Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Raptors are back in Cleveland, looking to exorcise their playoff demons and finally dethrone King James and the Cavs. The only difference is, this year, the two teams are meeting up one round earlier. Oh, and also, that the underdog Raps have a realistic shot at pulling off an upset.
OK, fine. Maybe you’ve heard that one before too. But this time, it’s not just Toronto diehards predicting “Raptors in 7.” The rest of the NBA world is at least allowing for the possibility too. (Even if no one’s picking them to actually, you know, win.)
It won’t be easy, of course. Here’s our picks for the keys to the series, and the Raptors maybe, potentially, hopefully avoiding a repeat of last year and another playoff loss to Cleveland.
Sure, the Raptors may have dropped the season series to the Cavs 1-3, but that’s kind of misleading. Considering all four games were played without Toronto’s key trade deadline acquisition, a 6’10” big man who can rebound, block shots and shoot the three. (And who’s got big game experience against Cleveland.) Kevin Love told ESPN that Ibaka gives the Raptors “a whole different look,” and he’s right: he can play the stretch-four alongside a now-healthy Valanciunas, or give the team the versatility to matchup against the small-ball lineups that dominate the modern NBA. Or, to put it another way: Luis-frickin’-Scola was the Raptor’s starting PF against the Cavs last year.
When Masai Ujiri traded for defensive stopper P.J. Tucker at the deadline, it wasn’t for the rest of the regular season. It was for this series. During last year’s Conference Finals, LeBron bodied the Raptors like you playing your little brother in NBA 2K17, averaging 26 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists, while shooting over 62 percent. Tucker is here to make sure that doesn’t happen again. To do this. Only for an entire series instead of just one game. If he succeeds, the unrestricted free agent can earn himself a chance to cash in on his rep as a certified LeBron stopper. If he doesn’t, well…
The Raptors can’t let up.
Dwane Casey likes to say that this team seems to play better with their backs against the wall. And fine, that may work against a talented but inexperienced team like the Bucks, but it’s not going to fly against the defending champs. That means no more falling apart when calls aren’t going their way or blowing 20+ point leads. This series is already going to be hard enough as is. The Raptors can’t afford to make it any harder on themselves.
Can DeRozan get to the line?
The Raptors’ 139-million-dollar man averaged 8.3 free throws a game against Milwaukee, and Cleveland will do their best to keep DeMar from getting any easy points against them. The Toronto bench will be key if they want to pull off an upset, but not nearly as crucial as DeRozan playing up to his All-Star form.
Will the Cavs be rusty or well-rested?
Thanks to their first-round sweep of the Pacers, Cleveland will be coming into Game 1 tonight after a full week off. And after a regular season where LeBron led the league in minutes per game, that extra rest ought to mean fresh legs for the best player in the NBA. Or an early-series hangover thanks to the long layoff. Then again, we heard the same thing last year after the Cavs swept both of their first two series and I probably don’t need to remind you how that played out.
Can the Raptors stop Cleveland’s three-point shooting?
Cleveland was dangerous enough from beyond the arc last year, and then they went ahead and added Kyle Korver, giving Toronto yet another sharpshooter to defend. They’re not the Splash Brothers, but all those shooters bombing away means no lead is ever truly safe.
What can they learn from last year?
Being able to make adjustments is the key to any playoff series, and this Raptors squad has been retooled and revamped for exactly this purpose: to (finally) get past the Cavaliers in a best-of-seven. Toronto’s bench is deeper, Valanciunas is healthy, and their lineup is more versatile. This is the best the team has looked in years. Now they just have to play like it.
Can Drake bring his A-game on the sidelines?
OK, so maybe the Raptors’ answer to Spike Lee’s attempts at getting in the Cavs’ heads didn’t exactly work last year. And the only person who legitimately believes Drake is a factor in this series is Drake. But hey, every little bit helps.