The Raptors have been a subject of quite a bit of talk throughout this year’s postseason, but in many ways for all the wrong reasons. The Raptors have struggled to maintain consistency, challenged by a Pacers team that was seen as mightily overmatched against the two-seed Raptors.
The struggles of the Raptors fell heavily on the subpar play of their guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan struggled with his shooting, but was still able to post large point totals and keep the Raptors competitive in games, albeit on low percentages. But Lowry just simply struggled, seeing long stretches of inconsistent and bad overall play. The Raptors relied on their superior talent to dispatch Indiana, but not much else, squeaking out in seven games.
In Miami, however, the Raptors met a team that was perhaps as talented and explosive as them. The Heat played even with the Raptors in a series that saw both teams struggle through injury and bad play. Midway through the series, the light seemed to come on for Lowry, leading the injury-riddled Raptors to the eventual series win against the equally injured and maligned Heat.
Even in victory, however, Lowry hasn’t seen a decline in the criticism in his play. While Lowry has produced great games, like Games 6 and 7 against Miami, he’s also seen some bad ones (Games 1-5 against Indiana, and Game 6 against Miami). Lowry’s playoff performance has been a building lightning rod for the embattled point guard over the course of the last three seasons, with each year bringing new struggles.
But if anyone understands the struggle and criticism of Lowry, it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. Early in his career, it was James who was the lightning rod for playoff criticism, as he struggled to get over the hump year after year with the Cavaliers, coming to a head in his first year in Miami, with the Heat’s ‘Big Three’ getting upset by the Dallas Mavericks.
James acknowledged the similarities earlier this month in an interview with ESPN.com, saying, “It’s tough being a young team that hasn’t been there. We’ve all been there, but this is what makes teams great. They’ll figure it out; they’re a good team. They are here for a reason.”
But now, with the Raptors as their next opponent, James and the Cavaliers look to end the Raptors’ learning curve, and move on to their second consecutive NBA Finals. The Cavs have been perhaps the NBA’s most consistent and dominating team of this year’s postseason, running off two consecutive sweeps against the Pistons and Hawks, led by a barrage from James and newfound life from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
The Cavs ‘Big Three’ have finally clicked in the last month, with Irving and Love finally rising to the level the Cavs need them to be at if they hope to compete with whoever comes from the Western Finals. The Cavs have also seen some great play from JR Smith, who is one of this postseason’s best shooters from deep. Behind the play of Smith, Irving and their bench, the Cavs have become the best 3PT shooting team in the league, shooting 46% and making an alarming 16.8 threes per game.
The Raptors’ shooting, however, hasn’t quite been as great. The Raptors are the worst shooting team of the four remaining, and will have to find quality shooting from Lowry, DeRozan and the bench for them to be able to keep pace with the Cavaliers’ blisteringly hot offense.
On the defensive side, the Raptors have an edge, with strong play in the paint from Bismack Biyombo and DeMarre Carroll. The loss of center Jonas Valanciunas, a defensive stopper and terrific rebounder, is going to hurt Toronto, but they hope to see his return sometime in this series. The Cavaliers have relied on their hot shooting, with low rebounding rates, but solid play from Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love in the paint when necessary has kept the Cavs moving strong against stronger rebounding teams like Atlanta and Detroit.
For Cleveland, this series will be about staying the course. LeBron is playing at an efficient rate, and allowing his teammates to take and make some shots that he didn’t last year. The Cavs are clicking on all cylinders, and look ready to make the next step into a rematch with Golden State or OKC.
For Toronto, this series is about finding themselves. The mistakes they’ve made to this point will be highlighted against the juggernaut Cavs, as their defensive lapses will be turned into points against Cleveland. But the key to this series, like in any series going forward, rests on the shoulders of DeRozan and Lowry. The two stars have gotten Toronto here, kicking and screaming. But how they move forward will swing with the shots of Lowry and DeRozan. It’s not enough to be good some games to stop James and company, they’ll need something that they haven’t had in three seasons: a complete series.
Prediction: Cleveland in six.
Toronto is too talented to not take a game or two, and I actually believe that Lowry will have a great series, but the experience and talent will propel Cleveland into the next round. Oh, and Cleveland has a guy by the name of LeBron James, which never hurts.
— The Globe and Mail (@globeandmail) May 17, 2016