underrated defenders in the league this year, Bebe Nogueira, who boasts an 8-foot wingspan.
The Raptors have a defensive lineup for everything and against a team with one unworldly player surrounded by one-way specialist pros (save for J.R. Smith, if he wants to activate), that's a massive advantage.
And no, we don't have to bring up Dwane Casey in this argument...
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Toronto has reliable, consistent and prolific scoring
Toronto — more so than any other team in the Eastern Conference — has the best chance to slow down the Cavs' offense, but it also is well-equipped to exploit the Cavs' faltering defense (even if the proverbial "switch" is flipped in the postseason).
That's because Toronto has two of the best offensive players in the NBA in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and they are particularly adept at things that the Cavs have difficulty stopping.
Take, for instance, the pick-and-roll — Lowry is one of the most lethal PnR players in the league, as he averaged 1.07 points per possession, the best mark in the NBA.
If he's guarded by Kyrie Irving — and Cavs coach Ty Lue seems poised to have Irving guard his opposing point guard this postseason — that already incredible number is going to jump — Iring allows 0.96 points per possession when defending the pick and roll this season, the second-worst mark in the league.
So long as Irving is on the floor, expect the Raptors to put him in pick and roll, taxing the Cavs' team defense — particularly LeBron — which will have to overcommit to helping. Lowry has looked healthy and locked-in since his return from a wrist injury — to him, that defensive situation is easy money.
And if the Cavs want to play Kyrie off of Lowry, DeRozan is almost equally deadly in pick and roll situations — scoring at a 0.97 PPP clip this year.
And if the Raptors just get sick of pick and roll, they can run an isolation play for DeRozan — he led the NBA in scoring frequency on isolation plays this season — or pound an injured Tristan Thompson or overpowered Kevin Love or Channing Frye in the low post with Valanciunas (45.4 percent scoring rate this year).
And don't overcommit to helping in those situations either — the Raptors move the ball and Tucker and Lowry are in the top 10 percent of spot-up shooters in the league, averaging more than 1.2 points per possession in those situations.