CLEVELAND (AP) We The North vs. We Are The Champions.
One round earlier than a year ago, Toronto and Cleveland are meeting again in the NBA playoffs.
On the way to winning their first title last season, LeBron James and the Cavs took care of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that was tied 2-2 before Cleveland won the final two games. The teams finished this season with identical 51-31 records and their history makes for an intriguing May matchup.
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”They know us,” James said, ”and we know them.”
After sweeping Indiana in the opening round, the Cavs will have waited a full week before Monday’s Game 1 tips off at Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland is 15-1 against conference opponents over the past three postseasons.
The down time gave James and his teammates a chance to recharge, heal some nagging bumps and bruises and prepare for a Toronto team that not only added Serge Ibaka (acquired from Orlando in February) and P.J. Tucker (acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline) this season, but is looking for revenge after having its season ended by Cleveland in 2016.
These Raptors don’t want that to happen again.
”We’ve got some fighters and scrappers,” coach Dwane Casey said after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in six games. ”The guys are going to compete. We make it hard on ourselves sometime, but at the end of the day we’re going to go down swinging.”
They submitted last year in Game 6 at home, when James scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in Cleveland’s 113-87 win.
”He canceled Christmas,” Casey said earlier this season. ”One of these days … one of these days.”
For the Raptors to knock off the Cavs, whose shaky defense still showed some significant holes against the Pacers, Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to be at their best.
DeRozan averaged 23.5 points per game in the opening round against the Bucks, and may need to bump that into the 30s for the Raptors to have a chance. He believes the Raptors are better equipped to battle the Cavs this time.
”It’s just on us to put it together consistently,” he said. ”We showed spurts of how great of a team we can be then we have lapses here and there. If we come together out there on the floor no matter what happens, as long as we come together, we can compete with anybody.”
Toronto lost three of four against Cleveland this season with the only win coming in the season finale, when Lue rested James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Here are some other things to keep in mind as James takes another step toward a possible seventh straight trip to the Finals:
ROAD WARRIOR: James loves the road, where he has won at least one game in a record 27 consecutive playoff series.
The three-time champion revels in the discomfort of being booed and hated.
”Home cooking is great; love the home fans for 14 years,” he said. ”But I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity. … It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”
Or in this case, all of Canada.
KYLE IS KEY: Lowry is back to full speed after missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds against the Bucks, but the Raptors will need more from him to dethrone the Cavs.
Lowry might be able to exploit Cleveland’s suspect perimeter defense and lack of a true rim protector by driving to the basket.
FREE-THROW WOES: After making a career-low 67 percent of his free throws in the regular season, James went only 22 of 38 (58 percent) from the line in the opening round.
None of his misses was too costly, but the pressure only intensifies from here with every make and every miss meaning more.
DEMAR THE STAR: DeRozan can get his shot off any place, any time. Like they did with Paul George in the first round, the Cavs are expected to focus their attention Toronto’s best player, harassing him with double teams to make him give up the ball.
”He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league right now, and he does a good job of getting to the free-throw line,” Lue said. ”His mid-range jumper is automatic and he can also get to the basket where he’s very athletic. He’s a tough cover and we just want to make him make field goals and not free throws and make it hard on him.”
ON THE MOVE: James has been climbing various lists all season and he’s still rising. He enters the series 60 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.682) for the second place on the career postseason scoring list. Once he passes Mr. Sky Hook, next on the list is His Airness, Michael Jordan (5,987).