The Toronto Raptors face an uphill battle to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, but DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and their defensive personnel give them a chance.
These playoffs have not been kind to the Toronto Raptors. In the first round, Toronto drew a surging Milwaukee team that just so happens to employ a future MVP candidate. Simply put, the Bucks flustered the Raptors for the first half of the series.
The road only gets more difficult from here. Ordinarily, a 3-seed would avoid LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semis. But during the last week of the regular season, Tyronn Lue essentially gifted the Boston Celtics the top spot in the East. This year, Toronto gets Cleveland two weeks earlier than they’d prefer to.
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In all likelihood, the Cavs will win this series. LeBron James flanked by the requisite talent – and with LeBron, “requisite” is a pretty low bar – is just that good. This Cleveland squad is mortal, though. Both teams finished 51-31 in the regular season, and Toronto has some key advantages that could help them push the favorites.
1. Who Guards Kyle Lowry And DeMar DeRozan?
Point-of-attack defense is critical in today’s NBA, and it’s especially important against an elite perimeter tandem like Lowry and DeRozan. Allow easy penetration off isolation sets and pick-and-rolls and suddenly the whole defense is in panic mode. That’s a problem against Toronto’s new stretchy lineup with shooters like Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and DeMarre Carroll.
Unless Cory Joseph is also in the game for Toronto, Kyrie Irving will check Lowry, which is worrisome for Cleveland considering Irving’s well-documented defensive woes. He can turn up his defensive intensity at times, but that usually (only?) happens against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Last round, Indiana’s Jeff Teague put up 17.0 points and 6.3 assists per game on a sizzling 58.9 effective field goal percentage against Irving and company. Lowry is a far better player than Teague, and he’ll need to exploit his favorable offensive matchup to give the Raptors a realistic chance to win. The Cavs could really use Matthew Dellavedova right about now.
DeMar DeRozan will have a slightly tougher test than will his backcourt mate, drawing J.R. Smith, who is a serviceable-ish defender. Can LeBron check DeRozan? Absolutely. But against Indiana, Smith – not LeBron – guarded Paul George, who shot poorly from inside the arc, but still managed to post 28 points per game on 22 shots.
DeRozan is an certifiable terror for defenders, ranking in the league’s 85th percentile in efficiency as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, and in the 87th percentile on isolations. This Paul George drive against Smith should look familiar to Raptors fans:
Iman Shumpert will take DeRozan at times, and LeBron James may switch onto him if he gets hot, but Toronto’s stars will have a chance to shine this series.
2. The Raptors Will Make LeBron Work For His Numbers
Over the last two years, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has hoarded defensive-oriented wings and forwards – the exact players needed to defend LeBron James.
Barring a substantial rotation shuffle, DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker will take LeBron for the majority of the series. The former is a decent 3-and-D guy who has experience against LeBron with both the Hawks and Raptors. Meanwhile, Tucker’s journeyman toughness and 245-pound frame mean LeBron won’t overpower him in the paint.
Tucker’s defense down the stretch was incredible. Saved the game for TOR.
Even DeRozan, Patrick Patterson, and the ball of muscle that is Norman Powell are capable of guarding LeBron in a pinch. None will check James for a whole quarter, but with so many bodies at his disposal, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey doesn’t need them to.
To be clear, the Raptors don’t have a Kawhi Leonard (though Tucker was pretty damn close against the Bucks). LeBron will get his numbers, and he’ll find countermoves for each defender. He’ll make bigger guys like Tucker and Patterson slither through picks on the perimeter, and then take Powell and Carroll to the left block, with his head on a swivel for cheating help defenders and open shooters.
But he’ll have to work. Casey doesn’t need to play one designated LeBron-stopper for 40+ minutes. Instead, he can tire James out with different looks and even switch James-centric screens when three wings are on the floor together.
Again, Toronto’s sheer glut of defenders won’t nullify James. That said, after 40 minutes of tough defense, LeBron won’t look forward to facing Tucker during crunch time. If LeBron is missing shots, especially at the end of games, Toronto has a chance.
3. Kyrie Irving Is Ice Cold
In addition to his porous defense, Kyrie Irving gave the Cavs next-to-nothing offensively against Indiana. He got his 25 points, but he made just 22 percent of his threes and only 42 percent of his shots overall.
The Cavs’ offensive rating went from a pedestrian 108 with Irving on the floor to an absurd 135.8 when he sat. Although the Cavs swept the Pacers, Irving posted a -3.9 net rating.
Eventually, Uncle Drew will round back into form. The dude is a phenomenal offensive player, and overall, he actually shot the lights out in March and April. That said, the Raptors are not a good team to warm back up against.
In addition to his array of wing defenders, Casey has a number of players he can throw at Irving. Lowry and Powell are both in-your-face attack dogs, and off the bench, Cory Joseph can credibly defend opposing starters.
If Irving can’t light the scoreboard up like he usually does, the Cavs turn into the one-dimensional team we saw in the 2015 NBA Finals when Irving sat out injured. He’s cold right now; the Raptors guards have to keep it that way.
A ton of factors must break correctly for the Raptors to pull off the upset this series. Irving and James need to miss (many) shots, Lowry and DeRozan each need to have one or more “I’m not losing tonight” games, and Toronto’s role players must keep Cleveland’s three-point marksmen in check.
The Raptors aren’t an easy team for the Cavs to play, though. Cleveland has matchup problems against each of Toronto’s stars, and Toronto has first-rate defenders for all of Cleveland’s (Serge Ibaka on Kevin Love is another intriguing pairing). Maybe, just maybe, those matchups can push Toronto over the line.