After sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had a lot of time to rest and prepare for their next opponent. On Thursday night, the Toronto Raptors survived and advanced against those pesky Milwaukee Bucks after blowing a 25 point lead in Game 6, but thanks to the heroics of DeMar DeRozan, were able to hold on in the end. In a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs and Raptors will square up once again, but this time it will be one round earlier. Let’s get into it.
Who: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers
When: Monday, May 1, 7 p.m.
Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, Ohio
Where to watch: TNT
Enemy Blog: Raptors HQ
Music: Radiohead – Optimistic
What to watch for:
- As I mentioned above, this is a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, where the Cavs defeated the Raptors to advance to the NBA Finals in six games. The Cavs dominated the Raptors on their home court, winning all three games by an average of 29.3 points per game. The real struggles came on the road, where the Raptors were able to bounce back and win their first two home games to even the series at two games apiece before the Cavs overwhelmed them in the final two games of the series.
- The Raptors have some new faces for this go-around. Bismack Biyombo signed a big-money deal in Orlando over the summer (*sigh of relief*) and James Johnson signed with the Heat (and had the best season of his career this year). On the flip side, the Raptors traded Terrence Ross for Serge Ibaka before the trade deadline in February and acquired P.J. Tucker on deadline day to fill those spots.
- While the Raptors defeated the Bucks in six games, they didn’t look all that good in doing so. DeMar DeRozan carried the load in this series, as the rest of his team really didn’t play all that well for the majority of the series. Kyle Lowry only averaged 14.3 PPG on 42.6 percent shooting (28.1 percent from three) in the series, which is very lackluster for a player of his status.
- The play of Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell has been encouraging for the Raptors. Ibaka did a solid job on both ends against a young, lengthy, athletic Bucks team, and his upcoming matchup with Kevin Love/Tristan Thompson will be interesting to watch. Powell looked great in this series, hitting 10 out of 11 three pointers in the series and stepping up and making big plays whenever the Raptors needed an injection of confidence.
- The Raptors are hoping to get a boost from Jonas Valanciunas this time around. Valanciunas missed most of the series against the Cavs last season with a bum ankle and didn’t really make much, if any, impact in the series. He was solid in the first round against the Bucks, but he’s had a reduced role as of late, and the reality is beginning to set in that Valanciunas may be best served in an Enes Kanter-like role as an offensive threat off the bench.
- On the Cavs end of things, LeBron James is very good at playing basketball. He averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks per game on 54.3 percent shooting and 45 percent from three. He’s the best player in the world (sorry, Pop), and looks locked and loaded for the playoff run.
- The rest of the squad could have been better. Despite yet another dominant series from LeBron, the Cavs only outscored the Pacers on aggregate by 16 points over the four games, tied with the Golden State Warriors sweep over the Washington Bullets in the 1975 NBA Finals as the smallest margin of victory in a sweep in NBA playoff history.
- Kyrie Irving averaged 25.3 PPG in the series, but he did it on 41.9 percent shooting (and 21.9 percent from three) and looked frustrated on the offensive end throughout the series. There were times where it looked like Irving was settling for long jumpers and not really getting into the rhythm of the offense. According to NBA Stats, 32.3 percent of Kyrie’s shots in the series were considered open (closest defender 4-6 feet away), and he only had a 38.3 percent effective field goal percentage on those shots. In the regular season, his EFG% on such shots was 56.2 percent. Those shots will begin to fall.
- Kyrie’s defense was actually solid in this series (when he wasn’t getting switched onto Paul George). He has shown glimpses of what he can do on defense when he’s focused on that end in spurts throughout the Pacers series. The Cavs will need him to continue to give consistent effort on that end going forward.
- In the playoffs last season, Ty Lue found a niche lineup featuring LeBron and a collection of bench players that he would utilize early in the second and fourth quarters. The personnel on the bench have changed, and thus the lineup has changed as well, and it appears as if Lue has found a unit that he has confidence in. The lineup of Deron Williams-Korver-Shumpert-LeBron-Frye had a net rating of 18.1 in the series. Lue pulled this lineup out in Game 3 after the Cavs were down 25 points at halftime to the Pacers, and he rolled with that lineup down the stretch as the Cavs tied the largest comeback in a playoff game in NBA history to win that game.
- For those concerned about the Cavs anemic defense, this series as a whole didn’t inspire a lot on confidence. The Cavs had a 111.0 defensive rating in the 4 games, the fourth worst mark of all playoff teams. Considering this was a sweep, being in the bottom four of defensive efficiency isn’t a good sign. The Cavs did tighten the clamps in the second half of their comeback victory in Game 3, but there has to be more consistency on that end going forward.
- The offense, on the other hand, inspires quite a bit of confidence. The Cavs had the second highest offensive rating of all playoff teams in the first round at 115.9 (behind San Antonio at 116.8), and they did it with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love having down series on that end. Having LeBron James on your team has an awful lot to do with this, but it’s nice to see the role players getting more comfortable and making big contributions on that end.
- Particularly impressive in the first round: Deron Williams. Deron Williams looks like he’s finally become comfortable running the offense coming off the bench. He looks fluid and confident running the pick and roll now (where he excels), and shot a gaudy 76.9 percent from the field (and 77.8 percent from three!) in the first round. He’s going to be a critical piece to the championship puzzle for the Cavs going forward.
- Iman Shumpert was not playing well to end the regular season and was actually benched by Ty Lue to begin this series, but when he got his chance in Game 3, he ran with it. While he didn’t contribute much in the stat department, his effort and intensity on both ends made a strong impact. Expect to see a lot more of Shumpert against the Raptors.
- We’ll all remember J.R. Smith from this series for trying to throw that behind the back pass to LeBron after he had seemingly clinched the game with a steal on Paul George, but he looked good in this series shooting the ball. However, his defense has been suspect for much of this season, and while he looked slightly improved in this series, it needs to get a lot better before he gets back to his defensive form from last season that was a critical component to the Cavs winning the title last season.
- The Cavs will need more consistency on both ends from Irving and Love in this series, and if they get it, this series shouldn’t be too difficult for them to pull out. Then again, with how great LeBron has been playing, it may not even matter.
Fear the Sword's Fearless Prediction:
The Raptors will find a way to pull out a game at home, but the Cavs will get back to their winning ways and look dominant again in doing so. Cavs in 5.