2017 Hoops Inq. Playoff Preview: Cavaliers (2) - Raptors (3)

2017 Hoops Inq. Playoff Preview: Cavaliers (2) - Raptors (3)
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Series Schedule:

Game 1: Monday, 5/1 @ Cleveland
Game 2: Wednesday, 5/3 @ Cleveland
Game 3: Friday, 5/5 @ Toronto
Game 4: Sunday, 5/7 @ Toronto
Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, 5/9 @ Cleveland
Game 6 (if necessary): Thursday, 5/11 @ Toronto
Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, 5/14 @ Cleveland

Regular Season Series Results:

The Cavaliers won three out of the four games these teams played in the regular season. All of them were close. All of them, that is, except for the one game the Raptors won, which was a blow-out. That game was, notably, the last game of the season between two teams , though both had already clinched playoff berths. It also featured exactly none of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.

Players To Watch:

Cleveland Cavaliers:

LeBron James: Everything with the Cavaliers (and, arguably with the NBA as a whole) begins and ends with LeBron James. He can will this team to victory when he really wants to, and if the going gets tough, he may have to in this series. The presence of star-forward-irritant-in-chief P.J. Tucker will make life more difficult for James, but the truth is nobody can contain him when he’s locked in. His biggest concern, then, will be making sure he doesn’t tire himself out in the series’ early games. This one could go long thanks to the Raptors' updated roster, and the aging LeBron may need to save his superhuman abilities for the end if his teammates can’t get the job done.
J.R. Smith: Smith spent the first round series against the Indiana Pacers guarding Paul George. His role in this series will be similar as he matches up with shooting guard and unrepentant chucker DeMar Derozan. Smith showed tremendous and uncharacteristic discipline in his battle with George, and he’ll need to maintain that level of focus to check the Raptors' most frustrating weapon. The series itself could potentially hinge on how Smith does when facing DeRozan, so expect him to be oddly quiet on offense as he expends tremendous amounts of energy containing the Raptor’s leading scorer.
Tristan Thompson: The Raptors may opt to bring bruising center Jonas Valanciunas off the bench in this series to abuse the Cavalier’s bench units, and Tristan Thompson will probably be tasked with making sure he doesn’t eat too much in the post and on the boards. It will be tough and tiring work, but it’s the exact sort of job Thompson is built to handle. He’ll likely win this matchup, and he’ll have to if the Cavaliers are going to feel comfortable sitting their higher-scoring starters when they have leads.

Toronto Raptors: 

DeMar DeRozan: If that strange series against the Milwaukee Bucks confirmed anything about the Raptors, it’s that this team rises and falls with DeMar DeRozan. His preferred diet of a high volume of heavily-contested midrange jumpers doesn’t leave room for a margin of error. If he shoots about 45% or better from the field, the Raps can live and even thrive with his poor shot selection. If he shoots any worse, he will undoubtedly chuck them right out of the series. The good news for the Raptors is that DeRozan got his buckets and got them relatively efficiently when he faced the Cavaliers in the regular season.
The bad news is that the Cavs know he needs to be efficient for the Raptors to have a shot at victory and they will do everything in their power to make his life on the court as difficult as possible. They know his favorite spots on the floor. They have studied his go-to moves. Most importantly, they are keenly aware of his bad habits. Their schemes will be predicated on convincing him to take a lot of really bad shots. He can’t succumb to that temptation. He has to be careful and think a step ahead of the defense. Deliberation and methodical consideration aren’t his strong suits, but for the Raptors to have a chance in this series, DeRozan will have to force himself to adopt those traits on offense.
P.J. Tucker: This is the series the Raptors brought Tucker in for. He’ll be tasked with harassing LeBron with a vengeance, and his performance in that role will be one of this series’ true bellwethers. Don’t be surprised if coach Dwane Casey matches Tucker’s minutes with LeBron’s. This is the biggest test of Tucker’s career; he’ll need to give it everything he’s got.
Serge Ibaka: Ibaka is sneakily the biggest swing factor in this series. He has the defensive chops to make Kevin Love a non-entity on offense. On the other side of the ball, he could drag Love out to the perimeter and has the potential to play Love right off the floor. He’ll spend some time every game guarding LeBron, and his performance in those minutes could prove to be pivotal. Perhaps Ibaka’s greatest contribution, however, will be in his function as a screener when he’s guarded by Love or one of the Cavs' other slow-footed bigs. His ability to help DeRozan and Kyle Lowry get those mismatches will be invaluable when the Cavs' defense stiffens up and the Raps need to manufacture some late-game points.

This is nominally a rematch of last years Eastern Conference Finals, but don’t let that fool you into thinking these teams are the same ones that played a deceptively uncompetitive six games in last year’s playoffs. They’re not. The Raptors come into this showdown like Tony Montana bursting onto the balcony in Scarface’s final scene--grizzled, dead-eyed, and, above all, reloaded. DeMar DeRozan is better than he was a year ago. They’ve developed second-year player Norm Powell into a sneaky weapon on both sides of the floor. Kyle Lowry is still Kyle Lowry. Most importantly, they spent the season reinforcing their roster with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, two players whose skill sets seem tailor-made to frustrate the Cavaliers' best-laid plans.

The Cavaliers, for their part, are still an offensive juggernaut, but their defense is now more broken colander than gritty brick wall. They may have swept the Pacers, and they may still have two or three of the best five players in the series, but they feel unstable. They rely heavily on the play of a handful of geriatrically old veterans who are always candidates for sudden debilitating injury. This is, without a doubt, the shakiest a LeBron-led team has felt since the 2013-14 Miami Heat team that fell apart against the Spurs in the Finals. Even with all of that said, we’re still talking about LeBron James’s Cavaliers, and there’s still a sense that, when push comes to shove, they can flip a switch and get the job done without even breaking too much of a sweat. The Raptors' path to victory is wider by a significant margin than it was eleven months ago. It might be enough to knock off the defending champions, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Give me Cavaliers in 7.