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Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors series preview with Blake Murphy

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors will begin the Eastern Conference Finals rematch on Monday. In order to break down this series, I exchanged messages with Blake Murphy of The Athletic Toronto, Raptors Republic, Vice Sports, and Sportsnet (like the Raptors, he’s also a try-hard).

This exchange was also published on Raptors Republic. So you can also check it out there with all the pretty additions Blake made to it.

Justin Rowan: The Toronto Raptors first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks was… uneven. To start things off, how do you feel about the state of the Raptors?

Blake Murphy: Man, that is a loaded question, because the Raptors, as always, can’t get out of their own way. When I picked Raptors in six, I gave the Bucks one “Giannis game” and one “WTF Raptors” game. They very nearly turned in three of the latter, and for as high as people can get about the Raptors’ ceiling, it’s the consistent downturn in their performance that causes a crippling, unyielding anxiety. On the bright side, that catatonic state of impossible day-to-day evaluation is now the norm, so I guess I feel just fine about them. More specifically, I don’t think DeMar DeRozan has ever been this good this consistently, Kyle Lowry looks alright by his postseason standard, and the new pieces that were meant to life them higher have fit well. This roster in other uniforms would be cause for more excitement, because, you know, Raptors gonna Raptors.

Blake Murphy: A year ago, the Raptors were mostly just happy to be opposite the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. That made Cleveland the measuring stick moving forward, and every move Toronto’s made has been aimed at closing the gap between the two teams. Do you feel the Raptors are closer to the Cavaliers now than last playoffs?

Justin Rowan: This is a really tough question to answer. On the one hand, the Raptors are far better suited to deal with the Cavs this season. They have better defensive versatility than last season and on paper are well suited to make the Cavs work. Whereas last year the series wasn’t as close as the six games would have indicated. On the other hand, they’ve been dealing with a lot of the same bad habits as the Cavs and haven’t had a lot of time to play together as a full team. With both teams playing at their peak, they’re both dramatically improved compared to last season. But you never know who’s going to show up.

Blake Murphy: The Cavaliers were, as LeBron James most famously once described how he treated the regular season, in “chill mode” most of the last few months. The defense, in particular, was somewhere between sleepy and moribund. They, as expected, “flipped the switch” against Paul George and the Pacers, sweeping that series. Their defense was still pretty shaky, though. How successfully have the Cavaliers shaken off the doldrums? Is there a chance for the Raptors to take advantage early in the series?

Justin Rowan: I think game one will be the Raptors best chance to make some noise. The Cavs will have been off for eight days and may have some rust. The Cavs first half defense vs the Pacers would have been worst in the league with a 123.2 DRTG. The second half would have been the best in the league with a 98.7 DRTG. The Cavs are still struggling to find consistency on both ends of the floor, something that will take more than just flipping the switch.

Blake Murphy: With respect to the defense, the Cavaliers have had some trouble with Toronto, despite their obvious successes overall. In four regular season games last year, the Raptors scored 111.1 points per-100 possessions. In six playoff games, a much more respectable 97.9. In four meetings this year, that number was 108.6. Kyrie Irving is going to struggle with Kyle Lowry, J.R. Smith is only a decent option on DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James will probably want to conserve energy, and Serge Ibaka changes the degree to which the Cavs can load up on the stars. I realize Smith and Kevin Love are somewhat underrated individual defenders, but are you concerned with some of the individual matchups here?

Justin Rowan: If Kyle Lowry was playing like Kyle Lowry, I’d probably be a little more concerned. In the past, the Cavs have trapped Lowry and DeRozan aggressively and forced others to make decisions and initiate the offense. I expect more of the same, trying to funnel the ball to Carroll or Tucker. I don’t expect James to spend much time on DeRozan, as they’ll likely accept him going off in favour of funneling the ball away from Lowry. The Ibaka/Love matchup is one that I’m not too sure how to get a read on. Who Toronto plays next to Ibaka will probably dictate whether or not Thompson or Love draws the Ibaka assignment.

Justin Rowan: Kyle Lowry is currently averaging 14.3ppg on 42.6/28.1 shooting coming off surgery on his right hand. On the one hand, that’s a drop-off from the regular season. On the other, that’s a career high for playoff field goal percentage. So I guess my question is, how do you feel about Lowry heading into this series?

Blake Murphy: I’m fine with where Lowry’s at, honestly. The shooting has been solid enough outside of Game 1that I’m not all that concerned that there are lingering wrist issues, which means you just have to evaluate playoff Lowry. That guy still can’t seem to score well, but in the last three games against Milwaukee, he was doing the other Lowry things he showed in last year’s postseason – playmaking, defending, generally being a pest, and having a profound on-off impact. And this, through a sore and stiff back he now has three days to get treatment on. I’m at a point where I don’t expect Lowry to be his full regular season self against the Cavaliers, but if he can still work as a reasonable No. 2 to DeRozan on offense (the clear, re-established pecking order) and provide the KLOE-ish things that exist outside of scoring, things will be fine. The Raptors need full KLOE to have a chance at the upset, though, so hopefully he lurks somewhere inside of him still.

Justin Rowan: What is the biggest x-factor for this series?

Blake Murphy: The play of Lowry. We touched on it above, but really, the Raptors can only take a real swing at the Cavs if their stars are their stars and their defense lives up to its potential. That sounds kind of ludicrous and reductive at the same time – “be at your best” is not good analysis. But the Raptors aren’t quite as good as the Cavaliers and need everything to go right. That means no slumps for Lowry, no games or quarters off, and no slow adjustments. Outside of that, it’s how well Casey uses the defensive versatility to their advantage beyond just having more bodies to throw at James. He did a good job with this in the Bucks series eventually, and the move to less comfortable approaches has to be quick if things aren’t working out of the gate.

Blake Murphy: Last round, the Cavs loaded up on George and dared other Pacers to beat them, most notably with the game on the line in Game 1. Cleveland basically ignored Lance Stephenson, which is the best way to treat Lance Stephenson just in general. Will the Cavs be as comfortable loading up off of DeMarre Carroll and P.J. Tucker?

Justin Rowan: I don’t think they’ll completely ignore Carroll, but they likely will for Tucker. Tucker has shot well with the Raptors, but by funneling the ball away from the dynamic duo and into his hands it’ll put him in an uncomfortable position. By forcing this, they can help make up for some of the deficiencies they have in terms of individual defenders.

Justin Rowan: The Raptors had success against the Bucks after benching Jonas Valanciunas in favor of Norman Powell. With the Cavs starting a more traditional line-up than the Bucks four-wing look, who do you think starts for Toronto? Also, who SHOULD start?

Blake Murphy: The Raptors should and will start Jonas Valanciunas. To be clear, Valanciunas is not a good fit in this series at all. He can’t guard faster, stretchier centers, he struggles against strong pick-and-roll point guards, and he’s been outplayed by Tristan Thompson when they’ve gone head-to-head. But if you don’t start Valanciunas, you’re committing to Serge Ibaka being a full-time center and then either finding bench minutes for Valanciunas opposite Channing Frye (and then you better be posting him up to swing that matchup) or trusting one of your young centers opposite a Cavs attack that will pick and poke for every weakness. Jakob Poeltl may actually have a place in this series, but it’ll only come if Valanciunas is consistently outplayed by Thompson. They need to see if Valanciunas can play that matchup something close to even for short minutes and use Ibaka as the de facto backup center but be ready to pivot quickly. (And at some point, P.J. Tucker may need to start over DeMarre Carroll, though this matters less as long as the Raptors are using Tucker-Patrick Patterson-Ibaka combos plenty.)

Blake Murphy: Regardless of whether Valanciunas is on the floor, the Cavaliers have some dangerous offensive lineups, including the option to surround James with four shooters. That includes with two guards as the tops in a HORNs formation, with Love and Frye in the corners. It’s terrifying. How much has Ty Lue leaned on those groups, and do you think Cleveland will stick to their base rotation until necessary against Toronto, or come out blazing with these kind of units?

Justin Rowan: I think the Cavs will mostly stay with their base formations. They like having LeBron come out against the opponents bench with Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert, and Channing Frye. Although we have also seen Love in place of Shumpert as you mentioned. With the aforementioned advantages the Cavs have with their starters, I expect this bench lineup to just remain a blitzing option, rather than a primary look.

Blake Murphy: Will Frye ever miss against the Raptors? Like, at all? Last year, the Cavaliers used Frye to pull Bismack Biyombo away from the paint so effectively that the Raptors ultimately gave in and put Biyombo on James, figuring hey, if he’s away from the rim, may as well optimize it. Will this be Cleveland’s goal against Ibaka, too?

Justin Rowan: It all depends on how the Raptors choose to deploy their lineup. The Ibaka-Patterson look will probably be their most effective pairing, especially against a potential Love-Frye lineup. Toronto’s first round series turned by having Ibaka play more time at center. Should they do this again, I expect the Cavs to force him to guard a stretch big to open the lane for James and Irving. The Raptors also haven’t played against the big three plus Korver yet, which will test their three point defense even further.

Justin Rowan: The Cavaliers obviously create a lot of problems for an opposing defense. How do you believe the Raptors should defend the starters? As well as defend their LeBron plus four shooters look.

Blake Murphy: Can’t the Raptors just assume the Cavaliers will score 115 points per-100 possessions and then only play the offensive possessions? I think you’ll see Toronto approach this matchup similar to how they have in the past – straight up by position. If they start Valanciunas, there aren’t a lot of options otherwise, because DeRozan is a defender Cleveland would pick on and you need Ibaka chasing Love and available to switch onto James (I could live with switching two-through-four, forcing the Cavs to use Smith as a screener if they really want that DeRozan matchup). With bench units, it’s a lot more complicated, and the Raptors will have to downsize accordingly. Norman Powell stands as the team’s most reasonable Kyle Korver coverage, and any three of Carroll, Tucker, Patterson, and Ibaka should be able to match up across positions if the Cavs roll James/Love/Frye or something resembling that. Toronto added the deadline pieces they did to beef up their flexibility for this type of matchup, and they need to lean on it as much as possible, playing flexible pieces together, because there just isn’t the one-on-one coverage one-through five they need. (An aside: I’d also explore Ibaka on James when the Cavs go smaller, if he’s going to be pulled away from the rim anyway.)

Blake Murphy: The Raptors added Tucker and Ibaka in larger part to better combat the Cavs. Even if the gap hasn’t closed, it makes sense on paper, and the Raptors feel closer now. What about the new-look Raptors worries you most from a defensive perspective? From an offense perspective?

Justin Rowan: My worry would be the versatility their defense now has. Solving the Raptors defense was fairly easy before, now Toronto has a lot of looks they can throw at the Cavs. Casey has been slow at times to make adjustments, but he has the tools to make things difficult for Cleveland.

Blake Murphy: How is Jerry Stackhouse’s extremely large adult son Edy Tavares doing? Obviously, he’s not going to factor into the series here, but maybe he can swing by Mississauga to pick up his D-League Championship ring.

Justin Rowan: He had his awesome debut with the Cavs, but has been rocking a suit since then. It’s fun to have a young project to root for, especially one who’s so likable like Edy.

SERIES PREDICTIONS:

Blake Murphy: Cavaliers in six, with the series playing closer than last year and leaving the Raptors with some very difficult decisions for this summer.

Justin Rowan: Cavs in five. But it will be a closer and more competitive series than last year’s Conference Finals.