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Pre-Game

Gameday: Cavaliers @ Raptors, Game 1, May 1

The successful Toronto Raptors ‘culture reset’ wielded copious firsts, yet the true test will be toppling the player and team it was created to defeat – LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Three times the charm:

From the moment the words “culture change” escaped Masai Ujiri’s lips, every alteration and step forward was made with this eventual showdown in mind. That it comes a round earlier than expected is a testament to the Raptors’ ability to successfully expedite all facets of their plan in year one.

Breaking it down, the three-tier attack called for an offensive overhaul, maintaining core consistency while growing and integrating a youthful support system. Although the latter two roster goals seem almost at odds with one another, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather, few franchises attempt to make these shifts in concert. Fewer still have the diligence or patience to see the task through. That the Raptors experienced concurrent success on both fronts speaks to a unified squad willing to trust and sacrifice. At their heart, these Raptors embody the very essence of what it means to be a team.

This is reflected in the club’s multitude of achievements this season. While the two power houses in the West occupied most pundit’s minds, it is the Raptors who held the distinction of being the only top-five defense and offense. Toronto was the only squad to never lose three games in a row and join an exclusive group of three (Warriors/Cavaliers) to advance past the first round in three successive seasons.

Despite all their accomplishments, however, the only litmus test that matters is taking down the team who sparked the need for this culture reset. Although the Raptors have lofty goals, make no mistake – this next challenge will be the true measuring stick.

So, the Raptors take to the court this evening to face the NBA’s master, LeBron James, and his Cavaliers. But, this time they do so with the knowledge every drop of sweat, every tweak, every step they’ve taken  was for this opportunity — to slay their nemesis.

The King’s realm is ripe for the picking:

Coincidentally, while the Raptors experienced their ascent, LeBron James’ Cavaliers suffered slippage and arguably the most trying campaign of his  career. In truth, the signs were there last season. Cleveland ranked 20th defensively pre All-Star Break, and their regression continued with the squad bottoming out with a 29th rank to finish this season.

Unlike Toronto who chose to invest in their core and develop their assets, Cleveland experienced massive roster turnover. Much of this was precipitated by Kyrie Irving’s request for and eventual trade. With the new players not meshing on or off the court the Cavaliers were the most active team at the trade deadline moving out six players while bringing back four. In spite of getting younger and more athletic the team still showcased a porous defense.

Cleveland’s main issue is the lack of two way players on their roster. Moreover, they endured early turmoil, late season injuries and a rush to integrate and develop chemistry. Meanwhile, if not for James Harden, LeBron James may well have collected his fifth MVP. Like a fine wine improving with age, James is defying the basketball Gods. For the first time in his career he played all 82 games averaging the most minutes of any NBA player.

Perhaps this benchmark James sought to tick off his basketball bucket list will be his undoing though. Especially because he also logged heavy minutes (41.3) through the first round. Conversely, Kyle Lowry (36.2) and DeMar DeRozan (36.3) are the only Raptors averaging over 30 minutes per game. More importantly, in the past two playoff showdowns James’ squad played the bare minimum of games prior to playing the Raptors and held home court advantage. This year the shoe is on the other foot as Toronto is seeded higher, are healthier, younger and have the rest advantage.

Ample motivation:

In case the past two ousts aren’t still resonating, Dwane Casey might want to cue up a few videos from last year’s Game 1 in Cleveland. James and co. took great satisfaction in treating the game like an All-Star match with a backboard dunk and jokes of stopping to drink beer.

As Dwane Casey said, it’s important to respect Cleveland and LeBron, but equally important not to pay them too much respect. Last night, the best regular season defense (Celtics) beat the talented up and coming Sixers. Despite being undermanned. the Celtics play a fundamentally sound system developed via consistency over 82 games.

Likewise, the Raptors should approach Game 1 and the series with the knowledge they have been the most consistent team in the East.

Playing Possum?

Were the Raptors amd Dwane Casey playing a bit coy in the last two meetings between the teams? It makes complete sense Casey presumed an eventual run in with the King, so why give the Cavaliers any hints to what was coming.

Of benefit to the Raptors is the seven games of film they could utilize from the first round series. Clearly no one player is going to stop LeBron, but if the Wizards series offered any hints, OG Anunoby is a player who rattled some cages. Markieff Morris tried to lure him into extracurriculars as did a few other Wizards. No doubt Morris and others were attempting to throw the rookie off his game. But, what the tomfoolery proved was OG was the one who got into the Wizards heads.

Based on his recent comments to the press he’s eager to take on James. He’ll get help from Pascal Siakam, possibly Serge Ibaka and maybe even Norman Powell. Still, the rookie versus the King is the matchup Raptors fans are anticipating.

Oh hey, if you see Paul Pierce – can you send this his way…

Five Postseason Stats:

These five stats are keys to focus on between the squads in the series.

Perimeter Scoring:

Raptors rank second in three point efficiency (41.0%) and makes (11.0 per game) while taking the 12th most (26.8) attempts. Comparatively, the Cavaliers struggled from deep. Despite attempting the second most treys (32.4), Cleveland rank 15th in efficiency (32.2%) and 8th in makes (10.4). It’s unlikely they keep shooting this poorly and in fact showed signs of improving in Game 7. Coincidentally, George Hill returned for this match providing another playmaker on the floor.

Assists: 

Raptors rank 8th (22.2) while the Cavaliers rank 15th (17.1). Presumably with VanVleet back it should lead to additional assists. Washington is athletic and although they regressed late in the season, at one point in December they sat 4th defensively. Much of the reason for the Cavaliers 15th rank  (17.1) had to do with Hill’s injury and the way Indy chose to guard LeBron one and one and block the passing lanes. Cleveland averaged 23.4 assists in season, so hopefully the Raptors spent quality film sessions reviewing how the Pacers lowered that number by 6.1 assists per game.

Rebounds:

Toronto struggled on the glass ranking 11th in total boards (40.5). Fortunately, the Cavaliers struggled in this area as well ranking 14th (38.7). Certainly the team who capitalizes on the glass will garner an advantage in second chance and fast break scoring opportunities.

Pace:

The Cavaliers rank dead last in pace.while the Raptors are 7th. Pushing the pace against the Cavaliers who haven’t demonstrated an ability to consistently defend in transition will be key. The other benefit would be tiring out a squad already fatigued. Most are saying LeBron isn’t tired or affected by the physical series. Yet, James experienced cramping in Game 7, which is generally directly related to calcium absorption, loss of liquids and fatigue.

Fourth Quarter Defense:

It’s a testament to the Raptors they maintained prowess in fourth quarter defense while missing a cornerstone of the unit. This dominance highlights Toronto’s depth, an area paying arguably bigger dividends in the postseason due to teams shortening their benches. The Cavaliers rank 9th defensively (112.4). They also struggle to score in this frame (99.5 ) which equates to a negative differential of -12.9. In both offense and net differential the Cavs rank 14th.

Although the Raptors offense is stellar in the frame (111.9) it ranks 9th. But, since the Raptors are the top defensive squad in the fourth it also places them first in differential with a positive +21.3.

The combination of the Cavaliers negative differential and Raptors positive placement represents a 34.2 difference. The news gets worse for the Cavs as the Pacers ranked nine positions lower in both offensive and defensive ratings than Toronto in season.

Lineups:

Returning to the focus on constancy, Casey smartly used his players predominantly with three key lineups throughout the season. The starters, bench mob and hybrid unit. Credit to the Raptors coach for staying committed to putting the youngsters into critical game situations. It prepared them for the playoffs and clutch time moments.

Pundits pointed to the two (three?) occasions the Raptors reverted to iso-ball sets in the clutch this season. The more relevant point might be the fact the Raptors were seldom in close games. Still, it is an area the squad will need to be cognizant of, particularly in terms of keeping the ball moving.

Lineup Notes:

Raptors: 

  • With VanVleet only playing (aside from 3 minutes) in Game 6, the bench unit hasn’t received it’s normal run. That accounts for such small samples for the Raptors bench units. If he had played the entirety of round one. undoubtedly the bench unit would be much closer to the top lineup usage for the Cavaliers.
  • With the uncertainty of whether Lue will move Love to center (or Green) to play a smaller lineup the question is whether Casey will stick with Valanciunas. JV  made strides in the first round (and this season) demonstrating improvements defensively, but Love is a much more skilled player than Gortat, Markieff Morris or Ian Mahinmi.
  • That said, one of the top ranked Toronto offensive lineups (again small sample size) featured the starters with Jakob Poeltl (157.0) replacing JV, so there are options.
  • Not surprisingly the two best defensive lineups are a hybrid unit which includes DeRozan, Lowry,  JV and Wright. One featured Miles (33.60) and the other Siakam (57.60).
  • The same two lineups produced the best net rating. With Miles (plus +84.9) and with Siakam (plus +77.8).

Cavaliers: 

  • The key takeaway from the Cavaliers best lineup surrounds the health of Love and Hill. Both are integral parts of the Cavaliers system.
  • Love(11.4)  is the only player aside from James averaging double digit scoring in the first round.
  • It could be argued the initial success of the Cavaliers following the trades came with Calderon running the point. This is reflected in the postseason with Jose helping to produce the second best offense (133.20). The problem is what Calderon gives up on the opposite side of the hardwood.
  • Jeff Green is on at least one of the two best lineups in each key category. The problem is he’s inconsistent.

Lue’s Roster Shuffle:

Throughout the season Tyronn Lue has been quick to shuffle his rotations if he’s not recognizing immediate results. This trend was also prevalent in round one with Rodney Hood and Jeff Green getting a quick hook from the starting lineup following the initial loss.

Further tweaks were made due to health (Hill), but the big change witnessed Canadian Tristan Thompson’s reinsertion into the starting lineup for Game 7. What is surprising about this move is Thompson was a DNP/CD in three games in the series and had a cumulative 23 minutes to his credit entering Game 7.

Rotations:

TORONTO RAPTORS STARTING 5:
Point Guard:Kyle Lowry
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan
Small Forward: OG Anunoby
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka
Center:Jonas Valanciunas

TORONTO RAPTORS RESERVES:
Point Guard: Fred VanVleet,  Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
Shooting Guard:  Norman Powell
Small Forward: C.J. Miles
Power ForwardPascal Siakam
Center: Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira

No injuries on either team, at least not ones keeping anyone off the court.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: George Hill
Shooting Guard: J.R. Smith
Small Forward: *LeBron James
Power Forward: Kevin Love
Center: Tristan Thompson

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS RESERVES:
Point Guard: Jose Calderon
Shooting Guard: Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood
Small Forward: Jeff Green, Cedi Osman
Power Forward: Ante Zizic
Center:  Larry Nance, Kendrick Perkins 

NBA Math:

Clicking on the following links takes you to NBA Math’s tweets featuring which players perform best on certain shots. Also included are the Raptors and Cavaliers TPA from the first round. The key difference is LeBron James is on an island by himself and the Raptors had more players than any of the remaining teams above the line. Yet, another sign of depth and one that bodes well for the team with Freddy back.

Game Details:

Venue: Air Canada Center

Time: 8:00 p.m. ET

TV: TSN in Canada, ESPN in U.S.

Full Series Schedule:

The Line:

The oddsmakers favor the Raptors in Game 1 with a -6.5 spread and an over/under of 214.5.  Neither is overly surprising given the Raptors haven’t played since Friday and are on the court they lost on only seven times this season. Couple that with the Cavaliers arriving on one day rest, having to travel, play the full seven games in a physical scrappy series and questions surrounding the health of Love and Hill.

Game 1 Odds: Raptors -6.5 | over/under 214
NBA Series Odds: Raptors -240 | Cavaliers +190
NBA Championship Odds: Raptors +1200 |Cavaliers +800

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