The Cleveland Cavaliers will be playing the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they are clearly the more well-rested team in the series. The Raptors have played two consecutive seven game series, beating the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat in the full allotment of possible games, while the Cavs have comparatively coasted through four-game sweeps of the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. By itself, this is going to make the early part of the series tough on the Raptors, who have been afforded just two days off in between series so far.
However, the Raptors’ lack of rest will be compounded by the uncertain status of four of their key players, three of whom all suffered injuries in their series with the Miami Heat. Kyle Lowry and his chronic elbow swelling has been a concern all playoffs. DeMar DeRozan suffered a sprained thumb in Game 1, disrupting his shooting and ball-handling ability for much of the series. DeMarre Carroll is hampered by a wrist sprain, suffered during a fall in Game 5. Both players have been able to play through their injuries. However, the biggest setback for the Raptors was suffered in Game 3, as center Jonas Valanciunas suffered an ankle sprain attempting to block a Dwyane Wade shot. He missed the final four games of the series, he's already been ruled out for Game 1.
Lowry’s elbow has been a problem off and on all season, and could explain why he struggled so much offensively in the early portion of the playoffs. He appears to be dealing with something called olecranon bursitis, an inflammatory condition that usually stems from the rupturing of a bursa sac, which helps provide lubrication against friction at a joint. While the bursa usually heals after a period of time and the inflammation goes away, the injury leads to stretching and weakening of the bursa, and chronic swelling can occur as a result.
While Lowry has been fine as of late (posting a line of 35 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in Game 7 against the Heat suggests he’s doing well), if he hits his elbow wrong, the swelling could easily return. This will be something to monitor against the Cavs, as Lowry’s propensity to attack off drives could leave him vulnerable to re-aggravating the injury. He also will be guarded by Matthew Dellavedova for stretches of time, which, well, "predisposes one to direct trauma," so to speak.
DeRozan’s injury is probably the least concerning for the Raptors and he is the closest player to full strength for Toronto. The primary issue with DeRozan’s thumb has been chronic swelling, which made it difficult to shoot, contributing to his ugly performances in Games 2 and 3 vs. the Heat where combined to score 28 points on 10-34 shooting.
As the swelling has gone down, he’s been more consistent, and that should continue as he heals. The Raptors have been experimenting with an interesting trick to control swelling during games, and it seems to be working. He should be at full strength for the series, which is important for the Raptors, as that gives them at least one healthy scorer they can rely upon. DeRozan’s health will also be important defensively, as he may run into LeBron James duty if Carroll isn’t fully ready.
Carroll’s injury is a contusion, which he’s been able to play through with varied results. He was visibly bothered by the injury in Game 6, where he looked tentative defensively and struggled to make an impact on offense. In Game 7, though, he rebounded, scoring 14 points on five shots and helping to hold Joe Johnson to 13 points. Carroll should also be okay moving forward, but without a doubt he has the toughest job of any Raptor in guarding LeBron James. If his wrist isn’t 100 percent, he’ll have a hard time using his left arm to contain James on the drive and create contact that can at least be a . There’s also the lingering issue that Carroll is only one month removed from a knee surgery that sidelined him for half the season, and while he’s moved well on the knee so far, that’s on the back burner as a potential problem. Carroll is probably the biggest X-factor for the Raptors in terms of defense.
And then there’s the elephant in the room for Toronto. Without Valanciunas, the Raptors are seriously overmatched up front. He was "nowhere close to a return" prior to Game 7 against the Heat, and while he’s no longer in a boot, it appears that he’s going to miss at least the first two games of the series, and maybe more. The Raptors appear to want to be cautious with their best young asset, fearing what could happen if they rush Valanciunas back.
If Valanciunas isn’t ready to go for this series, that’s a significant problem for Toronto, as they will lack their biggest matchup advantage offensively, and it forces the Raptors to play small more than they’d like, which would allow the Cavs to play their red-hot three-point shooting lineups more. Bismack Biyombo has looked like he’s turned a significant corner with Valanciunas out, but still, if he’s the only player available to defend the rim for the Raptors, they will have a tough time truly limiting the effectiveness of the Cavs’ offense.
The Raptors have been banged up, although it appears that the injured players will have less issues against the Cavs than they did in the Heat series. Their most serious injury, though, has come to the player who gives the Cavaliers their biggest issues, and that’s a big concern for them if they cannot counter Cleveland’s small-ball and three-point shooting. Lowry, DeRozan, and Carroll may be in better shape, but if Jonas is not 100 percent, I have a tough time seeing how the Raptors can truly hang with the Cavs in a seven-game series.