By JORDAN JACKSON (@air_jordan2019)
Photo credit goes to Bleacher Report.
“And then there were two…..”
The road to the NBA Finals makes a stop in Cleveland Tuesday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the No.1-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and the No. 2-seeded Toronto Raptors. The road to this point has been a cakewalk for the Cavaliers, after sweeping their first round matchup against the Detroit Pistons and following that up with a 4-0 series win over the Atlanta Hawks.
The same cannot be said about the Raptors. Toronto has played the most games possible this playoff season after taking seven games – twice – to eke past the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. To get you ready for a showdown that should be of epic proportions, here are my top five things to watch for in this series:
1. The Dynamic Duo
The NBA’s most lethal backcourt combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has not been as jaw-dropping during the first 14 games of the Raptors’ postseason run. DeRozan, in particular, has seen a significant drop-off in his playoff statistics this year compared to his regular-season totals.
For instance, his average of 23.5 points per game was good enough to place him as one of the top-10 league leaders in points this past regular season. Over the 14-game playoff span, however, that number has dropped to only 20.0 points per game. While that is still a very respectable number, it has to be better during the playoffs in which every player -- stars and scrubs alike -- turns their game performance up two notches.
DeRozan’s field goal percentage, which has gone from an impressive 45 percent in the regular season to a measly 36 percent in the playoffs, is of greater concern. But DeRozan is not the only guard in “The Six” to be concerned about. Kyle Lowry has been nearly absent in the postseason this year.
"The NBA’s most lethal backcourt combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has not been as jaw-dropping during the first 14 games of the Raptors’ postseason run."
Kyle Lowry (left) and DeMar DeRozan (right). Photo credit goes to raptorshq.com.
Yes, I know, he came alive against the Heat, but that still is not enough to convince me. During the year, Lowry shot 81 percent from the free-throw line and 43 percent from the field. While both of those numbers do not necessarily jump off the page, compared to what he has done in those two categories during the playoffs this year, they should.
This postseason, Lowry is shooting a mere 76 percent from the line and only 37 percent from the field. Those numbers are not the kind of production Toronto needs from its two star players going into a series against the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Cleveland’s offense is clicking greater than ever, and in order for the Raptors to have a chance, their offense needs to come out of the gates fast and furiously. It begins with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan setting the stage.
Rebounding, as we all know, can make or break basketball games. This is especially true during the playoffs, as dominating the glass can do multiple things, from preventing the other team extra chances on offense to getting out on the fastbreak and scoring easy layups on the other end. Rebounding will play a vital role in the upcoming series between Toronto and Cleveland.
The Cavaliers out rebounded their opponents during the regular season by a +3.5 differential, whereas Toronto out rebounded opponents by only a +2.6 differential. That statistic alone sets Toronto behind the 8 ball in this category against the Cavaliers; couple that with the fact that Jonas Valanciunas.
"The Cavaliers out rebounded their opponents during the regular season by a +3.5 differential, whereas Toronto out rebounded opponents by only a +2.6 differential."
Tristan Thompson (center) fights for a rebound. Photo credit goes to rantsports.com.
Toronto’s leading rebounder during the regular season, will be out for at least the first game of the series, and the odds do not seem to bounce in the favor of the Raptors.
That will shift a lot of pressure to Bismack Biyombo to slow down Cleveland’s top rebounder, Kevin Love, who has come alive on the boards this postseason. His work in the paint lately has netted him an average of 12.5 rebounds per game, a significant jump from the 9.9 he averaged during the season. With Tristan Thomposon and LeBron James crashing the boards alongside Love, Cleveland should dominate the rebounding game during this series.
3. Approach the Bench
A key part in any championship-winning team is depth, and that will be another factor to watch in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Play when the stars like LeBron, DeRozan, Kyrie Irving and Lowry are off the court will go a long way in shaping the outcome of this series.
When looking at bench play in terms of the Cavaliers, many would accurately deem that they are weak beyond their starting five -- which is true. Cleveland’s bench ranked 28th in scoring among NBA teams’ benches by averaging only 27.7 points per game. In addition to that, they only averaged 14.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists when on the court.
These totals, however, are not a far cry away from the work of the Raptors’ bench during the year. As compared to Cleveland, they only scored 1.2 more points, had a +0.8 rebounding differentail and tallied 1.1 less assists.
"When looking at bench play in terms of the Cavaliers, many would accurately deem that they are weak beyond their starting five -- which is true."
Channing Frye. Photo credit goes to Bleacher Report.
The key men to look at on the floor when the benches are implemented will be point guard Corey Joseph for Toronto and forward Channing Frye for the Cavs, who has quietly put together a respectable postseason performance by shooting 62 percent from the field and 57 percent from beyond the arc.
Frye, who is a nine-year veteran in the league, can give Kevin Love the rest he needs while still being a consistent scoring threat on the floor. Joseph, in his own respect, has also had a workman’s-like postseason and has proven to be a valuable pickup for the Raptors. His 48 percent field goal percentage has kept the Raptors in many games as of late, even when Kyle Lowry had been going through his slump. Look for these two players to make a difference in this series.
4. Guarding LeBron
You can’t mention the Cavaliers, the playoffs, the NBA or basketball in general without mentioning LeBron James. LeBron looks to lead the Cavs back to the NBA Finals after being defeated by the Golden State Warriors, on their own court in Cleveland, just a year ago.
One thing is for sure in this series: The player who is given the task of guarding LeBron is not going to get much sleep during these next few games. The man who will more than likely have this “gracious” opportunity will be none other than DeMarre Carroll.
Carroll, who was just with the Atlanta Hawks a year ago, is making his second trip back to the Eastern Conference Finals and gets his shot at defending who many would consider to be the best all-around player in the league. Carroll has been plagued by injuries this entire year, so do not be surprised if Raptors head coach Dwane Casey runs a few double teams and defensive switches when LeBron has the ball in an effort to keep Carroll fresh and to not give LeBron an inch of room on the floor.
"One thing is for sure in this series: The player who is given the task of guarding LeBron is not going to get much sleep during these next few games."
LeBron James. Photo credit goes to thesportsblogger.
LeBron has been his usual dominate self during the playoffs this year, averaging just over 23 points per game and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. But what he brings to this relatively young team in Cleveland is playoff experience, leadership and a hunger to win. All three of those ingredients will be important if the Cavaliers hope to overcome the Raptors.
5. Home Court Advantage
When it comes down to it, this is “The Land” against “The Six,” and nothing drives these two teams more than their respective cities. The Raptors carry the hopes of Toronto on their backs, a people who want to see something as exciting as Joey Bats’ bat-flip happen. This following includes megastar singer, Drake, who can be found on the sidelines of almost any Raptors game in Toronto.
In Cleveland, the Cavs play for the cries of a city and fan base who hope to win a championship, something they have not done since 1964. An NBA title would also rid their minds of the likes of Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Indians. With that being said, home court advantage is crucial in this series.
Both teams posted impressive home records this season. Cleveland won 33 games at home this year, while only losing eight. In comparison, the Raptors won one game less -- 32 -- and only lost nine games at home during the regular season. By virtue of record, the Cavaliers have that in their favor with the series being scheduled to play four games in Cleveland and three in Toronto.
"This following includes megastar singer, Drake, who can be found on the sidelines of almost any Raptors game in Toronto."
Drake. Photo credit goes to USA Today.
However, Toronto can level the playing field and pull off a major upset by winning one of those four games in Cleveland, something that no road team has accomplished this postseason. If they can pull off an Oklahoma City and stun the favorites on their home floor in Game 1 Tuesday, then this series becomes a 50/50 tossup.
Even more importantly, though, will be Cleveland’s ability to win in Toronto, something that they were not able to do during the regular season as they went 0-2. The atmosphere in both Quicken Loans Arena and the Air Canada Centre are factors that road teams must overcome if they want to win. Like the old saying goes, “A series doesn’t start until the home team loses.”