After a grueling seven game slugfest against the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland gets just one day of rest before taking on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Raptors are a familiar foe — the Cavs have eliminated them in each of the last two postseasons — but sport a new look offensively in 2018.
They were led by DeMar DeRozan (26.7 points per game) and Kyle Lowry (17.2 points, 8.3 assists per game) in their 4-2 First Round defeat of the Washington Wizards.
Let’s take a look at how the teams matchup heading into their third consecutive playoff clash.
Toronto on Offense
The Raptors’ offensive “culture change” for the 2017-18 season has led to an increase in ball movement and three point attempts and a decrease in isolation and midrange shots. Toronto threw 300 passes per game this season — up from 273 per game last year — moving them from fourth fewest to middle of the pack.
Much of their ball movement begins with a “Snap” or “Pistol” initiation of the offense. This is essentially a “pass and chase” action where the lead guard dishes it to a big and runs after his pass.
Take a look how it works on this possession where Kyle Lowry gives up the ball to Serge Ibaka before getting it back on a hand off and immediately transitioning into a ball screen from Jonas Valanciunas.
With Lowry handling, Toronto likes to get DeMar DeRozan free coming off a staggered pindown on the left side. This allows him to get to his right hand drive with either a defender trailing or switched against a big.
They can also initiate this play with a Pistol action as you see here between Lowry and Ibaka.
One of their favorite sets to get Lowry going off-ball is “Snap Uphill DHO.” Here, you see Lowry initiate the action with the Pistol pass to Ibaka before dumping it off to Valanciunas. Lowry then comes off a single or staggered screen on the weakside and receives the uphill handoff from Valanciunas.
One of Toronto’s favored actions for CJ Miles is “Veer.” They often run this at the end of quarters and can use it to take advantage of pre-switching the pick and roll.
You will notice this looks an awful lot like the misdirection pick and roll the Cavs run for Kyle Korver — just on the opposite side of the floor for the left-handed Miles.
Jakob Poeltl comes up as if to set the ball screen for Lowry, hoping the action will occupy his defender. With Poeltl’s man focused on Lowry’s drive, he then darts into a wide pindown for Miles on the weakside. As you see here, Miles comes wide open for three off the action.
SLOB HORNS DOWN
Toronto’s favored sideline out of bounds play is one that begins with a backscreen by Valanciunas for Lowry who then receives the ball at the elbow. When he swings it to DeRozan, Lowry sets a screen for the inbounder the execute a flex cut — the first option off the action.
If the flex cut is covered, Valanciunas flips to set a pindown for Lowry, who again receives the ball coming uphill. This allows Lowry to either shoot the jumper or get to the basket with his defender trailing.
In the regular season, this task fell largely on the shoulders of Jeff Green. On 54 possessions, Green held DeRozan to seven points on 2-8 shooting, blocking two of his shots. But DeRozan also had nine assists and zero turnovers on these possessions — carrying Toronto to a 114.8 oRTG.
In the playoffs, J.R. Smith stepped into Green’s late-season role defending the opposing team’s offensive engine and did an admirable job limiting Victor Oladipo. Smith guarded DeRozan on 28 possessions and he had nine points on 4-7 shooting. But DeRozan only posted two assists and one turnover and the Raptors had just an 85.7 oRTG.
I expect Smith to handle the lion’s share of the minutes on DeRozan with Green ready to step in if he struggles.
The second question becomes whether Cleveland blitzes DeRozan in the pick and roll. Under Tyronn Lue, the Cavs have consistently tried to take the ball out of the opposing team’s best player’s hands and make role players beat them.
The strategy worked well against Oladipo in the First Round as the Pacers scored just 15 points on 21 possessions when the Cavs blitzed. But the strategy began to spring some holes as Indiana adjusted.
Cleveland employed the strategy against DeRozan in the regular season but his growth as a passer rendered it less effective than in previous seasons.
In fact, the Raptors scored a monstrous 63 points on 51 possessions (1.24 points per possession) when DeRozan was trapped in the pick and roll this season.
Perhaps knowing this, Washington decided to employ a traditional over + drop scheme against DeRozan in the First Round.
He scored an efficient 69 points on 66 possessions (1.05 points per possession) in the First Round but only shot 30 percent on pull up jumpers off the pick and roll. Despite some growth this season, DeRozan shot just 25.6 percent on pull up three pointers and the shot above is one you will gladly live with as a defense.
If Cleveland is to employ the over + drop scheme instead of blitzing, their guards need to be aware of DeRozan’s propensity for “snaking” the pick and roll.
DeRozan loves to use his dribble back toward the direction of the pick and get his defender on his hip to get to his advanced floater game — where he shot 45 percent this season.
Pick and Roll Coverage
Despite its success blitzing Oladipo, Cleveland’s pick and roll coverage in the First Round continued to be underwhelming. Indiana bigs scored 1.27 ppp on 60 pick and roll possessions — largely due to the Cavs’ inability to deny the pocket pass.
Darren Collison as the ball handler in the pick and roll forced Cleveland into a more traditional defense. The Pacers scored 49 points on 43 pick and roll possessions (1.14 ppp) with Collison handling — in line with a Cleveland defense that surrendered 0.98 ppp in the pick and roll this year.
The Raptors’ offense is particularly reliant on pick and roll. They ran 42 pick and roll possessions per game (scoring 0.99 points per possessions), which was only to the Atlanta Hawks in terms of volume.
Toronto is perhaps even more reliant on the pick and roll when Fred VanVleet is at the helm. VanVleet ran 53 percent of his possessions as pick and rolls this season and is an adept passer out of the action.
That brings us to the Toronto bench — which has been a major factor in the Raptors’ success this season.
After a scorching hot start to the season, Toronto’s bench came back to earth after the All-Star Break, posting a +2.4 Net Rating. Those struggles largely continued in the First Round as the bench actually had a -2.6 Net Rating against a below-average Wizards’ unit.
Perhaps the main reason was an inability to create efficient offense without VanVleet. In the 47 minutes Wright-Miles-Siakam-Poeltl played without VanVleet, they posted just a 92.7 offensive rating. When VanVleet rejoined the fray in Game 6, the offense started humming again.
Toronto’s depth gives them a clear advantage over a Cleveland bench that looked completely overmatched (and had playoff-worst -13.4 net rating) in the first found.
Shooting Role Players
The main downstream effect of Cleveland taking the ball out of DeRozan’s hands is forcing Toronto’s role players to make shots.
In the three regular season games between the teams, VanVleet (59.1 percent) and CJ Miles (50 percent) were the only players up to the task. Delon Wright (33.3 percent), OG Anunoby (30 percent), Serge Ibaka (22 percent) and Pascal Siakam (14.3 percent) were all not up to the task.
But these players stepped up to the task en route to Toronto shooting 41 percent from deep in the First Round. They combined to go 22-47 (46.8 percent) from downtown and made Washington pay when left open.
Whether or not that hot shooting can continue will be a huge factor in determining how successful Toronto’s offense performs in the series.
Cleveland on Offense
The Cavs had no trouble scoring the basketball in the two post-Trade Deadline games against Toronto — posting a 125.3 oRTG.
This was largely due to their success from downtown — where they shot 28-53 (52.8 percent) overall, 10-14 from the corners and 75 percent on 24 wide open threes.
But that shooting success evaporated in the First Round against Indiana. The Cavs shot only 32.2 percent from deep and 34.3 percent on wide open threes — down nine percentage points from their post-Trade Deadline mark.
They got dismal shooting performances from JSmith (31.3 percent), Jose Calderon (26.7 percent), George Hill (25 percent), Jordan Clarkson (14.3 percent) and Rodney Hood (16.7 percent). They shot just 30.3 percent from deep off passes from LeBron James.
The looks were great. The results were not.
Everything we know about this team indicates they won’t continue to shoot this poorly — especially not from the corners where they were nearly 20 percentage points below their post-Trade Deadline average.
After posting just a 103 oRTG in the First Round, a turnaround from downtown would go a long way toward changing Cleveland’s fate offensively.
Who Guards LeBron James?
The age old question for a Toronto team that has never been able to add a James defender to its wing rotation.
James comes off a First Round series where he averaged 34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 7.7 assists on 55.3 percent shooting. He probably could have averaged a triple-double had some open shots fallen. He attempted 41.3 percent of his shots at the rim and made them at a 79 percent clip. Oh, and he drew 62 fouls over the seven games and shot 81.8 percent from the line – including sinking 25 free throws in a row.
He averaged 31.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 11.5 assists per game in the two post-trade deadline games against Toronto. He shot 57.6 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from 3. He shot 14-17 at the rim and attempted 25 free throws.
The teams were different but he averaged 36 points on 57.3 percent shooting in last year’s playoffs vs Toronto and 26 points on 62.2 percent shooting the year before.
The monumental task of slowing James will fall — at least to start — on the shoulders of OG Anunoby. The rookie guarded James for 106 possessions this season and James scored 32 points on 13-21 shooting.
But James’ increasing share of post touches may prove difficult for Anunoby to handle. James scored 1.18 ppp on 22 post possessions in the first Round — a bad sign for a Toronto team that surrendered 1.23 ppp on 35 Washington post-ups.
Toronto likes to bring post help off the weakside corner — a tendency John Wall was able to exploit in the first round.
And finding the weakside shooter is nothing new for James against this defense.
If Anunoby struggles, the Raptors will also throw Pascal Siakam at James. Siakam guarded James for 57 possessions in the regular season, holding him to 16 points on 16 shots. But James dished out 10 assists to just one turnover in this matchup and Cleveland had a 122.8 oRTG.
Expect Siakam to go under pick and rolls with James as the ball handler to force him to beat Toronto from the outside.
Love at Center?
Kevin Love started the majority of the Indiana series at Center before shifting down to play alongside Tristan Thompson in the pivotal Game 7. After Thompson’s 15-point, 10-rebound effort in the close out game, it is hard to see Lue going away from him in the starting lineup.
But he may want to consider featuring Love at center. When Love was guarded by Valanciunas or Poeltl this year, Cleveland had a 167 oRTG — largely due to Toronto’s center’s inability to guard the perimeter.
While Love struggled against the Pacers — scoring 0.52 ppp on 25 Post Ups and shooting 13-46 (28.2 percent) from two-point range — he shot 40 percent from deep in the series. His shooting remains a weapon, especially if left open.
The Raptors adjusted in the regular season by hiding Valanciunas on Jeff Green, but Green no longer plays alongside the starters. While Toronto could attempt to mimic Indiana’s strategy of hiding Myles Turner on Smith, Valanciunas is not the weakside athletic terror that Turner is blocking shots.
Empty Corner Pick and Roll
Toronto has done everything in its power to avoid getting guards switched onto LeBron James this season. That strategy has made the empty corner pick and roll a nightmare to defend for the Raptors.
The same goes for empty corner pick and roll with Love as the screener as the Raptors do not want to allow Love to get a mismatch in the post.
When the Raptors have been forced to switch the play, their guards have struggled to contain James and Love in the post.
The panic induced by having DeRozan on Love in the post even created a rare post assist from Love to George on this corner three.
Cleveland struggled to execute this play in the first round because of George Hill’s absence. But when Hill was on the floor, he remained deadly handling in the pick-and-roll.
Cleveland scored 1.35 ppp on the 23 possessions where Hill was the ball handler against Indiana.
If Hill is healthy, Toronto will have to come into the series with a better plan for defending this action.
Pushing the Pace
With James carrying such a heavy minutes and usage load, Cleveland played the slowest First Round series (92.92 possessions per game).
But Washington found most of its offensive success in transition against Toronto, running on 19.5 percent of possessions and adding 6.7 points over average.
Cleveland found similar success in their two post-trade deadline games against the Raptors, adding 5.2 points and 4.6 points over average, respectively.
Cleveland will have to decide if it wants to push the pace against Toronto and exploit some of those same holes Washington found in the first round or if it has to continue to slow the pace to make James’ load easier to bear — especially given the quick turnaround between Game 7 and Game 1 of the second round.
Paging Hood and Clarkson
Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson both struggled mightily off the bench against Indiana. Hood averaged 6.3 points per game and shot 16.7 percent from three while struggling to defend any of Indiana’s guards. Clarkson was even worse, averaging just 4.4 points per game on 32.5 percent shooting.
Cleveland will likely need one or both of them to step up against Toronto’s excellent backup backcourt. But this is likely not the series for Clarkson.
In two games against Toronto, Clarkson averaged five points on 27.8 percent shooting. The Cavs had a -31.7 net rating with him on the floor and a +31.3 net rating when he sat.
But this might be a better series for Hood. He played (and started) just one of the two games against Toronto but scored 17 points on 50 percent shooting — including a couple nice plays off the dribble.
The Raptors’ drop coverage against the pick and roll should be more favorable for Hood to attack than Indiana’s aggressive scheme. Cleveland would certainly benefit from any kind of contribution from Hood (or Clarkson) in the series.
Toronto should win this series. They have home court advantage. They are better rested and Cleveland should be fatigued coming into Game 1. LeBron even said he is exhausted.
The Raptors have been the better team all season and exhibited little of their historic playoff struggles against Washington. They even won Game 1!
But they do not have LeBron James. And they have yet to show that they have an answer for LeBron James. Until they do, I will not be the one to pick against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Cavs in 6 hard-fought games.