Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors
Tonight at 8:30 PM EST on ESPN, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors will face off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavaliers come into this series having swept the Atlanta Hawks while the Toronto Raptors were extended to seven games by the Miami Heat. The Cavaliers are yet to have been seriously challenged in the playoffs while the Raptors have been pushed by both the Pacers and Heat.
For the Cavaliers, the key to this series is punching the Raptors in the mouth early and taking a 2-0 series lead. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love have all been fantastic in these playoffs and so far appear to be an unstoppable trio. If those three guys come out guns blazing and cruise to a 2-0 series lead, the Raptors will have a very difficult time believing in themselves after what they've been through in the first two rounds. It will be very easy for the Raptors to think they've gotten as far as they can should they go down 0-2.
If on the other hand, the Raptors get a split in Cleveland, they'll start to believe that they have what it takes to win this series. Whether they actually have what it takes to win the series may be another matter, but if they do have what it takes to win the series, they won't know they do unless they first believe in themselves.
I've already talked about the Cavaliers' trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, but I'm yet to talk about the Raptors "big three", which consists of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas. Lowry and DeRozan are both explosive players in the backcourt and Valanciunas is becoming one of the better big men in the NBA.
In Game 7 against the Heat, DeMar DeRozan went off for 28 points while Kyle Lowry exploded for 35 points. Those two players have the potential to take over a game and "go wild" in terms of putting up a bunch of points. When you tag-team them with a solid big man like Jonas Valanciunas, who averages 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, you suddenly have a very competitive team.
The big obstacle that the Raptors need to overcome is the ankle injury that Jonas Valanciunas sustained against the Heat. He won't play in Game 1 tonight and he is doubtful for Game 2. With Valanciunas out, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to combine for at least 60 points and get solid production from some of their role players like DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Bismack Biyombo, and Terrence Ross. That's not to say that the Cavaliers don't need their role players like J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, and Channing Frye to play well. They do, but not to the same extent that the Raptors do. If the Raptors want to win this series, their roll players will need to step up and give DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry the support that they need.
In terms of predicting the outcome of this series, I'm going to say that the Cavaliers win this series in five games. I believe the Raptors can win two games in this series, but the problem is that the Cavaliers will want to be as rested as possible for the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers know that the Warriors and Thunder are engaged in a fierce battle that likely goes seven games and they want to make sure that they go into the NBA Finals as the team that is fresher.
The sliver of hope for the Raptors is that they have two guys in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry who have what it takes to put up a bunch of points and get hot. If those two guys play their best basketball in four out of seven games, perhaps they can shock the world. I don't see it happening, but it's not impossible.