For the first time in their history, the Raptors will be playing in the conference finals against a team that’s been there and done that in the previous year, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some are dismissing this series as a mere speed bump for the Cavaliers, who swept their opponents in the Hawks in last year’s eastern conference finals, and are yet to lose a game in these playoffs after a couple of 4-0 sweeps against the Pistons and Hawks. The Raptors, on the other hand, are coming off a franchise best 56-win regular season and have managed to make it to the conference finals without playing anywhere near their potential. This series promises to answer plenty of questions about the future of both franchises, as well as ask new ones that we may not have considered, but, for me, there are 5 burning questions that beg answering in this series.
Will the Cavaliers’ hot shooting continue?
In 8 games of playoff action this year, the Cavaliers have shot 39.4 3-point attempts per game, up from their regular season average of 29.6 attempts, and they’re been making them at a rate of 46.4%, also an improvement on a rate of 36.3% during the season. This shooting has been pivotal to my belief in the Cavs for a stronger run to the title than last year, an admission by LeBron that shooting a lot of 3s is actually a really efficient way to play basketball. Last year the Cavs were reluctant to shoot the 3 ball at will, and were struggling with the absence of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving as they limped through the playoffs.
If they keep up the mentality they employed in the first two rounds, shooting with reckless abandon and taking advantage of the great shooters they were missing last year as well as JR Smith continuing to be piping hot, then they will be more than ready to take on whoever they’re facing in the NBA Finals. It’s the reason why their differential so far in the playoffs has been an astronomical +9.25. On the other hand, if we see them revert back to a more grinding offense with LeBron turning up everything that isn’t a shot in the paint, then we could see this team get handled in the next round. During the regular season, the Cavs put up a league-3rd offensive rating of 110.9, but against the Hawks and Pistons, they produced efficiencies on the offensive end of 122.9 and 120.4 respectively, which is ridiculously impressive stuff.
Can Lowry and DeRozan put together good play at the same time?
In Games 6 and 7 of the Conference Semi-Finals against the Heat, Lowry and DeRozan finally had good games together, with Lowry averaging 35.5 PPG on 49.0% shooting and DeRozan scoring 26.5 PPG on 40.0% shooting. Not stellar numbers but it was enough to get the win. But outside game 7, there hasn’t been a single game in which both Lowry and DeRozan have both scored 20 points at over 40% from the field. Those aren’t difficult numbers for the 1 and 2 leading scorers on the team, but they couldn’t put it together for a single game at any stretch. Finally they gave is the goods in Game 7, a sign that they might turn things around, but that was exactly what we were hoping would be the case at the end of the first round against the Pacers.
Lowry has a playoff FG rate of 36.6%, and has shot above 38% in only 3 of his 14 games thus far. DeRozan has struggled so far from the field too, shooting a meagre 35.5% on only 20 points per game. As a statistician I should believe that these players are due to experience progression towards the mean and that these numbers are simply unlucky. I also shouldn’t believe in clutch, but I’m having a tough time convincing myself that these numbers are simply a matter of bad luck and they should be able to turn them around before too long. If Lowry and DeRozan can continue to play well together like they did in Game 7 against the Heat, then this could be more of a series, but it’ll have to be the end of poor shooting games.
How much will Valanciunas’ Absence affect the Raptors’ Chances?
The current report on Rotoworld on the state of Valanciunas’ ankle is that he won’t be playing in game 1 and is unlikely for game 2. No word on game 3, where the Raptors must understandably be optimistic about his return. This is a rapid change in reporting from when the injury first occurred during the previous series, where it was initially reported that he would be out for the rest of the playoffs. This mood continued throughout the rest of the series, with the story being that he would be unavailable for the rest of the season. But this reporting instantly changed when the Raptors moved onto the next round. So we’ll see what the truth really is in time, but for now all we can do is hypothesise as to how much of a loss his injury is to the squad.
Upon looking at the matchups, the injury doesn’t seem to be as much of a devastating loss as it may have initially seemed. Bismack Biyombo is more than capable of defending all of the Centers that the Cavs roll out, including Kevin Love when they go small. Additionally, The Raptors have the personnel to defend Kevin Love at the 5, with Patrick Patterson being a very viable candidate capable of defending well while putting pressure on Love at the other end of the court. So it would seem that on the defensive end, Valanciunas’ absence isn’t too much to worry about. However it’s on the offensive end that the cost begins to reveal itself.
Without Valanciunas, the Raptors are unable to put pressure on the Cavaliers at the five spot. Playing Bismack Biyombo at the five allows Kevin Love to rest on defense and not have his weak post defense exposed against the versatile and skilled Lithuanian. This means that the Cavaliers’ biggest concern when rolling at Love at the 5 immediately goes away, and this has been the lineup that has caused maximum carnage from 3 point land to date, a factor which we already know is going to be weighed heavily in deciding how competitive this series is. The Raptor’s best answer to this is the play Patterson at the 5 which at least forces Kevin Love to be more attentive on the defensive end. The only other solution is for Biyombo to become more assertive and demand more attention on pick and rolls, which has not worked out well in the past.
Will the matchups on paper hold up in practice?
Following on from the last question, it might seem that on paper, the Raptors actually match up really well against the Cavaliers. The guards in Lowry and DeRozan are both excellent defenders and should be more than capable of guarding JR Smith and Kyrie Irving, while hopefully exposing some of their defensive flaws on the other end. DeMarre Carroll is one of the few forward defenders in the league you can point to as having the tools to provide an answer to LeBron on the defensive end and slowing him down. They also have a frisky player in Norman Powell who has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs and has the athletic and defensive skills to at least manage LeBron James. And at the forward spot, the Raptors have the post defenders to handle the Cavaliers down low, the big men to compete for the rebound battle, and enough combinations to handle the handful of equally dangerous big man lineups Cleveland are capable of throwing at you.
BUT: as discussed earlier, Lowry and DeRozan have been incapable of putting anything together on the offensive end for long stretches of play.
BUT: We’ve already seen a DeMarre Carroll team go up against a LeBron James team, it was the conference finals last year, where the Cavs came up against the Hawks in 4 not-very-close games, and LeBron averaged 30.3 Points, 11 Rebounds and 9.3 Assists en-route to an absolute drubbing. Norman Powell also played only 7.8 minutes per game against the Heat.
BUT: The Raptors are without their biggest threat at the big man spot in Valanciunas, and will be stretched thin to make up for his absence in the rotation. Dwane Casey has been incapable of figuring out what to do with Luis Scola, and we saw Lucas Nogueira on the court multiple times throughout the playoffs.
Whether these concerns are over-reactions and the Raptors are able to matchup well against the Cavs, we’ll have to see, but there certainly is reason to believe that the Cavs might be able to easily overcome what looks like a much tougher matchup this series.
Do the Cavaliers favour their big or small line-up? What does this mean for the Finals?
At the heart of unlocking the greatest potential from this loaded Cavaliers roster, is the challenge of nailing the tough coaching decision of whether to play small ball or tall ball. They are capable of going small with Love at the 5, LeBron at the 4 and shooters from 1 to 3, which provides absolutely lethal 3 point shooting while sacrificing toughness and defensive prowess on the low-post. Or they can move up a position and play Tristan Thompson at the center, removing a shooter but reinforcing what becomes a much more imposing and physical forward lineup. As discussed earlier, their concern with the defense of the small lineup in this series has mostly been removed until Valanciunas returns, but if they get too comfortable playing small all series and the Thunder pull off an upset in the West, the Cavaliers might find themselves out of practice playing big and will run up against the frankly terrifying front court which includes Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. This could lead to the Cavaliers getting absolutely ambushed and unable to handle a front-court that has already given the Spurs nightmares and threatens to do similar against the 73-win warriors after an upset in Game 1.
On the contrary, the Cavaliers are equally as likely to shy away from the small ball lineup if the Raptors get good play out of their forwards, Patterson, Biyombo, and the possible return of Valanciunas. At this point they’re vulnerable to be caught off guard against a Warriors team who plays a death lineup without a player taller than 6’8″, and 5 shooters on the floor. For this reason, the contrasting success of Cleveland’s tall and small ball lineups will be an interesting storyline to keep track of, as it might be pivotal to the result in the Finals.
My playoff probability model predicted the Cavaliers to win in 7 at the start of the playoffs, but that doesn’t account for the loss of Valanciunas or the Raptor’s struggles to date in the playoffs. I’m struggling to pick between a 4-2 or 4-1 Cavs win, so I’ll have to go with my heart and hope that the Raptors at least make a series of it and satisfy the fans of the north.