The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Indiana Pacers in 7 games yesterday which will pitt the Raptors against them in the second round. Game 1 will be tomorrow night at 8:00pm EST.
The Cleveland Cavaliers (and this matchup in general) are very difficult to judge and predict for these playoffs. On paper they are not a very good team, but they also have the greatest player to ever live (fight me) who also has proven he turns up in the playoffs.
Over the course of the season the Cavs were a high-level offensive team by scoring 110.6 points per 100 possessions (5th in the NBA, worse than the Raptors by the way) while their defense was, um, not good. The Cleveland Cavaliers feature the 29th defensive efficiency in the NBA by allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions. As a kind reminder, there are only 30 teams in the NBA. The Cavs were worse defensively than the Bulls and the Kings. Their net rating of +1.0 per 100 possessions put them at 13th in the NBA this season.
The Cavaliers are of course led by LeBron James. LeBron James is very good at basketball. In the first round he played 41.2 minutes per game, scored 34.4 points, dished 7.7 assists, and grabbed 10.1 rebounds per game. He also shot 55.3% from the floor and 35.3% from deep. Oh he also had 1.4 steals and 1 block per game too. It is unclear how long he will keep it up, but LeBron remains on top of his game and is the most destructive player to ever live.
Beyond LeBron things are not pretty for the Cavs. Kevin Love had a terrible first round, scoring just 11.4 points per game and shooting 33.3% from the field, (ironically he shot 40% from deep) but he is clearly capable of a lot more than that, how Kevin Love plays could have a big impact on this series. In theory he is one of the most versatile stretch 4s in the NBA who allows you to get all of the shooting and playmaking of going small without having to sacrifice on the boards by actually going small. He isn't a good defender but he is better than his reputation, he mostly plays hard and that is half the battle.
After Love it gets even worse, George Hill has not been much good with the Cavs, he still has length on defense and can shoot a bit but he has done very little beyond play fairly competent defense and hit the occasional 3. JR Smith had a rough season although his three-point shot came around as the season went on, despite a rough opening series we all know that Smith can get hot at any time from deep and he still mostly competes on defense even if he makes mental mistakes. Rodney Hook can do some of everything but hasn't really found his flow with the Cavaliers and only played 18.8 minutes per game in the first round. Kyle Korver is one of the world's deadliest shooters while also being the sort of smart and tough defender that makes your team better on that end even if he isn't ever going to individually lock down guys. Jeff Green is a good athlete and occasionally does good things. Larry Nance Jr. is a really good athelete and smart defender. Tristan Thompson had a terrible season but finally showed up in game 7, in theory he is a solid defender and his combination of hustle and athleticism allows him to find buckets on offense, but once again he's been terrible most of the season. Jordan Clarkson is still a guy who can get some buckets off the bench but not a lot else. Jose Calderon can shoot three's.
This team looked an awful lot like LeBron and the Quicken Loans Arena janitorial staff in the first round. Other guys will likely play better in this second round but it is still mostly a one man show. Basically this is a very bad team that survives and is buoyed by the sheer greatness of LeBron James.
Matchups to watch:
Raptors vs. LeBron: This is a problem. LeBron is obviously a problem for everyone but even more so for the Raptors. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are probably the best options to guard him, but Anunoby is 20 years old, and Siakam is a little bit thin. It is the most gaping hole I see in this series for the Raptors, in the end the Raptors are probably going to need a true team effort to contain LeBron. They will have to rotate to him and then back out onto shooters, the good news is that the Raptors are really good at that.
Kevin Love vs. What getting right: Love was very bad in the first round. Love is not a very bad player, he is in fact a very good one. Also, despite the struggles he has had against the Warriors at times, he has been a huge problem for Eastern Conference teams at times. If Love gets back into peak form then the Cavs become a much deadlier team. If he plays as poorly as he did in round one I struggle to see the Cavs mustering enough to beat the Raptors, if he gets back into form however...
Serge Ibaka vs. Getting right: He played pretty well defensively, but after the first game Ibaka really struggled offensively. The Cavs are a very leaky defense and are likely to yield plenty of open looks to Ibaka, if he can get back to nailing those looks the Raptors will be in good shape.
Lowry/DeRozan vs. Not letting up: Perhaps putting together the best collective series in their time together in Toronto in round one, the Trash Bros need to keep that same play up. The Cavs have a very uninspiring back-court which should make things easier for them.
DeRozan vs. Finding the balance: There is a very good chance DeRozan does very well in this series. The Cavs have very little in the way of high-level wing defenders to hold him in check. The challenge will be to resist the urge to try and go isolation every time he feels he has an advantage, because they need to run other things at least occasionally.
OG Anunoby vs. Hitting shots: OG was awesome in his limited minutes and roles in the first round. He will miss more shots almost certainly, but he can't go cold. If he goes cold it will allow LeBron to go into free-safety mode which makes the Cavaliers much less laughable on defense.
Bench Mob vs. Being awesome still: It wasn't always great but the bench mostly performed in the first round. Delon Wright was especially impressive. Assuming Fred VanVleet is ready to go I see no reason for the bench mob to not be in full form.
Tristan Thompson vs. Not being hot garbage: Like Love except not as much. When he wasn't hurt, Kevin Love actually had a good year, I'd actually expect him to bounce back from the last series. Thompson had a terrible season, but he woke up in game 7 against the Pacers and has been a useful player the rest of his career. If he is suddenly playable again then the Cavs are much more formidable. They have a real paint presence on defense and the Cavs potential to go big at that point is especially dangerous for the Raptors. If LeBron is at small forward it is hard to play the 3 guard lineups the Raptors love so much.
Jonas Valanciunas vs. Continuing to be Playoff JV: Valanciunas had another big playoff series in the opening round and remains one of the few Raptors who can say he has consistently raised his game in the playoffs. Especially if Thompson doesn't have some revival, Valanciunas should have a good chance to really assert himself in the paint against soft and/or undersized interior defenders.
Raptors vs. Getting over any mental hurdles: It is hard to argue against the idea that LeBron had taken a mental toll on the Raptors after last year's exit from the playoffs. I don't know that the Raptors are coming into this series afraid, but if LeBron comes out and drops 40+ to win game 1 it would be almost impossible to not have flashbacks.
Raptors vs. Owning this moment: Tied into the above. The Raptors are the better team here, by a wide margin. The Cavs and Pacers were almost even, which is what they were all season. The Raptors have been far superior all season. They are the best team in the East and LeBron's team is awful. I'm not saying the Raptors window is closed after this year, but if there is a year to do it this is it. Go and get that shit. Be the team to beat LeBron while he is still at the hieght of his powers and then go and try to shock the world by beating the Warriors or Rockets.
So in conclusion...
Wink knowingly at your friends if:
DeRozan is constantly containing chuckles when he see's who is guarding him on a possession by possession basis.
Anunoby, Siakam, and good team defense actually keeps LeBron from destroying everything.
Kevin Love is still off and Tristan Thompson isn't actually having a revival.
The bench mob comes out and swallows up the Cavs for the few minutes per night when LeBron sits.
Run for the hills if:
LeBron is walking on water.
Kevin Love is back to being as good as he can be, becoming a huge matchup problem.
Any number of Cavs role players (Smith, Hill, Hood etc.) bounce back from terrible first rounds and the Cavs suddenly become a death-star on offense again.
The Raptors back-court is not dominating their Cavalier counter-parts.
Opportunities for me to look stupid:
LeBron does some absolutely absurd things in a truthfully Herculean effort to drag this Cavs team to the next round.
Both trash bros are near unstoppable the entire series.
Kevin Love comes out and has a good series, Thompson does not.
Through the sheer force of will of LeBron James the Cavs stick around but nothing LeBron can do can make up for how terrible the Cavs are defensively.
Raptors in 5.
What do you think? Will Kevin Love show up? Can they contain LeBron?