With their Game 6 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the Toronto Raptors move on the conference semifinals to take on the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James took his Cavs to the NBA Finals the last two years. And he’s visited the finals himself six consecutive seasons. But make no mistake, this is a very different Cleveland team.
If any remaining team in the Eastern Conference is equipped to take down the Cavs, it’s almost certainly the Raptors. This series is a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals from last year, when Toronto took two victories on their home court and entered Game 5 all knotted at 2-2. However, they lost the next two games and headed home for the summer. Cleveland went on its way to its first NBA Championship.
But what if things are different this year? We came up with five things the Raptors need to do if they’re going to beat Cleveland.
5. Beat them up inside
One area where the Raptors have a clear advantage is in the paint. Despite being a fixture in the starting lineup pretty much since he arrived in Toronto as a rookie back in 2012–13, Jonas Valanciunas was moved to the bench in the middle of the series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Toronto moved Norman Powell into the starting lineup, something new for him this season. Regardless, it worked out well for team.
In this series, Valanciunas could still come off the bench and find a way to make an impact. Along with power forward Serge Ibaka, these two represent a strong force that is tough for Cleveland to deal with. It’s easy to forget that Valanciunas is just 24 years old. Despite starting 80 games this year, he played just 25.8 minutes per game. He’s an excellent rebounder, averaging 13.6 per 36 minutes played this season.
If the Raptors get Valanciunas involved in the offense early and keep him or Ibaka on the court at all times, it will be difficult for the Cavs to counter.
Cleveland doesn’t have a Timofey Mozgov type of center on the team, this season. They attempted to bring in Andrew Bogut late in the year, but he injured himself and was released after just one game. Tristan Thompson, who is only 6-foot–9, starts at the center position for the Cavs. While Thompson is a good defensive player and solid rebounder, he’s not equipped to stop Valanciunas in the post.
The same can be said for Kevin Love. He’s not a good defender and is probably having nightmares about matching up with either Valanciunas or Ibaka.
On the other end of the court, shooters like Love and Channing Frye could be immensely important to Cleveland’s success. Pulling a rim protector like Ibaka away from the basket opens up the lane for Kyrie Irving. Expect that when Love is on the floor with Thompson, Ibaka will guard Thompson so that he can remain closer to the painted area. Overall, the big men could be a major advantage for the Raptors if they simply play their cards right.
4. Get a big performance from Norman Powell
Norman Powell is an underrated guard who many outside of Toronto know little about. He’s in his second season in the NBA after the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him in the second round in 2015 and then traded him to the Raptors. This season, he averaged 8.4 points on 32.4% shooting from three-point range while playing 18 minutes per game.
But he came up huge against the Bucks, starting the final three games of the series — all Raptors victories — and averaging 15.1 points in 33.1 minutes in those games. He shot an absurd 10-for-11 from three-point range in the series, which cannot be expected to be replicated. But Powell is a talented, young player who is slowly growing into the role vacated by the trade of guard Terrence Ross back in February.
The reason that Powell is so important in this series: He adds a legitimate outside shooting and scoring threat. Despite not performing well from three-point range this season, Powell has the ability to knock down long-range shots. In his rookie season, he shot 40.4% from deep, for example. The 23-year-old adds an extra element to the game that Cleveland must plan for.
This season, the Raptors shot a reasonably good 36.3% from three-point range as a team. But as far as actually hoisting threes, Toronto was just 22nd in the league in total attempts. With a healthy Kyle Lowry, alongside DeMar DeRozan and Powell on the court, the Raptors finally have a long-range attack in place. In their final two games against Milwaukee, Toronto shot 21-for-49 (42.8%) from beyond the arch.
While Cleveland made a ton of threes on their own this season, they weren’t the best at defending the three-point line. They allowed 36.1% shooting to go along with the seventh-most three-point attempts in the league. If Powell continues his red-hot shooting — or any reasonable form of it, at least — the Cavs are going to struggle to keep Toronto from doing whatever they want on the offensive end.
3. Take Kevin Love out of the series
This is one of the big keys; it’s proven time and time again to be a quality recipe for success against the Cavaliers. This season, when Love scored 15 or less points (or simply didn’t play) in regular-season games for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team was 22-22. For an easy comparison, they were 29-9 in games where Love scored 16 or more points. Holding down the third-best player on the Cavs is pretty much a necessity for the Raptors.
From the season series, there isn’t much to go on between the Raptors and Cavaliers. Cleveland took three of four games, including the first three. They only lost the final game of the regular season to the Raptors — and Love, Irving, and James didn’t play in that game. In the three games Love did play against the Raptors (all victories, of course), he averaged 21.7 points and 12.3 rebounds.
The important note here: Ibaka wasn’t with Toronto for any of those games.
For neutralizing Love’s impact, Ibaka is the key. While placing Valanciunas on the Cavaliers’ stretch-four defensively might be the best play, leaving Ibaka to roam near the basket — going right at Love with Ibaka on the offensive side of the court — would be wise, too. Ibaka is much stronger and more physical. He has the ability to score in the post, fight Love for offensive rebounds, and even draw fouls to completely take Love out of the game.
If Kevin Love has a great series, there’s little chance that Toronto can survive. Cleveland’s big three is the best trio in the NBA, this side of Oakland. Turning them into a “big two,” with only James and Irving doing the damage, goes a long way toward frustrating and dismantling the Cavs.
2. Play well on the road
The Raptors simply didn’t take advantage of a handful of winnable games this season. This includes all three games that they dropped to Cleveland; they didn’t lose a single head-to-head matchup by more than four points. Close losses to the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, and Philadelphia 76ers also haunt them, considering that the Raptors finished with a 51-31 record on the season (matching Cleveland, but losing the tiebreaker).
That means that the Cavs get the home-court advantage in this series, starting with two games at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The Cavaliers were 31-10 at home this year, while they were an ugly 20-21 on the road. On the opposite side of the coin, however, the Raptors were 23-18 on the road — one of the better road records of any team in the NBA.
It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway; the Raptors need to play well in this series to win, but this goes double for games on the road.
Quality road wins for the Raptors this season include the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Washington Wizards (twice), and Utah Jazz. They won two tough road games against the Bucks in their first-round series, including the closeout game in which Giannis Antetokounmpo played 46 minutes and dropped 34 points and nine rebounds. Suffice it to say, Toronto knows how to close out a tough win on the road.
But the Cavs play exceedingly well on their home court. In theory, all Cleveland needs to do to win this series is win their home games. Of their 10 losses at home this season, only one of them came against a team that finished under .500 (an overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings back in late January). They did, however, come close to losing their opening playoff game against the Indiana Pacers, if only a jumper by C.J. Miles had gone down at the buzzer.
The Raptors have everything they need to beat the Cavaliers on their home court; they just need to put it all together. Primarily, it involves the other key points on the list: Beating them in the paint, getting a strong performance from Powell, and limiting the effectiveness of Love.
1. Score lots of points
The last, and probably biggest bullet on the list, is that the Raptors need to score early and score often. It sounds so obvious, when you think about it, because the team that finishes with the most points will always win the game. But Cleveland had one of the worst defenses in the NBA this year. While many assumed they’d merely flip a switch in the playoffs to “turn on” the defensive intensity, it really didn’t happen against the Pacers. Despite the four-game sweep, Cleveland allowed 108.7 points per game.
The thing is, what the Cavaliers can do is score. They were fourth in the NBA in points per game (110.3), fifth in overall field-goal percentage, and second in just about every three-point category behind only the Houston Rockets (attempts and made shots) and San Antonio Spurs (percentage). Falling behind to the Cavs can’t be an option, because catching up will be hard to do.
For Toronto to win four games in this series, they’ll need to get points and build early leads. But how do they do that?
Attack, attack, attack. Some things that the Cavs didn’t do as well this year involved preventing open three-point attempts; allowing rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court; and stopping teams from putting up big point totals. In fact, in the second half of the season, the Cavaliers allowed 109.6 points per game and 10.6 made three-pointers. That was good for just a 12-15 record.
All of this meshes well with the earlier points. Abuse Love’s complete lack of defensive ability in the paint. Utilize Valanciunas’ scoring ability, and the outside shooting of Lowry, DeRozan, and Powell. You should see a lot of drive-and-kick from Lowry, with his shooters waiting on the wings. If the Raptors can execute this game plan, this will be a highly entertaining series to watch.
If LeBron and the Cavaliers can hunker down and play tough defense, it’s very likely that they’ll move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. But based on what we know about Cleveland’s second-half performance and lack of consistent defensive effort, there are a few reasons to believe that the Raptors have a serious chance in this series.