For the 3rd straight year, the Toronto Raptors will face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs. The past 2 years were immensely disappointing for the Raptors. 2016 saw them lose a 6-game series, where they were, quite frankly out-classed in Games 5 & 6. To add salt in the wound, last year they were utterly embarrassed as they got swept to the curb in 4 games. In both of those series the Raptors were underdogs according to seeding, talent and experience. However this year, while the Raptors remain underdogs in talent and experience, they hold the seeding advantage over the Cavs. Accordingly, they hold home-court advantage – the Air Canada Center is a hostile environment where the Raptors are not only comfortable, but thrive. Therefore, the excuses need to stop, it’s time to put up or shut up for the Raptors.
Of the 3 years the Raptors have met Cleveland, the Cavaliers have never been weaker. Kyrie Irving is gone, Kevin Love has been woefully inconsistent as of late and the Cavaliers’ bench and role players are a shell of their former selves. The Cavaliers are more dependent on LeBron than ever before. He willed them through a grueling 1st round series against the Indiana Pacers, which went 7 games and came down to the wire. That being said, the Raptors cannot stop King James offensively and they absolutely cannot match him in star power. But, there are 4 ways in which they can improve their chances at dethroning King James – and they will need to excel at all 4 if they want a chance at redemption.
#1: Sticking To The Game-plan
Earlier this year I wrote about how the Raptors underwent a drastic culture change. A team who undermined themselves in the playoffs with their isolation-heavy offense, the Raptors took a step forward this year by improving their ball movement and 3-point shooting. The Raptors attempted 35.4% more 3-pointers this season as compared to last, and ranked 4th in 3-pointers made. During the 1st round, the Raptors torched the Washington Wizards from 3-point land, cashing in on 41% of their attempted 3’s – up 5.2% from their regular-season numbers. Re-visiting ball movement, their assist numbers were also up 31.5% as they have increasingly emphasized team basketball. This helped up the Raptors scoring to 111.7 points per game, good enough for 4th in the NBA. Unfortunately, their ball movement has begun to dip during post-season play. The Raptors dropped from 24.3 assists per game to 22.2, and DeMar DeRozan – the Raptors best player in isolation – has seen his scoring frequency drop from 49.2% in the regular season to 36.8% during the 1st round. With DeRozan likely to go head-to-head with LeBron on offense, isolation will want to be avoided, as the Raptors ball movement and team basketball will prove to be more successful than asking DeRozan to consistently beat LeBron 1-on-1.
#2: More Jonas and Less Serge
Toronto’s Head Coach Dwane Casey is finally starting to see value in his starting center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas averaged 24.7 minutes per game during the regular-season, but during the first 4 games of the 1st round he played 23 minutes or less. Including playoffs when Valanciunas plays 23 minutes or less the Raptors are 33-15 (68.75%) compared to 27-10 (72.97%) when Valanciunas plays 24 minutes or more. The Raptors series against Washington changed altogether when Valanciunas got court-time during the 4th quarter something that had previously eluded him under Casey’s tutelage. The Raptors were +25 in just under 15 minutes when JV played in the 4th quarter, as opposed to the Raptors usual 4th quarter center, Serge Ibaka who was just +2 in slight less than 24 minutes of 4th quarter play. Ibaka is not what he once was, and his overall effectiveness, particularly this post-season is similar to that of his sophomore year. Furthermore, JV has proven to be a much better match-up versus Cleveland this year compared to Ibaka, who despite more minutes was significantly outdone by JV in points per game, rebounds per game, plus-minus and shooting efficiency against Cleveland. The Cavaliers have failed to find consistency at center, as Tristan Thompson has been an up and down rollercoaster all season, so this would be the ideal time for Valanciunas to bang bodies down low. He would be tested defensively, specifically if he was matched up with Kevin Love who can spread the floor, but this is the challenge JV needs to reach another level. I believe Valanciunas is the x-factor for this Raptors team, and that he can be a difference maker. With an uptick in minutes for JV, and a reduction in minutes for Ibaka, both players can benefit. Valanciunas being a match-up nightmare, and Ibaka providing more impactful minutes with his additional rest.
#3: Contest the Glass and Shots
It is easy to see why the Raptors must contest the glass, as the more rebounds they grab the less time they give LeBron to run the Cavaliers offense. While the Cavaliers do not excel at grabbing rebounds (14th of 16 playoff teams), they are tough on their opponents down-low, as they contested 39.1% of the rebounds in their series versus Indiana (3rd of 16). Contesting rebounds wears down opponents, and can slow down their offense or even create extra possessions for your offense. The Raptors contested 35.8% of the rebounds versus Washington, and while that is great, their rebounding overall was underwhelming. The Raptors lack great rebounders as they try to play small, but this is where Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl are important as they can make a huge difference on the glass. The European duo will likely be rotated on and off for each other in many of the Raptors lineups against Cleveland, and accordingly when on the court these 2 need to be absolutely ferocious in the paint. Among qualified players, only 14 players have contested 50% or more of their rebounds this playoffs – and both JV and Poeltl find themselves on this list. These numbers not only need to be maintained, but improved by the supporting cast. Rebounding must be by committee, just like the defense. At 1:22 of TSN’s segment with Jack Armstrong & Leo Rautins, the pair expertly break down how the Raptors closed out Game 6 versus Washington. Not only were shots being contested, but as soon as the ball went into the air 4 Raptors collapsed into the paint, so as to box out and rebound the ball. The Raptors led round 1 of the playoffs in contested shots, contesting 70 shots per game. However, that was largely because of their defense inside the perimeter. The Raptors ranked 2nd last in contested 3-pointers, something which will need to improve against a potent 3-point shooting team like the Cavs. The Raptors will need to contest everything versus the Cavaliers, and accordingly wear them down.
#4: The 1-2 Bench Punch
The bench includes the unsung heroes of the Toronto Raptors; from Delon Wright to Pascal Siakam, the Raptors bench is the best in the league. They can go deeper than any other team and they can mix and match with the best because of their depth. They bring defense, energy and team basketball. Anyone can get hot from the field, many can lockdown a hot scorer and they will all go to war. However, there are 2 players who stand above the rest. In the 1st round the Raptors were without Fred VanVleet, an undrafted sophomore out of Wichita State, but his impact was felt in Game 6. The Raptors were +12 with VanVleet on the court, and he gives them unmatched poise and confidence in the 4th quarter. VanVleet has shown this poise and confidence, by playing more 4th quarter minutes than any other Raptor this season. He is crucial for helping close out games, but he has help in Delon Wright who has also been incredible down the stretch for Toronto. Wright is longer than VanVleet and offers more versatility defensively as despite being a point guard he stands at 6’5 with a 6’7 wingspan. Watch here, how Wright uses his length and size to create something out of a dead possession. Not only is he a floor general when Lowry is not on the court, but he is also lethal off-the-ball as his basketball IQ helps him find open shots. From the same game as before, we see Wright never take his eyes off the ball while moving his feet to give Lowry a secondary option, which in turn results in a high percentage 3-pointer. These 2 will be vital to match Cleveland when they go small, and they can protect Toronto’s big men by closing out the perimeter.
At the end of the playoffs last year I was admittedly frustrated with the Toronto Raptors and thought they were cooked. However, with a reworked culture and playstyle, the Raptors have gone to another level, and have a legitimate shot at beating the Cavaliers. Now while they can, the million dollar question is: will the Raptors be able to defeat LeBron James and the Cavaliers? Unfathomable to my former-self a year-ago, I am now going to answer yes. In most scenarios I would pick LeBron regardless of who he was playing against. But, this year feels different. LeBron’s supporting cast is as weak as ever, and the Raptors have never been stronger. This smells like a 7-game series that will be a war. One thing I am certain of is that the Raptors need to stay the course with their reworked culture, while following the outlined roadmap. Otherwise King James will simply be all too much to handle. This is it Toronto, there is no time for talking or complaining.
It is time to put up or shut up.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful day. Go Raps Go!