The Cleveland Cavaliers are set to face the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals are a bit of a wait. As the Cavs swept the Atlanta Hawks, the Raptors slogged their way to a series win against the Miami Heat that wrapped up on Sunday. In the regular season, for what it's worth, the Raptors won the season series against the Cavs 2-1.
To get a look at the Raptors, we turned to John Gaudes of Raptors HQ, SB Nation's Raptors blog. Check out his answers to five questions about Cavs vs. Raptors below.
Fear the Sword: Jonas Valanciunas is ‘no where close to a return'. How much of a deal is this?
John Gaudes (@johngaudes): Losing Jonas Valanciunas for any stretch of time is a scary prospect for the Toronto Raptors. He's been a monster rebounding the ball, and the horrific Raptors offense has spent long stretches of the Pacers and Heat series living off his scoring on dumpoffs and putbacks, or just keeping the ball alive for other players. This would be huge against Cleveland too, where he has a size and strength advantage over Tristan Thompson at the centre position.
Sadly though, it does appear that Valanciunas will miss some time in this series. The Raptors were able to withstand his loss to get to this point, almost entirely thanks to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan stepping up their scoring volume, averaging 60.3 combined points in the last three games of the series. It'll be critical for the wing players to continue hitting shots, and Bismack Biyombo will need to be a two-way force, as he was in Game 5 and 7 of the previous series.
Jonas will play at some point in this series, but right now it seems ambitious to suggest he'll play at all in Cleveland. I'm looking at next weekend in Toronto as a possible time for return.
FtS: Who gets the better of the battle between Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry?
JG: The matchup between Irving and Lowry is obviously an exciting one, because it's probably the only head-to-head matchup in this series where two star players will spend long stretches of time guarding each other. We haven't seen this version of Kyrie go up against Lowry at all this season, and the big thing I'll be watching for is Kyle's ability to stay out of foul trouble.
Lowry is an aggressive defender. He gambles in passing lanes, gets locked up in arms, and draws contact to put pressure on the officials. In the minutes against Goran Dragic where he wasn't in foul trouble, this hyper-aggressiveness was effective, and I feel like it could be again with Irving. However, Lowry needs to stay out of foul trouble in order to do this, because the Raptors as a team drop off a cliff offensively when he's on the bench.
On the other end, Lowry has already proved this season that he can score against this Cavaliers team, averaging over 30 points and providing a heroic game-winning shot in Toronto. My concern isn't necessarily there, it's on the other end, where the Raptors will need to keep Irving relatively in check if they have any chance in this series.
FTS: So what's up with DeMar DeRozan at the moment? Can the Raptors win if he continues to struggle?
JG: DeRozan's struggles have been the major source of frustration for Raptors fans this post-season. DeMar is shooting just 35.5 percent, and his mid-range shooting game can be rough to watch when it's not working, as he tends to hijack possessions with over-dribbling and difficult shots. I thought after the Valanciunas injury in the Miami series, he was making better decisions, attacking the lack of rim protection and getting to "his spots" (the free throw line and in). He still didn't shoot efficiently, but it was a step in the right direction. He's also improved with an injured thumb and "the $1,000 shoelace", so it just shows you what we've learned as Raptors writers -- we know nothing.
That said, DeRozan has struggled mightily against the Cavaliers. When guarded by engaged J.R. Smith and (especially) Iman Shumpert, he has forced his game and come up empty, averaging 15 points on 38 percent shooting this season. The Raptors are going to struggle to win if he doesn't get that scoring volume up. He'll also need to be more of a creator, collapsing the defense and kicking it out to shooters, because Toronto depends on that as well. Ultimately, DeRozan is going to have the ball in his hands a lot whether we like it or not, and the numbers belie a more qualitative story -- he just needs to make good decisions in order for the Raptors to win.
FTS: How much stock do you put into the regular season match-ups between these teams?
JG: As every postseason teaches us, you can't put much stock into regular season games. The Cavaliers are playing their most efficient, frightening basketball of the last two years at the moment, and that's certainly not lost on Raptors fans. I think if the regular season taught us anything, it's that Kyle Lowry can be effective against Cleveland, both scoring and setting up his teammates. I'm confident that trend can continue.
In other areas, I'm not so confident. Channing Frye has added a stretch five capability off the bench that the Raptors' bigs will be hard-pressed to defend. Taking Biyombo away from the hoop gives driving lanes to guards (which killed the Raptors in Game 6 of the Miami series), and the Raptors haven't been good rebounding when Patrick Patterson slots at the five. Without Valanciunas, as I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of matchup problems for the Raptors, stuff we didn't see in the regular season. This Cavaliers team is a different animal in almost every respect, save the Lowry argument.
FTS: Make your pick - who wins this series and why?
JG: I want the Raptors to win - I really do, though after watching this team for 20 years, the surreality of the Toronto freakin' Raptors being in the NBA Finals goes beyond my capability for belief. It seems unbelievable, though, because it probably is. Cleveland is playing like a championship contender, while the Raptors needed everything in their arsenal to dispose of a Miami team led by a 34-year-old and a streaky Slovenian point guard. A lot of things need to break right for Toronto to win this series. They need to hope Cleveland is rusty and win one of the first two games. They need to protect home court for the entire series. They need to defend the three-point line. They need Lowry to be great in every game. They need Valanciunas to come back and pick up exactly as he left. They need DeMarre Carroll to ably defend LeBron James for long stretches.
They just need too much. It breaks me to say it, but Cavs in five.