And then there were four…
The NBA playoffs started what seems to be eons ago with 16 teams in the tournament, and now we are down to just a quartet, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of those teams.
Tonight, the Cavs and Raptors open the Eastern Conference Finals at Quicken Loans Arena.
The two teams met three times in the regular season with the Raptors winning two of them, although Cleveland’s starting point guard in one of the losses was Jared Cunningham, because both Kyrie Irving and Matthew Dellavedova were out nursing injuries.
Remember that the Raptors finished one game behind Cleveland for the best record in the East, and they also have an all star backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Toronto is one of the league’s best shooting teams from three point range, with the 5th best percentage in the league at 37%.
The also take a ton of free throws, ranking third in the NBA in that department. LeBron James alluded to their shooters making a lot of pump fakes and that Cleveland defenders must stand their ground.
Despite those numbers, the Raptors rank 13th in the league in scoring (the Cavs are 8th), so Toronto doesn’t play as fast as the wine and gold, something Tyronn Lue’s club will try to take advantage of, pushing the tempo.
Defensively, the Raptors rank one spot above the Cavs in points allowed per game, giving up a tenth of a point per contest less than the Cavaliers.
They do rank 5th in field goal percentage against, but they are second worst in the league in defending the three point shot.
So, if the Cavs want to get to the basket they will need to do so in transition because Toronto is going to do what the Hawks did, pack the paint, and allow their opponents to beat them from outside.
Of course, that didn’t work for Atlanta.
The Raptors are a little more physically imposing as the Hawks are, especially if Jonas Valanciunas can play in the series. If we can, they have three solid inside defenders in Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola.
They also have DeMarre Carroll, who has given LeBron James more trouble than most defenders.
The Cavs can counter these inside presences by using Channing Frye to draw the big men away from the hoop, and you may see some Timofey Mozgov to bother the Raptors’ bigs defensively.
Remember that until he was hurt, Valanciunas was probably Toronto’s best player in the Miami series, so he can be a force.
As has been a constant during these playoffs, a big key for Cleveland defensively will be stopping penetration, particularly by Lowry. This means once again all eyes are on Irving, who has been much better in the post-season on the defensive end.
Two other factors could come into play in this series. One would be fatigue. The Raptors have played 14 games since the regular season ended, while Cleveland has played eight. With the extra intensity involved in playoff games, you have to wonder if the Cavs’ fresher legs give them an advantage.
The other thing is the satisfaction level of Toronto. Are they happy with getting to the conference finals for the first time in their history? Sometimes your goal isn’t what you think it is.
If the Cavs continue to play like they did in the first two rounds, they will be Eastern Conference champions again. There isn’t any reason why that level of play cannot continue.