The NBA playoff scenario is set, and thanks to a sputtering end of the season and some bizarre decisions down the stretch, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves in the 2-seed of the Eastern Conference, behind the Boston Celtics. Cleveland fans, perhaps LeBron himself as well, will argue that it doesn’t mean much – the Cavaliers have shown a unique ability to turn their games up to another level in the postseason, and this year should be no different.
The argument from Cavaliers fans basically goes: We knew we were going to face Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals, and we like our chances against them, so now we have to do it with one less home game. That’s OK.
That argument is all well and good, but discounts something important: The Cavaliers face a potential second-round showdown with the Toronto Raptors -- who will take on the Bucks in their first-round series starting Saturday -- a team that is uniquely built to be an absolute nightmare for them. Here’s why:
They have the backcourt
When thinking about the Cavaliers it’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking about LeBron, and he is the best player alive, so that makes sense. But a real key to their success is that they have one of the best scoring guards alive in Kyrie Irving, and any team that’s going to try and step to Cleveland is going to need to have a backcourt that can hang. And not just guards who can take advantage of Irving’s middling defense, but actually stay in front of him on the defensive end … one of the hardest things to do in basketball.
The Raptors have Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, one of the best backcourts in the league and one of the few that can try and stop Irving. On top of that, because of the rim protection behind them (more on that to come), they can actually be aggressive on the perimeter on defense, not merely sit back and try to prevent Irving from getting into the paint.
Not many teams can do this against the Cavaliers.
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They have players who can defend LeBron
This is the big question with every team that has to face the Cavaliers: What do you do about LeBron? James is such a good player that no one can really shut him down – he’s too big, too strong, too polished, too fast, too skilled, too everything. But the Raptors have options to slow him down. DeMarre Carroll is one of the few players in the league who has shown over the course of more than like, one quarter, that he can defend James. This makes him worth his weight in gold.
On top of that, the Raptors went and acquired Serge Ibaka during the season from the Magic, another one of the few people alive who can attempt to match James’ physicality. Ibaka isn’t the shot-blocking monster that he was in Oklahoma City, but he can stay in front of big men, keep his feet, and make them settle for bad looks. Carroll and Ibaka also both have the speed to close out on shooters, so they can provide help if James manages to coerce a switch.
There are maybe 10 or 15 people on Earth who can adequately guard LeBron James for any length of time (and even then, maybe not that many). It just so happens the Raptors have two of them.
They can go big
This is one that I am interested to see play out over the course of the playoffs. I’ve written about it before, but the Cavaliers do have a real issue this year – rim protection. With Andrew Bogut getting injured in his first game for the team and Larry Sanders’ reclamation project a failure (the Cavs waived him this week), the Cavaliers have one true rim protector on the roster in Tristan Thompson. (They just called up Edy Tavares from the D-League, who is 7-foot-3 and had a couple blocks in his final game of the season for the D-League team, so I guess they now have two.) They were able to cover that up a lot of games by just going small, playing LeBron at the 4, running past everyone and outscoring teams. But in the playoffs? Everything gets a little harder.
And the Raptors are uniquely built to take advantage of this. They not only have Ibaka but polished center Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Noguiera, the Brazilian 7-footer who’s made huge strides in his game this year and is a legitimate defensive presence under the rim, averaging 1.6 blocks a game this season in just 19 minutes a night of playing time.
Valanciunas is the real key, though – if he can tie up Thompson down low and score on him in the post, Thompson will be forced to key in on him, thus negating all the help defense he provides to the Cavaliers. We’ve seen other teams do this to the Cavaliers this season, and there aren’t a lot of great answers for them. If Valanciunas is scoring in the post, it’ll open up everything for the Raptors offensively.
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They can run
It’s not just that Valanciunas can open things up, the Raptors have the speed and the spacing to take advantage of it. Ibaka and Carroll have legitimate 3-point range (Ibaka is shooting 40% from deep while taking 4.5 3s a game for the Raptors, Carroll 34% taking a similar amount), which opens things up, and Lowry and DeRozan have the speed to beat their defenders and get to that next level.
The biggest issue for the Cavaliers defense aside from their lack of size is their lack of speed – the way their roster is built has a few too many aging wings. Richard Jefferson and Kyle Korver have both had wonderful careers and are still very good players, but asking them to stay in front of someone like Carroll or DeRozan is asking too much. And who knows what is going on with J.R. Smith this season. This all puts a ton of pressure on Iman Shumpert and Kevin Love, who will both need to be spectacular on the defensive end this postseason.
They have depth
The Raptors, most of all, have options. Cory Joseph, who’s played in more than his fair share of huge games, can come in off the bench and give the team a lift with scoring. Rookie Pascal Siakam provides physicality and rebounding off the bench, and has quietly averaged nearly a block a game in just 15 minutes. Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker are both big, tough players with playoff experience who you can toss on LeBron for stretches, giving the Raptors at least four options of guys who, at minimum, aren’t afraid of trying to guard the best player alive. The Cavaliers just signed Dahntay Jones for the playoffs. That should tell you all you need to know.
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They have no one to hide on defense
Here’s the one advantage the Raptors have over other teams in the East, including the 1-seed Celtics: They don’t have to hide anyone on defense. For the Celtics to be at their peak, they need Isaiah Thomas on the floor, a perfect, small offensive player who can’t guard anyone on the defensive end. The Celtics have tried out Thomas on Richard Jefferson, just conceding the foot of height advantage and hoping it doesn’t kill them.
The Raptors don’t have a problem like that. They have depth, speed, size, and can play the Cavaliers straight up. They have multiple people who aren’t afraid of LeBron James. They are built to beat this team.
(And yet it’s LeBron. If they do meet in the second round, I’m still taking Cavaliers in 6.)