For the first time since LeBron’s Return the Cleveland Cavaliers will face a worthy foe in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The series against the Toronto Raptors kicks off tonight, and even though their only win against the Cavs this season involved James Jones playing 36 minutes the Raptors are actually quite good. Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve been excited for a Cavs game since the Christmas comeback against the Warriors. That game, of course, lived up to the hype:
This series, too, will undoubtedly produce many memorable moments. But before it kicks off let’s consider some key questions that will shape this series:
Which version of Kyle Lowry will show up?
Early in the season the Raptors were rolling and Kyle Lowry was proving to be a fringe MVP candidate. When he played with members of their playoff rotation the Raptors posted a 124.6 ORtg and 108.3 DRtg over 721 possessions. Then P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka were added to the roster and Kyle Lowry injured his shooting hand. Since his return, the same playoff rotation with Kyle Lowry on the floor has produced just a 108.4 ORtg over 630 possessions. The new additions have helped stiffen up the defense to the tune of a 102.7 DRtg, but that number will certainly increase against the Cavs. While DeMar DeRozan usually scores the most points for Toronto, it’s the playmaking and spacing of Lowry that really drives their offense. His first 10 games since returning have been uninspiring, with two good games, five okay games and three games that were just bad. Against another Eastern Conference opponent that might be enough, but against the Cavs they need Lowry to play well to have a chance of winning.
Will the improved Raptors defense be enough to slow down the Cavs offense?
Before the All-Star break the Raptors playoff rotation managed a 110.2 DRtg. With the additions of P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka for the stretch run, that dropped to 107.2 DRtg in over 2,000 possessions after the All-Star break, and most of those possessions occurred while Lowry was out with injury. What began the year as a one-way team has morphed into a team that’s very capable on both ends of the floor.
Of course, it takes more than merely capable to slow down the Cavalier offense. LeBron James is both getting to the rim at will and nailing 3-pointers off the bounce. The Cavs had a 120.3 ORtg against the Indiana Pacers with him on the court. The Raptors have a couple bodies to throw at him in P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll, but the Pacers had Paul George. Serge Ibaka blocked 14 shots in the first round; he might be able to help out at the rim. But the frontcourt duo of Ibaka and Patrick Patterson will have their hands full on the boards with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. A defender can’t provide help and box out at the same time, so something will have to give.
The Cavaliers will push the Raptors defense to their limit. The question is whether that defense will be able to bend but not break or if the Cavs will simply snap them like a twig and post another 118+ ORtg as they did last season in the playoffs.
Will Kyrie Irving snap out of his shooting funk?
Nearly every Cavalier had an excellent offensive series in against the Pacers. The big exception? Kyrie Irving, who shot a dreadful 7-32, 21.9 percent from long range and just 10-22, 45.5 percent within the restricted area. He continues to stake his claim as the best mid-range player in the game with 22-39, 56.4 percent shooting in between the arc and the restricted area, but the Cavs need him to perform better in what projects to be a tougher series.
Kyrie closed the regular season with two very efficient months in March and April, so this isn’t a long-term trend. Hopefully it amounts to nothing more than small sample size theater, but it’s something to keep an eye on. If a nagging injury is inhibiting his shooting motion the Cavs postseason hopes could be in jeopardy.
Can the Cavs figure out how to rebound again?
In the first round the Pacers owned the Cavs on the boards. Despite Tristan Thompson acting as a one-man wrecking crew on the offensive boards (24.0 ORB%) the team posted a middling 24.8 ORB% for the series. The defensive boards were much worse than middling - a 71.7 DRB%, second-worst in the postseason so far. This is after putting up 77.5 DRB% in 2015 playoffs and a 79.0 DRB% in the 2016 playoffs. While there were signs during the regular season that this version of the Cavs simply wasn’t as good on the boards, I expected them to ‘flip the switch’ in this regard during the postseason. That may still happen - Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are certainly capable of combining for more than 64.3 MPG. But Kevin Love just wasn’t very effective in round one, as Thaddeus Young grabbed 22 offensive rebounds in the series. And it wouldn’t hurt if the small guys could help out a little. I’ll be watching closely for improvement in this regard against a Toronto team that does a good job hitting the offensive boards.
How much better will this series be than whatever comes next?
Seriously, these two teams both deserve a Conference Finals appearance. It’s a shame that one of them (*cough* Toronto *cough*) won’t make it there despite being a better team than either Washington or Boston. While I’m predicting the Cavs to take the series in five, I expect the games to be close and hard-fought. And if the Raptors did somehow manage to win the series I’d likely root for them the rest of the way. It’s a well constructed team that fits together nicely and has enough depth and versatility to match up against any opponent. I’m not sure the team can get much better with Kyle Lowry as its best player, but a couple years ago I never thought they’d be this good with him as the centerpiece. So I tip my hat to them before the Cavs end their season in demoralizing fashion, and I hope they manage to keep this core mostly intact for another run next season. After all, it is kind of nice to have some real competition in the Eastern Conference.