The 2016 Eastern Conference Finals rematch will take place in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals, as the Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Toronto Raptors.
As a result of circumstance, the two most talented rosters in the Eastern Conference will clash in the second round. Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors have dealt with significant injuries, as well as roster turnover that has resulted in them dropping in the standings.
Both teams have made significant changes to their roster this season to give themselves a better chance at competing. New faces like Serge Ibaka, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and P.J. Tucker all figure to be significant contributors in this series. But with uneven play being displayed by both teams, this series may come down to which stars show up.
At the point guard position, we have a clash of two All-Stars that are struggling at the moment. Irving has been dealing with knee tendinitis and is coming off arguably his worst offensive playoff series of his career.
While he still averaged 25.3 points per game, he shot just 41.9 percent from the floor and 21.9 percent from deep. Per NBA.com, he went 1-for-19 on three-pointers that were classified as open to wide open against the Pacers. While the time off may help him get into form, he just didn’t look like himself offensively.
On the other side, Kyle Lowry has only played 10 games since returning from surgery on his shooting hand. He’s clearly still trying to find his rhythm, as he averaged just 14.3 points on 42.6 percent shooting from the floor and 28.1 percent from three. On the one hand, this is a huge drop-off from his regular season stats. But it’s also a career high in playoff field goal percentage.
If both play to the best of their abilities, we’ll be treated to a clash of two elite players at the point guard position. Neither will likely spend much time guarding the other, as they both carry a significant load offensively. But as it stands right now, Lowry is further from his best than Irving is.
DeMar DeRozan elevated his offensive game in a big way against the Milwaukee Bucks. While he struggled in Games 1 and 3, going a combined 7-for-29 from the floor, his scoring outside of those games bailed out an inconsistent Raptors offense. Outside of those games DeRozan scored 26.5 points per game on 40-of-79 shooting.
One of the biggest questions in this matchup is the health of J.R. Smith. Smith injured his hamstring in Game 2 against the Pacers, but still played in Games 3 and 4. He drew the assignment of defending Paul George, which allowed LeBron James to play free safety defensively. During the regular season, DeRozan shot just 37.5 percent with Smith on the floor, and 46.3 percent when he sat. If Smith is limited, this is a big time mismatch for the Raptors.
Regardless of what the Cavaliers do, DeRozan is going to get his points. Even in games where DeRozan struggles with his shot, he typically makes up for it from the line. However, on the defensive end he will need to improve.
DeRozan was frequently lost defensively against the Bucks, which was one of the reasons Dwane Casey inserted Norman Powell into the starting lineup. Powell helped the Raptors shut down Khris Middleton, but Tony Snell was able to go off as a result of DeRozan’s defense. Snell shot 51.6 percent from three for the series due to his ability to get free off ball. These mental lapses simply can’t occur against Smith and Korver. Overall though, the advantage in this matchup is clear.
Speaking of matchups where the advantage is clear, this is another one of them. It’s probably unlikely that Carroll will start for the entire series, as the defense of P.J. Tucker will be needed to slow down LeBron.
As I mentioned earlier, James likes to float defensively in order to provide help defense. In the past, the Cavs have trapped Lowry and DeRozan hard in order to force the ball into someone else’s hands. This is a strategy they used against the Pacers, which resulted in Lance Stephenson being open for most of the series.
While Stephenson averaged an efficient 16 points per game, he wasn’t able to run the team as well as Jeff Teague or Paul George. The Cavs will likely continue to use this strategy against the Raptors, especially if they play Tucker. Whether Carroll and Tucker hit the wide open shots the Cavs give them will determine how close this series is. Both will not only be asked to hit open shots, but to create for others.
This is the main way the Cavs combat the weakness of some of their individual defenders. On the other end, it’ll be all hands on deck for Toronto trying to limit LeBron. James has hit his playoff gear once again, averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game so far.
One of the reasons Ibaka was brought to Toronto was to help combat the stretch bigs of the Cavaliers. In the past, both Channing Frye and Love gave the Raptors fits by dragging less mobile defenders out to the three-point line. With Ibaka, the Raptors now have a player that can make Love work, as well as help out on perimeter players in the pick and roll.
Love will be a far more difficult assignment for Ibaka than he faced last round. Once the Raptors went small against the Bucks, Ibaka was able to sit back in the middle and go under on the pick and roll. With Love, he won’t be able to provide the same rim protection and will be forced to play away from the basket a lot more. Not only can Love score in the post, but he provides floor spacing and can bait defenders into fouling him while scrambling to recover out to the three-point line.
While Ibaka will cover Love, the Cavaliers will likely cross-match and have Tristan Thompson cover Ibaka. Love can struggle in space defensively, but is a strong post defender, meaning he shouldn’t have an issue against Jonas Valanciunas or Patrick Patterson. Valanciunas shot just 33 percent with Love on the floor this season, so that will free up Thompson to defend the more mobile Ibaka.
Ibaka has struggled offensively since Lowry returned to the lineup. He’s averaging just 12.6 points on 43.8 percent shooting from the floor and 25.5 percent from three over the last 11 games. If Toronto wants to compete with the Cavs, he will need to be a factor offensively.
Tristan Thompson (Cleveland) vs. Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto)
The Clevleand Cavaliers have had little trouble this season containing Valanciunas. He has shot just 38.5 percent from the floor when Thompson plays, and 33 percent from the floor when Love plays. On the other end, Thompson has shot 85 percent from the floor against Valanciunas. As the Cavs have attacked the Raptors center in the pick and roll with both the ball handler, and the roll man.
If Valanciunas can’t find a way to perform against the Cavs starters, he may not be playable for this series. When the Cavs don’t use their starting lineup, they typically play up tempo with shooters at every position.
Thompson is the heart of the Cavaliers’ defense. When he is on the court in playoffs, the Cavs have their best defensive rating of any player with 103.7, compared to 125.5 when he sits. His mobility to defend at the perimeter, as well as provide rim protection makes him one of the most versatile defenders in the league. Offensively he is a skilled finisher in the pick and roll, moves well off-ball and provides the Cavs with extra possessions with his rebounding.
One area where the Toronto Raptors have a clear advantage in this series is their bench. With Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, Norman Powell, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright, the team has many strong defensive players that can play alongside the starters. This gives them versatility to help better matchup against whatever lineup the Cavs throw at them. Even if the bench isn’t providing scoring, they consistently bring defense and for that reason they are one of the most reliable benches in the league.
For the Cavs, they have a considerable amount of firepower off the bench as well. Both Channing Frye and Kyle Korver give them floor spacing and two of the most reliable shooters in the league, while Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson are capable of making an impact on any given night.
However, that impact is not always a given. Their bench players are heavily reliant on how they perform offensively, as they don’t bring a lot to the other end, meaning they are far more hit-or-miss than their Toronto counterparts.
This was a matchup that was won rather handily by Lue last season. While Toronto countered well for two games, the Cavs were able to expose most of the flaws in the Raptors roster. This is a different Toronto team and Casey has more pieces at his disposal, but despite all that, it’s hard to not go with the championship-winning coach.
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland) vs. Kyle Lowry (Toronto)
The Raptors have no chance in this series if Kyle Lowry doesn’t win this matchup. Lowry will be the focus of the Cavs’ team defense, but should still have an easier time than he did against the Bucks’ length. Last season this matchup was close, but Irving won it averaging 24.2 points and 4.5 assists per game on 48.2 percent shooting compared to Lowry, who averaged 20.2 points and 4.2 assists per game on 47.4 percent shooting.
This is a clash between two of the best point guards in the East. But with the high-end talent on the Cavs, Lowry can’t afford to lose this matchup or have it end up being a draw. For the Cavs, shutting down Lowry would neuter Toronto’s offense.
Cavaliers will win if…
If they can control the pace and style of this series. Their defense is flawed, but they can do a good job of forcing the supporting cast to beat them. If they let Lowry and DeRozan go off, things will be difficult. But if they can force other players to make decisions, this will be over quickly.
Raptors will win if…
LeBron James is given the wrong directions to the arena. If their newly added defensive versatility can make the Cavs offense look average. Toronto won’t have as much trouble against the Cavs’ defense as they had against Milwaukee.
That being said, it’s unlikely they can keep up with Cleveland’s offense if it is firing on all cylinders. They need to slow down the Cavs offense and hope that’ll be enough to hang around and steal wins.