Cleveland Versus Toronto PreviewEastern Conference Finals
#1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. #2 Toronto (56-26)
Season series: Toronto, 2-1
Toronto can win if...the Raptors' All-Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan can be both productive and efficient while DeMarre Carroll spearheads the defensive attack versus LeBron James to the extent that the other Raptor perimeter defenders can stay at home on Cleveland's three point shooters.
Lowry averaged 23.4 ppg during Toronto's 4-3 victory over the Miami Heat but he shot just .401 from the field, while DeRozan scored 22.1 ppg on .388 field goal shooting. For Toronto to beat Cleveland, Lowry and DeRozan must both continue to score 20+ ppg but they both need to elevate their field goal percentages to the .450 range.
No single defender can shut down a motivated and committed LeBron James but if Carroll can limit James to James' regular season averages without requiring a lot of help then the Raptors can avoid succumbing to the record-setting three point shooting that devastated Detroit and Atlanta in Cleveland's pair of early round sweeps.
Cleveland will win because...each of the Cavaliers' All-Stars is performing at a high level, opening up the court for an unprecedented three point shooting barrage; meanwhile, collectively Cleveland is rebounding and defending well.
During Cleveland's 4-0 destruction of the Atlanta Hawks, James averaged a "ho hum" (for him) 24.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 7.8 apg and 3.0 spg. The only blemish on his record was subpar free throw shooting (.591). Kyrie Irving averaged 21.3 ppg and 6.3 apg while shooting .484 from the field (including a blistering .667 on three pointers) and .867 from the free throw line. Kevin Love contributed 19.0 ppg and a team-high 13.0 rpg. Love shot just .324 from the field but he shot an outstanding .475 from three point range; remarkably, he made 19 three pointers and just four two pointers during the series.
Cleveland shot 77-152 (.507) from three point range against Atlanta and if that production/efficiency continues there is no way to beat this team; of course it is not likely that the Cavaliers will shoot that way again but if James is aggressive enough to regularly collapse the defense then the Cavaliers will at the very least have many wide open shots.
Other things to consider: On paper and in popular perception, Toronto is inferior to Cleveland--but the Raptors have two All-Stars and only finished one game behind the Cavaliers in the regular season standings. Toronto is the type of team that has challenged James in the past during the playoffs (a good team that is hard-nosed and has several good but not great players). Tyronn Lue is a rookie coach and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Cavaliers face adversity during this series, particularly if that adversity comes in the form of James becoming disengaged/disinterested (as has happened repeatedly during LeBron James' career after the first round of the playoffs).
LeBron James has led his teams to five straight NBA Finals appearances (2011-2014 with Miami, 2015 with Cleveland), which is a noteworthy feat even in the somewhat depleted Eastern Conference. His playoff record against clearly overmatched teams is nearly impeccable and that is not meant sarcastically; there is a lot to be said for beating the opponents that you are "supposed" to beat and there are many star players who have been much less effective at this than James has been.
However, at the end of his career James will be compared not with "ordinary" stars but rather with Pantheon-level players such as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. James has won two NBA titles but he has also lost four times in the NBA Finals, with the Finals MVPs in those series going to demonstrably inferior players (Dirk Nowitzki is the best player of that quartet but no one would argue that Nowitzki is the same caliber two-way player as James).
In contrast, Johnson went 5-4 in the NBA Finals, including 2-1 versus Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and 2-1 versus Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals.
James has already established himself as a Pantheon-level player even if he never wins another playoff series--but in order to truly measure up with the players to whom he is most often compared this is the kind of series that he needs to win and then he needs to add one or two more rings to his collection.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:18 PM