With conference finals season upon us, the NBA Playoffs have followed the script almost seamlessly, with three of the top four seeds remaining in the chase for an NBA title. In both the powerful Western Conference and improving Eastern Conference, heavy favorites loom in the form of the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers respectively — the same teams that reached the finals a season ago.
While both clubs appear to be unbeatable over the course of a seven-game series, the Cavs were supposed to receive a free pass to the final round all along. The Toronto Raptors might have something to say about that, though, as they prepare for their first ever conference finals appearance. Toronto outlasted the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals after winning Game 7 on Sunday thanks to great performances from All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, which propelled them to victory.
While they will need their two stars to continue to play at a high level, if Toronto wants to upset Cleveland’s quest and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, they will also need a few other things to happen. Let’s explore three things that could determine this series and possibly lead to a Raptors’ upset in the Eastern Conference Finals.
3. Three-point shooting
This postseason, the Cavs have been shooting the ball from long range at a historically effective rate. In Game 2 of their series sweep over the Atlanta Hawks in round two, they hit a record 25 three-pointers. Overall, the Cavs have averaged an impressive 16.8 three-point makes per game in the playoffs and are shooting 46% from downtown.
With several shooters ranging from J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving to Kevin Love, this is a difficult team to contain from the deep — especially with LeBron James‘ ability to drive and pass the ball. Obviously, it will be critical for the Raptors to defend the three-point line during this series, but it will also be important for them to hit their threes on the other end.
While not nearly as effective as the Cavs, the Raptors do have several guys who can knock down key shots from long range. Kyle Lowry shot nearly 39% from behind the arc during the regular season and multiple others shot 35% or better. If they can keep pace with Cleveland in the three-point game and even win that battle, Toronto will gain a serious edge in this series, which could lead to an upset.
2. Bench play
Superstars almost always determine playoff winners, but that doesn’t take away the importance of bench play. The Raptors’ bench has been quite effective throughout the season, but here in the playoffs, the unit has helped bring Toronto to victory on more than one occasion. With guys like Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, and Norman Powell, the Raptors can shoot, defend, and rebound off the bench. Going against a much weaker Cavs’ bench could give them a big advantage when Cleveland’s stars are off the floor.
With players like Channing Frye and Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland’s bench is a lot less imposing than Toronto’s. That puts all the pressure on their starters, which — even though it hasn’t hurt them in the past — could allow the Raptors to steal a game or two in Cleveland. That would be all the Raptors need to earn the upset and with the bench they have, they just might get it done.
1. Battle of the stars
This series is loaded with some of the best players the NBA has to offer in Lowry and DeRozan for the Raptors and James, Irving, and Love for the Cavaliers. We all know how effective Cleveland’s big three can be as their play has led the team to a perfect 8-0 record in these playoffs. The dynamic duo of Lowry and DeRozan, however, has the ability to neutralize that trio in this series and make the matchup ultra-competitive — as they proved during the teams’ regular-season meetings.
Toronto went 2-1 against Cleveland this season and in both wins, either Lowry or DeRozan (or both) performed at high levels. In their lone loss, every member of the Cavs trio went off for solid nights. It’s likely that with so much on the line all of these players will perform well during this series, but for the Raptors, it’s absolutely vital that their duo scores in bunches if they want to win (as they did against the Heat in the previous round).
When Lowry and DeRozan get over 50 combined points, the Raptors are tough to beat. However, James, Love, and Irving have been averaging around 67 combined point per game in the playoffs, so Toronto will have to minimize the effectiveness of at least one of those stars if they want to advance past this series.
It’s a tall order and even if Love and Irving aren’t at the top of their game, James has the ability to win the series all by himself. That being said, the stars will shine bright in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors are certainly underdogs, but to say that Cleveland will walk over them would be a huge mistake. If the Cavs aren’t careful, the script of this postseason might finally be disrupted.