By Shane Young
Last May, the Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled through the first 10 games of the playoffs. They swept the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and then tormented the Toronto Raptors for the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto was already exhausted by the time they landed in Cleveland to begin the series, as it had to go the distance in the previous two matchups versus Indiana and Miami.
This year, the rematch comes sooner. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey gets another crack at Cleveland, this time in the second round. They didn’t make it here without more first round adversity, however. Losing Games 1 and 3 to the Milwaukee Bucks to start the playoffs — by a combined 41 points — automatically started doubts swirling around everyone that believed in this team. Again.
We should be used to this by now. In the DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry era, they always find a way to start a series in embarrassing fashion.
With LeBron James currently playing the most efficient and balanced basketball of his career, Toronto can’t afford to take any bullets to the chest in the first two games. James is accounting for 56.8 points per game so far in the 2017 playoffs, higher than the 49.1 per game he created in the regular season. Perhaps some of that is due to Indiana’s poorly-coached defense. Maybe it’s just simply a king refusing to let his team lose.
Despite how frightening James looked in the first round, the Raptors have a few reasons to feel confident about an extended series with Cleveland.
The Cavaliers swept the Pacers, but only by 16 total points — a margin of just four points per contest. Cleveland’s defense allowed 111.0 points per 100 possessions, three more than it surrendered in the regular season. With this being the worst defensive team James had led since his rookie year, it creates a great opportunity for Toronto take advantage and get out of its offensive funk:
During the season, Cleveland’s defense wasn’t very active. It didn’t force many turnovers, didn’t close out particularly well to shooters, and blew far too many rotations. In the playoffs, it didn’t improve much in any of those areas.
Playing against Milwaukee, the Raptors didn’t have a chance to find any rhythm. Matching up with the Bucks’ long, freakish athletes and trying to find the necessary air space wasn’t a great combination. In fact, Toronto shot only 16.7 “open” attempts per game, defined as the closest defender being within four to six feet of the shooter. That was the fewest of all 16 teams in the first round. In “wide open” looks, with the closest defender being six feet or further away, they only got 13.2 attempts per game — the sixth-fewest of the first round.
While DeRozan still had a quality series and became the main factor in them advancing, this defensive pressure wasn’t great for Lowry. He shot 9-of-32 (28.1 percent) from long-range, but still found other ways to benefit the team as the series progressed. The good news for the Raptors is that Corey Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, Norman Powell, and Patrick Patterson combined to shoot 28-of-58 (48.3 percent) from three, and those are the important pieces needed to expose Cleveland’s unstable defense. Carroll did start every game in the first round, but he’s playing bench minutes (18.3 per game).
Although these teams met in the East Finals last year and four times during this regular season, they’re completely different units than just a few months ago.
For Cleveland, Kyle Korver wasn’t acquired until Jan. 7, after three of the meetings had passed. Backup point guard Deron Williams didn’t sign with the Cavaliers until late February. J.R. Smith only played major minutes in one of the four games, dealing with injuries early in the year.
For Toronto, both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker weren’t acquired until the trade deadline period. They missed the only three meaningful games against Cleveland this year. As it turns out, Ibaka and Tucker are near the top of the list of monumental benefits for the Raptors in this series. That’s what will make this fun — we have no on-court indications of how the two will look defending Cleveland’s star trio. It already gives them something they didn’t have last year during the East Finals, when Carroll, Patterson, DeRozan, and James Johnson had to be the main perimeter defenders. It didn’t work out too well, with James eating everyone alive once it reached a 2-2 tie.
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Lowry and DeRozan played during the first three matchups this year. It’s encouraging for the Raptors that, if you take out the regular season finale because of rest, they were only outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions in those 144 minutes. The 3-0 record speaks loudly, but it was much closer than most realize. That was without two new defensive tools in Ibaka and Tucker, with the latter being able to stifle (to some degree) LeBron’s offensive extermination.
“(Tucker) is going to make it hard,” Lue said last week. “That’s all you can do. It’s hard to just shut someone down nowadays in the league. The way the rules are, you can’t touch anyone. But, he plays hard, he scraps, he competes, and he’s going to make it tough.”
Tucker’s defensive reputation around the league is very positive, and it’s easy to see why. In the four most-used lineups with Tucker on the floor this season, none of them had a defensive rating over 105.8. In Lowry’s absence, the lineup of Joseph-DeRozan-Tucker-Patterson-Ibaka had an insanely low 83.2 defensive rating in 30 total minutes. The sample size is small, but Tucker only played 24 games with Toronto this season.
In the first round series versus Milwaukee, it was surprising how much better the Raptors played defensively with Tucker as the small-ball four. With Lowry-Joseph-Tucker-Patterson-Valanciunas on the floor together, Toronto gave up 110.3 points per 100 possessions against the Bucks. They were outscored, and it was the lineup Tucker played in the most. However, once Casey made the adjustment to slide Tucker to the four, and pair him with Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Valanciunas, the Raptors were markedly better, giving up only 106.6 points per 100 possessions but also pouring 138.4 on Jason Kidd.
Depending on how Ibaka is performing, and how deadly Cleveland’s offense looks, this could be a dangerous Raptors lineup to watch out for this series. You have Lowry and Tucker as defensive components, DeRozan as the isolation threat each team needs in the playoffs when the game slows down, three-point shooters that Cleveland won’t want to help off (Lowry, Tucker, Powell), and a center to serve as a low-post presence. Casey could try the same type of lineup to space Cleveland out, replacing Valanciunas for Ibaka.
Even though they’re the underdogs and not likely to win more than one game on the road, it seems as if Toronto is more flexible in this series because of its defense. There were three teams during the regular season to rank in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive rating: The Warriors, Spurs, and Raptors. Toronto’s boost after the all-star break helped them believe they can adjust to any type of offensive threat, LeBron included.
This series is bound to be an isolation-heavy duel, with both the Raptors and Cavaliers ranking in the top six of isolation frequency — the proportion of a team’s offense that runs through isos — and bottom six of passes made per game. Cleveland ran 1,051 isolations this year, with an effective field goal percentage of 48.8 percent. Toronto wasn’t as prolific, running 742 isolations (mainly for their two all-star guards). But they also finished with a high effective field goal percentage on these (46.3), pairing the league’s two most efficient teams in this area.
It really shines light on how critical James is for Cleveland’s record-setting offense this year, as the Cavaliers don’t even record a ton of “potential assists,” or shots that would’ve counted as assists had the ball went in. Through the first round, James is averaging 15.8 potential assists per game, which is over 44 percent of Cleveland’s 35.8 per game against the Pacers.
Toronto, on the other hand, ranked dead last in potential assists (37.6) during the season, and that number has slightly dropped during the playoffs.
This is either going to be a beautiful series with some of the best “tough shot-making” we’ve seen, or a brutal product in the eyes of ball-movement apologists.
It will ultimately come down to the perimeter, and whether or not Toronto can be disciplined when Lue goes to his secret lineups of LeBron with four shooters surrounding him.
The Raptors do have the imperative defensive elements this time around. Backcourt continuity and plus-defenders on the wing helped mold that. But playoff LeBron has seen every possible element. He’s the whole damn periodic table.
This should have seven games written all over it, however, it’s too difficult for Toronto to win games when they shoot poorly from the field. Cleveland has a bit more margin for error.
Cavaliers in six.