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Raptors-Cavaliers Series Preview: Raptors Republic Roundtable

64 mins read

We’re in full preview mode, with a podcast this morning, a deep data dive, and a Q&A with the Cleveland Cavaliers side. This, though, is the big one, the real test of whether a season of change for the Toronto Raptors has a crew of Raptors writers feeling any different about them this time around. Sure, the Raptors will really be measured against the Cavaliers on the court, but our collective faith in them – or lack thereof – is at least a glimpse into the effectiveness of the culture reset.

As a reminder, here’s the schedule for the series:

Here’s the tale of the tape:

And here are the projected rotations to start:

And now, most of the Raptors Republic staff, roundtable style.

Why will this time be different?

William Lou: Beyond the shrinking talent gap between the two sides, the Raptors are better suited for playing both ends of the 3-point line. Toronto held opponents to the fewest 3-point makes in both the regular season and the first round, while also making the 5th most threes per game. Executing that scheme against LeBron is obviously a tougher challenge, but it won’t be outscored 183-81 at the 3-point line like last year.

Tim Chisholm: Because Cleveland isn’t very good. Their offense is a shell of what it once was (they are 13th out of 16 NBA teams in the Playoffs in offensive efficiency), LeBron and co. could barely get past a tough-but-one-dimensional Indiana Pacers team, and both Kevin Love and George Hill are far below 100%. LeBron has always carried a heavy load in the postseason, but this year he is carrying the entire load for the Cavs, and his body started to show the effects of it in Game 7 against Indiana. Whatever happens in this series, very little from what has happened in the last two years carries weight this postseason.

Katie Heindl: It’s Cedi Osman’s team now. Well, it is when the Cavs are down by twenty and LeBron is so disgusted with everyone that he sits for the rest of the game, but it shines a light on some essential differences this time around. The first being that this Cleveland is, by virtue of their roster, a whole new team and I’m excited to see Toronto’s bench go up against LeBron’s reserves, especially if we’re looking at a closer-to-full-throttle VanVleet in the mix. Second, the Cavs are fallible. In the two years prior their position in the finals seemed an inevitability, but in their first round against the Pacers we saw the team struggle, lose, and while the fact remains that LeBron can carry the whole team on his back, he can’t do it for four games straight. Most importantly, it’s a different Raptors team. If the entire culture reset was undertaken while banking on the hopes that the Cavs would get knocked out early in the playoffs and we’d never have to face them then what, really, was the point? Symbolically, they were/LeBron was always our Sisyphean task.

Sahal Abdi: As much as I’d like to say it’ll be oh-so-different because “the Raptors are X, Y, and Z compared to last season”, it’s more or less how debilitating (and inconsistent) the Cavaliers have looked recently. LeBron doesn’t have the help he’s been used to having these last few years. His role players are either aging, wildly inconsistent, or just not very good. If the Raptors do pull out this series win (which will definitely be the biggest feat in this team’s franchise history), a large part of it will be the lack of supporting talent around King James.

Vivek Jacob: This is a far better team than the two previous iterations that went up against the Cavs. The bench strength is real and we saw how much of a difference they can make when Fred VanVleet puts everyone in roles they’re most comfortable with. The Raptors are an incredible home team and I expect that trend to continue. They’re improving on the road and so, with home court advantage, I expect one road win to be good enough to take the series.

Matt Shantz: There are lots of reasons to believe this year could be different. The Cavs are struggling, LeBron admits to being tired (and has already been dealing with leg cramps) after a tough seven game series, the Raptors have more offensive punch this season, and Toronto is deeper. And that’s just scratching the surface. There are a lot of reasons why this year could be different, but as long as LeBron exists there is no certainty in this statement.

Alex Gres: Two extremes are facing off – a collective team as deep as the Pacific, against LeBron’s one-man show. This time, he has no back court All-Star beside him, and is surrounded by a cast of young unproven players. And for once, Toronto comes in as the rested squad. This is as good a chance as any team ever had of knocking off the reigning king of the East in the last eight seasons.

Louis Zatzman: This will be different because of on Monsieur Anunoby. And because ever sign up until now since the start of the season has pointed to this being different.

Joshua Howe: It feels cliché to note at this point, but this is the best iteration of the Raptors we’ve ever seen. They’re deep, Fred VanVleet has returned (and looked good in Game 6), their two best players are healthy and haven’t been playing heavy minutes, and their new style has translated to the postseason with only a few bumps. On the other side of things, this is the worst supporting cast LeBron James has had in years, the Cavs defense is porous, and they’re playing their superstar so many minutes that, at times, he’s looked mortal. This is the best chance the Raptors have ever had at taking down The King.

Shyam Baskaran: I’m not entirely convinced that it’ll certainly be different, but it can be. The numbers speak for themselves – every meaningful metric says the Raptors are the superior team. Their stats speak louder, their system is more functional, and their depth is unparalleled. Not to mention, the Cavaliers really are as vulnerable as we’ve ever seen them. LeBron’s supporting cast has been as bad as we’ve seen since his return to Cleveland, and if the Raps can contain all of those guys, it puts the kind of pressure on LeBron that he’s never really shouldered before.

Gavin MacPherson: This time will be different because this is the best the Raptors have ever been and the worst the Cavs have been during LeBron’s second stint.

Anthony Doyle: The Raptors are healthy and rested this time around, and the Cavaliers aren’t. There’s a bunch of reasons I could’ve given here, from the Raptors depth against the weakness of Cleveland’s bench, the new offense which worked against Washington, the fact that Cleveland’s defense has been a sieve all season, and despite relatively good numbers against the Pacers, there were signs of those problems persisting. Really though, for me, it comes down to the fact that Kyle Lowry is healthy for the first playoff run in a long time, Jonas Valanciunas is healthy, who wasn’t in 2016, and the Raptors have had three days off to enter the series against a Cleveland team that relies too much on LeBron, who looked exhausted at the end of game seven against the Pacers. Now he has a 50-hour turnaround to prepare for the Raptors, and this Raptors team is built to sustain, with no one having played more than 33 minutes in their closeout game against the Wizards.

Blake Murphy: For a lot of reasons. The Raptors are better equipped to wage war at the 3-point line this time around, limiting opponent threes and hitting far more themselves. They’re deeper, and have a relative fatigue advantage. They seem to have a better sense of who they are and how they need to play, for whatever value such ethereals hold. More than anything, though, I don’t think the Raptors are as breakable. Two years ago, they were gassed by the time they reached Cleveland and I’m not sure they ever thought they could beat him. Last year, they talked a big enough game, but the sense was that they were simply being told they should believe. Masai Ujiri had gotten them the pieces they thought they needed, after all. In the end, it was an even worse version of the team that broke quickly around Lowry’s injury trouble. I think they genuinely believe more this year, and that resoluteness is important in a series like this. You need supporting guys like Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby who are unflappable. I know this is assuming the psychological to a degree, something I normally hesitate to do, so there are plenty of tactical reasons the Raptors – an objectively better team – match up better.

How has your confidence level changed in terms of toppling the Cavaliers compared to in the last two meetings? Did a 4-2 series victory against the Wizards shift your faith in the Raptors in either direction?

William Lou: Definitely. The Raptors showed growth by finally translating their regular season style over to the playoffs, and when they briefly deviated from the plan in Game 4, the team was quick to adjust. Lowry is quietly thriving, DeRozan was huge when called upon Fred VanVleet also looks to be over his shoulder injury.

Tim Chisholm: I’ve long carried the torch for Cleveland’s chief advantage over Toronto being mental. My confidence in Toronto as a collection of players and coaches against Cleveland as a collection of players and coaches remains very high, but this is all about how mentally prepared Toronto’s players are to believe that they are, in fact, the better team. This season has been all about healing mental scars, so my confidence is higher than it was last year, but only seeing how they comport themselves in Game 1 will give me a sense of how I think they’ll handle this series.

Katie Heindl: “Toppling” goes well with the Sisyphus reference in my last answer, thank you. The win against the Wizards is good is only because of allowing for a few more (maybe 1) days of rest and then, I hope, a lot of practice. Coming up with new stuff to throw at Cleveland on the fly in this series is going to be everything. The Raptors can’t rest on their laurels or come out slow for even one game because a deficit won’t easily be made up in this match. But I have faith. And I’m surprised to see so many people already calling it just by virtue of the Cav’s last game. It was a given we were going to have to play them at some point, like, we can’t act surprised that this is happening, we knew it was coming.

Sahal Abdi: I was part of the fringe minority of those who believed Toronto wouldn’t be troubled by the Wizards. I forecasted that series to end in five games, with Washington barely pulling out that one win. I was wrong. The Wizards fought hard, but the talent and depth Toronto possessed was too much to handle. The thing most people tend to forget about the NBA Playoffs (or really, just playoffs in any professional league) is that it all boils down to matchups. The Wizards matched up well with Toronto, and as bad as the Cavs looked versus Indiana — they match up even better with Toronto than Washington does. The series win versus Washington didn’t do much for me, as an impending matchup with LeBron James seemed inevitable.

Vivek Jacob: n terms of confidence growing over the three years, let’s see: As much as I enjoyed those two home wins, I thought 2016 was fool’s gold. In my opinion, the Cavs let up after their ridiculous blowouts in Games 1 and 2 of that series and 2017 was much truer to form. My confidence in the Raptors’ ability to win at the Q is still pretty shaky. The 132-129 loss on March 21 was just as encouraging as the 112-106 loss on April 3 was dispiriting. The Raptors haven’t come anywhere near touching them in Cleveland in the two previous playoff series and so it’s pretty much a case of me needing to see it first before I believe it. What did encourage me from the Wizards series is the progression they showed in the road games. They failed to match the intensity in Game 3, should have had Game 4 but for a fourth quarter collapse, and then relished the challenge of Game 6 and closed out the series quite professionally.

Matt Shantz: Game 3 against Washington bothered me, Game 4 then worried me. With that said, Washington struggles with consistency but still has a high ceiling with Wall and Beal. The Raptors won in 6 without overtaxing anyone, which is a success. The last two years I thought it was possible that the Raptors could upset the Cavs, in what equated to a punchers chance. This year, I actually believe it is the more likely outcome…even if only slightly.

Alex Gres: The way Cleveland’s series went against the Pacers gave me more belief than anything the Raptors did in the first round. Toronto handled its business, albeit in a series that could have gone 5 games instead of 6. Unless the Cavaliers are pulling an exquisite long con to lull the Raptors into overconfidence, they look vulnerable.

Louis Zatzman: My confidence shifts daily. Probably hourly. I find it so hard to separate confidence as an analyst (of sorts) from confidence as a fan. I probably can’t separate them, but that being said, I am as of writing the beginning of this sentence confident in the Raptors. In my heart of hearts, I probably knew the Raptors would lose in past years. I don’t know that this year. And 4-2 over the Wizards seems reasonable. My confidence is unmoved as a result.

Joshua Howe: My confidence in the Raptors is as high as it’s ever been despite them matching up with the best player in the game yet again. Much like with the Wizards, the regular season matchups won’t count for a lot going into this. One game featured the Cavs prior to the trade deadline, a couple featured both teams dealing with injuries, and more than one game had the Raptors in particular exhausted from tough portions of the schedule. I can’t say the Wizards series substantially shifted my faith in the team in either direction, really, but it was nice to get the Game 1 curse out of the way as well as bounce back after the late shortcomings in Game 4. Now it’s just about basketball, without distractions. And the Raptors are pretty good at that.

Shyam Baskaran: My confidence is right about where it was before the playoffs began, so the Wizards series didn’t change much. The Raptors took care of business against an 8th seed, and probably could’ve wrapped up that series in 5 games if they were a bit more focused. Having said that, it did shift my faith in a few specific elements of their play – namely, JV’s play on both ends of the court (making him a fourth quarter option), the play of Delon in big moments, and the true importance of Fred in steadying the Bench Mob.

Gavin MacPherson: My confidence is shaken a little bit because that should have been an easy 5 game win but the Raptors made it harder than it had to with bad personnel decisions and a late game meltdown. It’s hard enough to win a series against a LeBron team when you do everything right, there’s no room for mistakes like that in this series.

Anthony Doyle: My confidence is much higher than the past two years. This Raptors team is better, and this Cavaliers team is worse, than either of those years. As far as the Wizards series, it didn’t really move me either way. The two losses had their troubling signs, but things pointed towards the return of Fred VanVleet having the potential to right the ship, and that worked out in game 6. The Raptors won the minutes LeBron sat all season long, with a +35.9 net rating when he was on the bench, and they’ll need Fred to be a factor to do that once again, to help wear LeBron down as the series progresses.

Blake Murphy: The Wizards series didn’t really shift things much for me. It fell within the range of my expected outcomes, and the one major concern – how they closed Game 4 – was quickly remedied. Compared to previous years, though, my confidence in the Raptors is higher. I picked Cavs in 5 and Cavs in 6 the last two years, and I will not be doing that this year. I know all the caveats. It’s LeBron, and it’s the Raptors in the playoffs. I have to believe that there is real value in the change the Raptors have undergone, and that 88-89 games of data tells us something meaningful. That the Raptors are a betting favorite is at the same time affirming and unsettling.

There is not stopping LeBron James. There’s often not even any slowing him. Still, who do you trust most on him: OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, or even Norman Powell? And where do you land on the “guard him 1-on-1 and stay home on shooters” or “load up on him and make teammates beat you” debate?

William Lou: I think everyone will agree that Pascal Siakam is the best assignment on James, and given how much success Indiana had in the first round, forcing James to beat you with scoring seems to be the obvious choice. But everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and I’m sure James will find some type of counter, eventually. One of the main reasons why Indiana got so far was because Cleveland’s shooters heaved a collective brick when given open looks, which won’t last long.

Tim Chisholm: I think that OG and Siakam are your primary options. They have length and quick feet, enough to stand in his way a bit. You have to more or less accept that he is going to exhaust himself scoring 40+, which is fine, and that being the case there is no sense in also leaving shooters open. I mean, Cleveland’s shooters haven’t really been all that threatening this month, but unless you think LeBron can score 100+ points in four our of seven games, you might as well choke off his release valves and passing lanes rather than throwing too many players at him.

Katie Heindl: Chasing him out of the paint worked for the Pacers until he cooly seemed to shrug, step back, and shoot threes like that’s what he meant to do all along while also tiring out the defence. Likewise, it’s tough to stop a freight train coming right at you. That said, size isn’t going to make a difference, if anything going like for like (or as closest as the Raptors have) with Ibaka could be disastrous. Anunoby and Siakam, with their speed and length, respectively, are Toronto’s best options for fast and loose guarding and the potential to frustrate. I am nowhere with that debate because picking only one response to this team is like staring down a five-alarm fire with one bucket of water.

Sahal Abdi: I think Toronto’s best bet is shuffling OG Anunoby (who will presumably continue to start at SF) and Pascal Siakam. Both have similar body-types to the goa-, I mean LeBron James and possess above-average defensive ability. Again, it is LeBron so claiming “above-average defensive ability” really just means “below-average defensive ability”. Indiana seemed to flip their strategy around a bit in their series with Cleveland in terms of doubling LeBron, forcing his teammates to produce and on the other hand, allowing him to isolate while suffocating the other Cavaliers. I don’t know if there’s a correct answer to this, but I would double LeBron when necessary while relying on stout defensive rotations to at least contest the outside shooting of Cleveland. It’s much easier said than done.

Vivek Jacob: OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam stand out as the best bets for me. VanVleet had a quote from Sunday’s practice about not respecting LeBron James being the greatest respect he can show to him and I believe both Anunoby and Siakam would play him that way. There’s no intimidation factor or inferiority complex there. So, with that being said, I land on the guard him 1-on-1 and stay home on shooters side of the fence. Those two guys are good enough to do it as well as you can hope to, and I think their role players thrive when there isn’t attention paid to them. This allows you to still play up on them as much as possible. The Raptors did this in stretches during their home blowout of the Cavs during the season, so it shows they’re capable of it.

Matt Shantz: OG gets the first shot. Pascal gets the second. Rotate as needed. Yes, we shouldn’t expect either of them to stop LeBron. You know why? Because no one can do that. You only hope to slow him down and OG and Siakam each bring different styles to that puzzle. I leave heavily towards guarding LeBron one-on-one and staying with shooters, and cutting under screens whenever possible. I am fine if the Cavs beat the Raptors and LeBron averages 50+ points. I’d far rather that then being beat by the likes of Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, and Jose Calderon all getting wide open jumpers.

Alex Gres: OG Anunoby will draw the first assignment, and can be swapped for Siakam as the game flow dictates. After the impressive first round OG had, I would give him the slight edge over Pascal on my trust spectrum, but both will have to make him sweat for Toronto to have success. I’d start with guarding him 1-on-1, and adjust between games if it’s not working. Love and Korver cannot be allowed to have open looks like they often do against the Raptors, and some of their other guys can get hot as well if left open. Make LeBron beat you, throw our best defenders at him, and hopefully this inhuman specimen finally gets fatigued, settles for jumpers, and misses enough for the Raps to take 4 games.

Louis Zatzman: I trust Anunoby most on LeBron James. I know that Siakam is likely the most correct answer, but it ruins a lot of the team’s best-laid plans trying to line up Siakam’s minutes with James’. So Anunoby it must be. And I am confident he can do a passable job. I land on starting 1-on-1 and letting the game determine what happens. I trust Casey to make the right decisions there as the game goes on.

Joshua Howe: I trust OG and Siakam as the primary defenders on LeBron. They’re the two that match up with him best size-wise, and mobility-wise. OG was the one who probably guarded him the best during the regular season, and as the first round proved, the kid doesn’t get rattled. Ever. I expect him to start on James every game, and depending on how he does, his minutes may need to increase (he still hasn’t played any fourth quarter time in these playoffs). As for the debate, basketball is a team game, and LeBron knows it. He wants to win by getting his teammates involved and having them heat up from deep. He’s going to get his no matter what, so why not make him beat you on his own? If none of his teammates get comfortable (like, say, Kevin Love), it’s going to be a slog for the Cavs to hang with Toronto’s own high-powered offense.

Shyam Baskaran: Every year this is a question and every year the answer remains the same. This is LeBron – stopping or slowing him down aren’t feasible goals that you can focus your game plan around. But the manner in which you play him is something you can control. You’ve got to throw multiple bodies on him (so all of those guys are on that list). In my opinion, you stay at home on the shooters, but only if they’re really shooters. It’s a judgment call Casey will have to make and be willing to change even mid-game – like for example when you see guys like Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance or others (where you can afford to use their man to send a double team LeBron’s way). But staying at home on guys like Kevin Love, JR Smith, and Kyle Korver is an absolute must.

Gavin MacPherson: Pascal Siakam will probably give him the most trouble one on one but OG Anunoby will probably be the LeBron matchup that has the greatest impact on the series because of his offensive contributions and I hope he gets the responsibility more often than not. Whether you stay home on shooters depends on who the shooters are – if he’s out there with Kyle Korver or Kevin Love stay at home on those guys but make the JR Smiths and Jordan Clarksons of the rotation prove they’re a threat before you worry about them.

Anthony Doyle: If I had to pick a guy, it’s probably Pascal Siakam, but I think it’s more a matter of who gets him for which minutes. I don’t think you want LeBron getting too comfortable with any single defender, and you want varied looks to throw his way. At the same time, you have to take away his shooters. LeBron can and will drop 40 or more points against single coverage, which isn’t great, but LeBron the distributor can do more damage than LeBron the scorer, and it’s much harder to shut down a shooter once he gets his rhythm going, so the best approach is to never let them get started. If LeBron beats you by scoring, you tip your hat and move on to the next game.

Blake Murphy: I’m very much in the “stay home on shooters” camp. The Pacers showed a decent formula in forcing James to carry a ridiculous load, and they very nearly pulled off the upset. Nobody has a LeBron Stopper TM, but throwing OG Anunoby at him for as many minutes as he can handle and tasking Pascal Siakam with the rest of the load is at least a good way to exhaust him. Anunoby is very physical, and Siakam showed in earlier meetings he’s not afraid to pick James up full court and lean into him for entire possessions. Serge Ibaka is going to draw some of that assignment, too, a tenuous but perhaps necessary few minutes a game where the Raptors will have to be really careful of their defensive balance and Ibaka’s penchant for inviting unnecessary switches. You can’t let James get matched up on anyone but these three names, lest there be a 9-1-1 help situation that frees up shooters.

How comfortable are you maintaining the 10-man rotation as it is, including not only the all-bench unit in those rare moments LeBron James may sit and with Jonas Valanciunas as the team’s starting center? Are you tweaking any of the team’s approach here?

William Lou: The 10 man rotation is fine, and I’m actually on the #JVHIVE in this series. Punishing Kevin Love with pick-and-rolls for Valanciunas is probably my Plan A before downsizing with Serge Ibaka at center.

Tim Chisholm: This is not a Cleveland team worth tweaking for at all. In fact, tweaking for them just shows them a deference in the mental arena that I don’t think the Raptors can afford to give them. The Raptors should do exactly what they’ve been doing all year and all Playoffs. The Raptors are the number one seed, they need to play with the confidence of that reality, and make Cleveland adapt to them.

Katie Heindl: The only way Toronto will know what works is by allowing the Cavs to show us, and show us what clearly does not, but being ready with other options is key. I liked Lowry and bench against the Pacers because it freed Kyle up to shoot. I liked Fred being back—understatement of the year—because the chemistry of the bench came back. I am the most apprehensive of how Ibaka will fit, and for JV to know there are calls assuredly coming his way but to stay feeling himself. Whatever the rotation, we gotta be the sharks in this series and keep it moving to survive.

Sahal Abdi: For me, the all-bench unit isn’t as great an idea as some think. If I’m Dwane Casey, I’m primarily rotating two of Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and JV with three other rotation players. If there ever comes a time where fatigue becomes an issue (which is highly possible considering how physically taxing this series will be), I keep Lowry with four bench players. Kyle Lowry is the only Raptor with the ability to lead a bench unit single-handedly. He simply offers more in terms of running a functional, space-friendly offense.

Vivek Jacob: I’m not changing the starting unit unless there’s something the Cavs are doing that forces it, and I’m fine with the 10-man rotation. Hopefully, playing every other day doesn’t take too much of a toll on VanVleet’s shoulder. Dwane Casey has done a good job hiding the Ibaka-Siakam frontcourt but I suspect we’ll be seeing more of it over the course of this series.

Matt Shantz: Play the players that got you here. I’m a big advocate for sticking with the 10 man unit, including stretches with the bench-mob. Every line-up should have a slightly shorter leash, but game 6 against Washington is a great example of the advantage of depth. Wall and Beal were gassed in the fourth quarter, and the Raptors took the game straight at Washington with fresh legs.

Alex Gres: It looks like Thompson will get the starting nod if the end of the Pacers series is any indication, giving Casey no reason to move away from starting JV. In terms of the all-bench unit, they absolutely need to keep getting minutes. With the effect they had on keeping the Raptors stars fresh and Washington’s exhausted, I’d have a tough time arguing against that strategy against the Cavs.

Louis Zatzman: I think the 10-man rotation should be maintained until it is patently proven unusable. That hasn’t happened yet, and indeed, Fred is a minor deity bordering on major deity who will lead the bench mob to success.

Joshua Howe: I think Casey rolls with the usual rotation to start this series. Things may change—the Cavs playing Love at the five could make things difficult for Jonas Valanciunas, for example. But the team only just reinserted Fred VanVleet back into the rotation (with resounding success, mind you), and so we still have barely gotten to see the full Bench Mob together. I expect they will have a relatively long leash, and depth is not one of Cleveland’s strengths. There will be adjustments to make along the way in this series, but unless the Cavs prove they can make one or more of Toronto’s starters (who were excellent against the Wizards) unplayable, I think the rotation will remain pretty much intact, with the typical surprise Bebe/Norm appearance here and there.

Shyam Baskaran: I think the depth of the rotation has to remain what it is. Playing more guys actually helps when you play the Cavs in my view, because (other than LeBron), you’re not dealing with an especially talented group of players where the one-on-one matchups are necessarily going to dictate what happens. With question marks around their strategy and overall system, the Cavs can be beaten by teams that have a better and more disciplined system. So, if the bench unit is productive (the all-bench unit may be a stretch), I say you continue to use those guys. Given his amazing play in the first round, I would start the series with JV at the 5 and go from there. If there’s one thing Dwane Casey will have to show in this series, it will be his lineup flexibility. Given how unpredictable this matchup is, lineup decisions have to be fluid and responsive.

Gavin MacPherson: I’m pretty comfortable maintaining the 10 man rotation because the Cavs play a few guys that wouldn’t be able to crack that rotation. If Casey is smart about the rotations and keeps the all-bench unit from matching up with the Cavs best lineups I’m very much in favour of keeping the 10 man rotation and even reintroducing Norman Powell in short stints to throw a different defender at LeBron. The issue for JV is always going to be playing him against the matchups where he thrives. He will probably struggle against a Love-Lebron frontcourt tandem but there will be minutes when Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green, Larry Nance or maybe even Ante Zizic are out there, if you sit him to avoid a Love matchup then you need to get him back out there as soon one of the lesser frontcourt talents takes the floor. It’s also worthwhile to try attacking the mismatches on the offensive end – if Love misses a couple of threes and JV goes 3-3 in the paint against him how long do the Cavs stick with that matchup? Making the opponent react to you is always valuable.

Anthony Doyle: You absolutely have to maintain the Raptors identity, here. There will be a temptation to try to modify the team’s approach to match the Cavaliers, and Cleveland will hurt Toronto in some ways by attacking Valanciunas and the bench against LeBron, but the Raptors got to where they are by being this team, a team that wins on depth and conserving minutes for their stars, and a team that has a great rotation at the center position. While Kevin Love can create problems for Jonas, the Raptors can play bully-ball with their depth at center, and dominate the boards, and they’ll need to do those things. It’s better for Toronto if they can force Cleveland to try to find answers for what they’re doing than if they’re scrambling to answer the problems posed by the Cleveland lineups.

Blake Murphy: Valanciunas is huge in this series, and if his play all year and in round one hasn’t brought you around on his ability to stay on the floor in 2018, I’m not sure what will. Love, and particularly the James-Love frontcourt, is really challenging for him, and the Raptors have struggled with it defensively. Valanciunas can eat as a roll-man and as a rebounder in those looks, though, and hiding him on Jeff Green was moderately successful in the regular season (you could even try extending this to J.R. Smith if you want to get really disrespectful). The 10-man rotation is fine, too, and the Raptors’ depth and ability to conserve their stars could be big here. The all-bench unit should have a short-ish leash, though, at the top of the fourth quarter once James returns from his usually brief respite. Lowry-and-bench might need an earlier look so the Raptors can minimize minutes with James out against non-Lowry lineups.

What do you see as the Raptors’ biggest strength in this series? Their biggest weakness?

William Lou: The biggest strength is athleticism. Cleveland is mostly old as dirt and they want to play halfcourt, whereas Toronto is very young and should look to push the pace as much as possible. The weakness is still the same – can the Raptors’ supporting cast make enough open threes? The Cavaliers loves to trap in the playoffs, and the Raptors need to ruthlessly execute their 4-on-3 scenarios like they did against Washington in Game 1 and 2.

Tim Chisholm: Their biggest strength remains, of course, their depth. They have two legit All-Stars that are healthy and playing terrific basketball, a strong Valanciunas anchoring the post, and a bench that is the envy of the league. Cleveland (well, LeBron) will throw a lot at Toronto, and they aren’t going to be an easy out, but Toronto is the better team, and that is a real strength. Their biggest weakness remains history. LeBron knows how to play the mental game against a team like Toronto, and especially against Lowry and DeRozan. He’ll work in overdrive to break their spirits as quickly as possible. They’ve proven susceptible to those tactics in the past, and have to prove that they are above those theatrics and can just play to their strengths to get out of this series and move onto the Conference Finals.

Katie Heindl: Communication, trust, the ability to play through tough calls or no calls or forget calls completely because we already know how redundant they are going to be for us. All three could be their biggest strengths or weaknesses, depending on which way the games start going and the headspace they decide to inhabit once they get there.

Sahal Abdi: Broken record here again. It’s Toronto’s depth. We saw the instant impact their best bench player, Fred Van Vleet had versus Washington as he returned from injury. They need improved performances from both Siakam and Poeltl if they want this series to be close. Biggest weakness lies in their ability to slow down LeBron. It’s a known fact stopping LeBron is next to impossible, but teams who have the most success versus Cleveland, limit LeBron or force him to become one-dimensional. Getting under his skin doesn’t do much for a 15-year veteran (ask Lance). LeBron always seems to turn it up a few notches when facing Toronto, whether it’s the regular season or playoffs. In fact, at times it’s like he’s toying with them. Toronto must do everything they can to limit LeBron’s impact on the game. My absolute best wishes to Casey and his staff on figuring that out.

Vivek Jacob: It must be the backcourt. The past two years, Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith have won the backcourt battle against Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. With a banged up George Hill and a struggling Smith (yes, I expect the Cavs lineup to return to Hill at the 1 and Love at the 5 against the Raps), Lowry and DeRozan have to dominate the battle of the guards. They were great in Round 1 and I’m looking forward to them continuing to shed their playoff narratives.

Matt Shantz: The biggest weakness is easy, we don’t employ LeBron James. Biggest strength is depth and rest. It’s not just that the Raptors’ played one fewer game than LeBron and the Cavs, the minute distribution for each team speaks volumes. LeBron’s 288 minutes in the first round are a full 70 minutes more than DeMar who led the Raptors. Simply put, I’m hoping that LeBron’s comments about being tired were earnest, and that the Raptors’ fresh legs can make him work.

Alex Gres: Strength – depth. Toronto does not usually have the best player in any playoff series, and so their 12-man-deep strategy is sorely needed to exhaust the opponent. Weakness – not having the world’s best player on their side is the obvious one, so I’ll go with another – on the inevitable days a bunch of Cavaliers get hot, I’d still be worried our outside shooting won’t be able to keep up. May those days be few.

Louis Zatzman: The Raptors’ biggest strength is depth. Their biggest weakness is rostering zero LeBron Jameses. (I’m betting I’m one of maybe… 4? people who made that weakness joke.)

Joshua Howe: Their biggest strength in this series will be to capitalize on the fact that, again, much like the Wizards, the Cavs don’t have any real rim protectors or interior defense that will prevent or deter drives into the paint. DeRozan in particular should not be settling too much—Victor Oladipo proved throughout the first round that there will almost always be lanes to the basket available. Oh, and no one should be stopping Valanciunas in there, so keep up the pick-and-roll. Cleveland is allowing 66.1 per cent shooting on shots within five feet of the hoop, second-worst among the remaining playoff teams. As for Toronto’s biggest weakness, it’s simply LeBron James. ‘Nuff said there, I think.

Shyam Baskaran: We have several strengths in this series, and they have one big one. From our overall depth, to the bench mob, to the front court, to our coaching, and the fact that we have home court advantage, there are numerous tangible strengths. But our single biggest weakness (which could end up being all that matters) is the ability to defend the LeBron and shooters lineup (especially with Kevin Love at the 5). As we saw in those final 2 regular season meetings against Cleveland (and so many times before that), the Raptors remain a little confused on how to guard certain actions in those lineups that generate wide open shots for the Cavs’ shooting specialists. They’ve shown the tendency to stray from guys like Kevin Love and JR Smith in favour of helping on LeBron, and with the amount of space the Cavs execute those plays with, the Raptors are often left searching for answers.

Gavin MacPherson: The Raptors biggest strength is the same as last round, and the entire season to date: size and depth. The latter may be more valuable now than ever because LeBron just played 41 mpg in a 7 game series and won’t get much time to rest. It’s a war of attrition, keep the foot on the gas all series and see just how long LeBron can keep up with 10 sets of younger, fresher legs.

Anthony Doyle: Their biggest strength is that they don’t rely on any one player to the extend the Cavaliers rely on LeBron, and if a guy has an off night, they usually have another player who can step in and answer the call, and keep them competitive. Their biggest weakness in this series is that they don’t have LeBron, and their opponent does, and LeBron can sometimes negate absolutely every other factor by being so dominant that he cannot be dealt with. The Raptors have to hope that he can’t do that too often.

Blake Murphy: Their biggest strength is the quality of their podcasts relative to the Cavaliers. Will Lou > Rowan, all day, every day. The Raptors are also a significantly better defensive team, are faster and more athletic, can better leverage their depth, and are more versatile on either end of the floor and just in general. The biggest weakness is that they don’t employ LeBron James. (And also that despite shooting a lot of threes at a league-average rate, you still wouldn’t call them a good shooting team, which might matter here.)

Call it.

William Lou: Cavaliers in 6. I need to see it before I believe it against James.

Tim Chisholm: Raptors in 7.

Katie Heindl: Raps in 6.ma

Sahal Abdi: My heart is telling me Raptors in 7, but my mind is saying Cavs in 7. One team has arguably the most collective talent and depth in the NBA — the other team has arguably the most talent we’ve ever seen in a living, breathing basketball player. A basketball player that has the ability to will his team through damn near anything. I’m going Raptaliers in 7. Ok, fine… Toronto in 7. To be quite honest with whoever’s reading this, I’m highly concerned about how my hairline responds to the stress of this series. Hopefully, LeBron is too.

Vivek Jacob: Raptors in 6 seems about right but my gut says 7. #BetOnYourself #WATTBA #GodsPlan

Matt Shantz: I’ll be optimistic, while also going with my gut, Raptors in 6. The time is now.

Alex Gres: Two splits in the first four games, TO winning the fifth at home, and taking advantage of James’ fatigue to send him packing out of Cleveland on his own floor in game 6. 4-2 Raps. Let’s get it.

Louis Zatzman: Raps in 7.

Joshua Howe: Raptors in six.

Shyam Baskaran: This is probably the most torn I’ve been in picking a Raptors playoff series ever. When I started to see flashes of playoff demons past as soon as the Cavs matchup was confirmed yesterday afternoon, I took the Cavs in 6. But after a night to sleep on it, and after reminding myself of all that the Raptors proved to us this season, and taking in all the Cavaliers have showed us thus far in the playoffs, I am shamelessly now changing my pick to Raptors in 7. We got this.

Gavin MacPherson: Raptors in 6. LeBron will be brilliant enough to keep it close for most of the series but he’s been carrying too much dead weight on that roster for too long and that’s got to catch up to him sometime.

Anthony Doyle: Raptors in six. This is it, this is the moment that they built this team for, and the moment that the last five years have been building towards. Time to just be the team they’ve shown they can be since the start of the season, and the series will belong to the Raptors.

Blake Murphy: Raptors in 6. I started at Raptors in 7 and worked backwards to this answer because I would never, ever pick against LeBron James in a Game 7. So, yes, this somewhat paradoxically suggests I trust the Raptors to win four times in six games more than I trust them to win one time in one game. I think it’s important that this works, obviously for the Raptors and for the league as a whole, to show that you can take each next successive step without blowing everything up and that windows are worth keeping open. There needs to be value in our ability to change for the better and strive for self-improvement, even against life’s ludicrous odds.

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