Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors

Raptors vs. Cavs: Preview, predictions as Toronto attempts to dethrone LeBron James

derozan-lebron-split-042918.jpg
Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan and Cavs forward LeBron James (Getty Images)

Raptors vs. Cavs: The backstory

The undercard first-round series were not easy for either team, but this is the heavyweight slugfest the Eastern Conference has been waiting for, at least since it became known that Boston would be without Kyrie Irving.

For much of the year, the talk in Toronto has been about the evolving Raptors offense, moving away from the repeated pick-and-rolls designed for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and toward an offense with more ball movement, designed to get everyone involved and create open looks. It was a big part of the team's success, and the Raptors' assist percentage went from 30th in the league in 2016-17 (47.2 percent) to 11th (59.0 percent).

The Raptors won a franchise-best 59 games, and as impressive as all that was, the real reason they were making all these changes was for this very series, to beat the Cavaliers, against whom they'd gone 2-8 in the postseason the last two years. Any path to the NBA Finals would, it appeared, run through Cleveland, and the brain trust of coach Dwane Casey and GM Masai Ujiri understood that they could not beat the Cavs without a more versatile offense.

Of course, a few things have changed in Cleveland since Casey and Ujiri masterminded this offensive reboot. The Cavs overhauled their roster at the trade deadline in early February, bringing in point guard George Hill, plus three players with little postseason experience (Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood), and imbuing them with the hope that they could gain some valuable know-how down the stretch of the regular season.

It hasn't quite worked out. Nance has been the energy-and-defense big man off the bench the team hoped he'd be, but Clarkson has not had much impact and Hood, who was averaging 16.8 points and 38.9 percent 3-point shooting when he was acquired from Utah, struggled with the Cavs, averaging 10.8 points and shooting 35.2 percent from the arc. He has not exactly bounced back in the playoffs.

Thus the Cavs have been more reliant on LeBron James in the second half of the season and into the playoffs than they've been since he first left the team in 2010. He has had little help from teammates in the postseason - Kyle Korver was often the Cavs' second-best player until Tristan Thompson's revival on Sunday - and has had to carry Cleveland to this point. In the Cavs' first three wins of the series, they needed 46, 32 and 44 points from James to get the W, plus 45 points in a tough Game 7 victory.

It's not quite the series that many thought it would be. But this should still be a memorable matchup with plenty of drama, one of the league's best regular-season teams trying to douse its history of postseason flops against a prideful all-time great player whose supporting cast has let him down but is carrying them anyway. Seven games of that should be entertaining.

The key player

If there was any question of the value of Fred VanVleet to the Toronto bench, the first-round series against the Wizards showed it.

During the regular season, the Raptors' bench was a stalwart for the team, able to flip games when the starters were off and wear teams down with unmatched depth. Their net rating was tops in the league (8.3) and their effective field-goal percentage (which adjusts for 3-pointers) was third, at 54.0.

That has flipped, and the Raptors' bench has been a nightmare. VanVleet has been out with a shoulder injury, and in the first five games against Washington, their net rating was minus-9.9, 14th among the 16 playoff teams. The effective field-goal percentage has tanked, down to 48.4 percent, also 14th among playoff teams. They've been hammered on the boards, too, with a rebounding percentage of 44.5, last in the postseason.

VanVleet can't fix all of that, but getting him back to stabilize the bench is a must for Toronto. The Cavaliers' bench was above-average in the regular season, even after the trades, but has struggled in the playoffs, too. The Raptors need the reserves to be an advantage against the Cavaliers to have a shot in this series, and getting VanVleet back is an important part of that.

The big number

104.9. Toronto, eighth in defensive rating (104.9 points per 100 possessions) in the regular season, is a better defensive team than Indiana (16th, 106.3). That could make the Raptors better suited to survive an individual onslaught from James.

The Raptors do have the same problem as every other team in the East - no one can handle James one-on-one. During the season, it was mostly rookie OG Anunoby, and according to the NBA's matchup data, James shot 61.9 percent against Anunoby this season. But they can close off other scoring chances for the Cavs.

Two areas where the Cavaliers get much of their offense - spot-up shooting and transition - also happen to be two areas in which the Toronto defense excels. Cleveland was fourth in terms of percentage of possessions that came in transition (17.5) and seventh in transition efficiency (1.13 points per 100 possessions). The Raptors were No. 1 in defending transition, though, allowing 1.03 points per possession.

And in spot-up shooting, the Cavs were tops in the league with 1.08 points per possession, while Toronto was ninth defending those shots, at 0.99 points per possession. Cleveland has already been struggling in that department in the postseason, dropping to just 0.71 points per possession on spot-up shots.

If those numbers all break in Toronto's direction, the Raptors' defense is in position to make James carry a heftier load than he can handle.

Raptors vs. Cavs: The prediction

The Cavaliers look ripe to be plucked. At the same time, it is not easy to pick against James, not when he is capable of carrying a team, no matter the foe. The Raptors have redesigned their team for just this moment, and they have enough depth to choke off the Cavs' struggling role players.

But it's just hard to imagine James dropping a series in the Eastern Conference, something that has not happened since 2010. That's too much history to pick against.

Cavs in 6

NBA playoff schedule: Raptors vs. Cavs

(All times Eastern)

Game Date Time Home Away
Game 1 May 1 8 p.m. Raptors Cavs
Game 2 May 3 6 p.m. Raptors Cavs
Game 3 May 5 8:30 p.m. Cavs Raptors
Game 4 May 7 8:30 p.m. Cavs Raptors
Game 5* May 9 TBD Raptors Cavs
Game 6* May 11 TBD Cavs Raptors
Game 7* May 13 TBD Raptors Cavs

*If necessary

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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