There shouldn’t be much surprise that the Cavs and Raptors are back at it in the postseason, but the surprise might be that it is coming in the second round and not the conference finals as it did last year, when Cleveland wiped out the Raptors in six games. But one of the drawbacks of losing out on the top seed this year is that, after making quick work of Indiana, the Cavs have this difficult second-round opponent.
The Raptors won one game against Cleveland in the regular season, though it was the last game of the year, and the trio of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving sat for the Cavs. There is not much to glean from the first three games between the teams, because they all took place in the first quarter of the season, and were decided by 11 total points.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey will set the tone of the series even before it begins when he comes up with his decision on what to do with the starting five. Down, 2-1, in the series against Milwaukee, Casey pulled center Jonas Valanciunas from the starters and inserted small forward Norman Powell, moving Serge Ibaka to center. That move has given the Raptors a spark, but Casey might be more comfortable starting big against the Cavs, then moving to a small lineup if it becomes necessary.
The key player
Let’s keep it simple here — it’s James. The Cavaliers roster has looked a bit older and a lot shakier this season, and under most circumstances, it’d be reasonable to assume they were vulnerable in the East. But the difference is, he is the best player in the Eastern Conference, and as long as that remains the case, the Cavs will be very difficult to contend with. As the Pacers saw, having a star like Paul George gets you to the playoffs, but having a superstar like James gets you to the Finals.
Let’s review what James did in the first round. He averaged 32.8 points, 9.0 assists and 9.8 rebounds. That’s 6.4 points more than his season average, while also tacking on more rebounds and assists. He also averaged 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks — double his steals from the regular season, and triple the blocks. He shot 45.0 percent from the 3-point line, and his overall shooting percentage was down, but only by a half-percent. Oddly, he struggled with free throws, making 57.9 percent.
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No team in the East has a guy who can handle James one-on-one, but the Raps will give that job to Powell, DeMarre Caroll and P.J. Tucker off the bench. Good luck with that.