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Monday, April 30, 2018

Toronto Versus Cleveland Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#1 Toronto (59-23) vs. #4 Cleveland (50-32)

Season series: Cleveland, 2-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James has another superhuman playoff series (along the lines of 30-10-8 while shooting better than .500 from the field), Cleveland's supporting cast provides at least minimal support on offense and the Cavaliers reverse their-season long pattern of being horrible on defense.

The Cavaliers needed one of the best playoff series of LeBron James' career to sneak by the Indiana Pacers--a gutsy and gritty team but not a championship-contender. James averaged 34.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 7.7 apg (leading both teams in all three categories) while shooting .553 from the field in 41.2 mpg. He saved his best for last, scoring 45 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing seven assists as the Cavaliers won game seven, 105-101. That was James' third 40 point game of the series and just two points short of tying the highest scoring game seven performance ever (a mark shared by Sam Jones and Dominique Wilkins).

In game seven, James operated out of the post on many possessions and he proved to be almost unstoppable, either scoring at will or dishing to wide open teammates if the defense collapsed on him. James does not like playing in the post and it took him years to (1) learn the proper footwork and (2) be willing to play in the post but--as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy aptly put it during the game seven telecast--James may not like playing in the post but he likes winning and that is his team's best chance to win.

As great as James has been during his career, it is fair to wonder how much more he might have done had he been willing to play this way all along. Not that he could have averaged 45 ppg or anything like that, but consistently playing in the post with his size, scoring ability and passing vision/touch would have made James even greater than he has been.

In any case, it was a joy to watch how James performed in game seven. While basketball is a team sport, it is also a sport that allows great individual players to showcase their skills and even to sometimes triumph over a better all-around team. From players 2-15, the Pacers are probably better than the Cavaliers--but player 1 for Cleveland decided that he was not going to let his team lose.

James was not only active as a scorer, rebounder and passer but he was engaged defensively as well, something that had not been true for much of this season. James had four steals, passing Scottie Pippen to become the NBA's all-time playoff career steals leader. James now has 399 steals in 224 playoff games, while Pippen finished with 395 steals in 208 playoff games.

James' supporting cast had been missing in action for much of the series--Cleveland's only other double figure scorer was Kevin Love, who averaged 11.4 ppg on .338 field goal shooting--but they showed up in game seven. Coach Tyronn Lue put Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup after barely using Thompson in the first six games and Thompson responded well, producing 15 points, 10 rebounds and solid defense. Love chipped in 14 points and six rebounds, though he still shot poorly (5-13 from the field). J.R. Smith and George Hill--who missed three games versus Indiana due to back spasms--each scored 11 points.

Cleveland's main problem--which has not been fixed despite trades and lineup changes--is on defense. During the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked 26th in points allowed (109.9 ppg) and 28th in defensive field goal percentage (.474). Those numbers usually belong to teams in the Draft Lottery, not to teams that supposedly harbor legitimate championship aspirations.

Maybe the Cavaliers will figure things out at the last possible moment and go on a deep playoff run but that seems highly unlikely.
 
Toronto will win because…the Raptors are a deep, well-balanced and well-coached team that is well-equipped to exploit Cleveland's weaknesses.

When the season began, it was reasonable to assume that either Cleveland or Boston would win the East. Boston took the early lead in the conference even after losing Gordon Hayward for the season in game one, while Cleveland struggled out of the gate and never consistently looked like a title contender. Toronto started solidly but it was not until a late season 11 game winning streak that it became clear that not only would the Raptors finish with the East's best regular season record but they were a legitimate threat to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

The Raptors are strong at both ends of the court, ranking fourth in regular season scoring (111.7 ppg), seventh in field goal percentage (.472), sixth in points allowed (103.9 ppg) and fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.449).

DeMar DeRozan led the Raptors in scoring during the regular season (23.0 ppg) and he led the Raptors with a 26.7 ppg average in the first round of the playoffs as Toronto defeated Washington. He is the master of the now rarely-seen midrange game but he has also added the three point shot to his repertoire.

Kyle Lowry is the engine who makes the offense go (16.2 ppg and 6.9 apg in the regular season; 17.2 ppg and 8.3 apg in the first round of the playoffs).

Toronto's All-Star backcourt is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including center Jonas Valanciunas (13.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg versus Washington) and power forward Serge Ibaka; the Raptors closed last season on a 16-7 run after acquiring Ibaka and they earned the top seed in the East during his first full year with the team, so he has definitely had an impact in the standings even if his individual numbers are not always spectacular.

Other things to consider: Just looking at this series on paper, the Raptors would be an easy choice. There are only two reasons to remotely consider not picking Toronto: (1) The Raptors have never beaten the Cavaliers in the playoffs, so the moment/stage might be too big for them; (2) LeBron James has the ability to tilt a playoff series with his individual dominance. The Raptors answered the call in the first round, winning the first two games at home versus Washington to take a 2-0 lead--a significant accomplishment for a franchise that has historically struggled at home in game one of the playoffs. The Wizards won their next two home games but the Raptors closed out the series in six games with a pair of 10 point wins. This edition of the Raptors has not evidenced the playoff jitters that we have seen with previous Toronto teams, so the Raptors should be judged based on what they are doing now, not what they have done in the past.

Of course, in basketball the team with the best individual player usually has at least a puncher's chance. If James reels off several 40 point games while also playing lockdown defense, then the Raptors may have to devote so much attention to him that James' supporting cast will show some life. However, we have seen this Cleveland team for 82 regular season games plus seven playoff games (albeit in a few different iterations, but the team's performance level has been about the same); the Cavaliers are inattentive defensively and typically cannot score enough points against the good teams to make up for their defensive lapses. It is difficult to picture this version of the Cavaliers finding the wherewithal to beat the Raptors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:45 AM

27 comments

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27 Comments:

At Monday, April 30, 2018 12:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate IND didn't win, and they really should've. Really tired of James, hopefully TOR smokes CLE, but probably will be a close series. TOR needs to be able to at least to game 7, and this time they have homecourt advantage.

Agree CLE's defense is the key probably. It was a slower-paced series vs IND, but CLE's defense did show up. IND only scored over 101 once. Their 34-point beatdown in game 6 obscures the overall team defense numbers a bit.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 12:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I disagree that Cleveland's defense showed up--at least on a consistent basis. Throughout the series, Cleveland had trouble maintaining leads and/or gave up huge scoring runs because of basic defensive breakdowns. Cleveland has the ability to play good defense and does so at times, but not consistently enough.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 1:06:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

On paper the Raptors should win.

I just don't trust them.

Lebron will run out of gas at some point in these playoffs; his supporting cast has talent but it's poorly deployed and they have no cogent defensive or offensive system. That said, I don't think he's dead yet.

Toronto still reverts to iso-ball in crunchtime. If Cleveland can keep the games close--and Lebron can keep his legs--Cleveland can beat them in those close games.

I've got the Cavs in 7.

 
At Monday, April 30, 2018 3:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, how do you explain CLE holding IND to 101 or less in 6 of 7 games then? Was IND's offense just not that good and/or did CLE get a little lucky defensively then?

I understand the core problems with CLE's defense, but it doesn't really look like they played that poorly overall. IND only averaged 97ppg, excluding game 6. Including game 6, still just over 100ppg, which both were substantially worse than the regular season. CLE's offense actually seemed more of a problem than their defense relative to who they were in the regular season.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 2:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David:

Have you noticed in this series or most of James' career I should say, when he has high scoring games they are mostly done in the first half and a bit in the third? He becomes passive when the opposing team goes on a run and also in the fourth quarter. That is the time when your best player should step up in my opinion.

The other area that I noticed about James' assists is that majority of them come from 3 point shots, either someone i.e. Korver coming off a screen or finding an open shooter. What I don't understand is the narrative that he makes his teammates better but for some ludacris reason guys like Jordan and Bryant doesn't. I just don't see how guys spotting up for a 3 point shot becomes "better" by playing with him. If you look at Love and Bosh their numbers suffered a lot from playing with James. On the other hand, guys like Gasol and Odom who had career numbers playing with Bryant.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 6:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I understand why you don't trust Toronto based on what the Raptors have done in previous seasons, but based on this season I don't trust the Cavaliers to consistently play good defense against a top notch team during a seven game playoff series.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 6:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I don't necessarily believe in citing statistics for a series by taking out one game. If we take out Westbrook's worst game then he shot a decent percentage from the field. If we take out Harden's best game then he shot an even worse percentage than he did.

Getting back to Cleveland's defense versus Indiana, the Pacers shot .481 from the field during the series--better than they did during the regular season, despite the fact that during the playoffs the game usually slows down and defenses are better. What I saw was that Cleveland played good defense in spurts but the Cavaliers also had serious lapses. I don't doubt this team's ability to sometimes play good defense but I very much doubt this team's commitment to playing good defense on a consistent basis, particularly against the better teams.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 7:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Yes, I agree with you that it often seems like when James has a big game he scores a lot very early and then becomes more passive down the stretch.

I also agree with you that Jordan and Bryant tended to get more out of their teammates than James does. James' teammates have to sacrifice a lot of their individual numbers, while players tended to have career-best performances when playing with Jordan and Bryant. Jordan (6) and Bryant (5) also won more championships than James (3) and that is not a coincidence; James has had stacked rosters and an easier path to the Finals than he would have had in the West but he has not always maximized those opportunities (though, interestingly, one of his three titles did feature an improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit).

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 11:02:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

It's crazy how the narrative around a player can shape his entire legacy. LeBron is quite clearly making an argument to be considered a top 5 player of all time and is still one of my favorite players today. It's just so funny how the media goes at great lengths to credit him for things he doesn't do and use them as criticisms for other players.

I don't even know what "makes his teammates better" even means anymore. If LeBron made his teammates better, then why hasn't one Cavs player scored more than 20 points in a game yet? If everyone wants to play with LeBron and are taking pay cuts, why has only Wade (his best friend) done that? (Bosh did too, but it was to play with BOTH LeBron and Wade). In fact, Kyrie, the best player he ever played with (at the point of his career he was better than Wade), decided that he didn't want to play with him anymore.

I really, really like LeBron - even when his passiveness is in overdrive, but sometimes the media makes me like him less because of how they go to great lengths to discredit other great players to put him on a pedestal. He's great regardless of the extra narratives. With that said, I can't see LeBron losing to the Lowry and DeRozan led Raptors.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 11:02:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

That's totally fair and you might be right. Neither team has done a ton to inspire trust. I just can't quite bet against Lebron--no matter how flawed his cast--against a team with am earned reputation for crumbling against adversity like Toronto.

 
At Tuesday, May 01, 2018 1:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, what I was mainly trying to say is that CLE's defense has showed up for most of the series, at least somewhat, to at least slow down IND. I guess you disagree, but their team defensive numbers for 6 games out of 7 were actually decent, and still not that terrible including all games. Their defense was adequate to win every game except game 6. And it was a huge improvement from the regular season. I agree with you that I don't trust their defense, or their offense either, for the long haul of the playoffs, and that they're very inconsistent.

Also, 1 game, especially in a small sample size, can really skew numbers, especially when it's much different than the rest of the games or kind of anomaly. IND shot well, but didn't really score well, which is the bottomline. Harden had 1 really bad shooting game which he only scored 12 points. He only had 3 games under 20 points during the regular season. His FG % was still only a little down overall for the series, though his 3-pt and FT %'s were excellent. Removing RW's worst shooting game would barely increase his overall FG % for the series to .410. Most of his games were pretty consistent FG %-wise, none were great though. Though a case could be made that RW actually didn't shoot enough. He just didn't have a good series overall by his standards or MVPish standards.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Cleveland's defense versus Indiana was better than it had been during the regular season. We can agree on that.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Toronto certainly did not do much to inspire trust (or confidence) during the game one collapse. It will be interesting to see how both teams respond in what I still expect to be a long series. This Cleveland team does not appear to be a powerhouse that can roll over the Raptors. I still think that Toronto will prevail, probably by winning game two, splitting in Cleveland and ultimately taking game seven at home.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I unfortunately didn't see the game but looking at the box score it is not a good sign for Toronto that they held Lebron to 40% shooting and saw him score only 26 points on 30 shots and 6 free throws... and still lost at home. That will likely be Lebron's worst game of the series.

That said, I agree with you that the series is not over, and Toronto certainly has a massive talent advantage 2-13; the fourth best guy on Toronto is probably about as good as the 2nd best guy on Cleveland (given Love's current level of play), and the eighth best guy on Toronto might be better than the third best guy on Cleveland.

Whether or not they can keep their jinkies together is an open question, but for now I'll continue to bet against it. Raptors gonna Raptor.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 11:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Valanciunas could make a layup, TOR wins game 1 fairly easily.

Really, CLE should be winning this series fairly handily. They're deeper(their bench looks much better than TOR's bench). And I think they're more talented overall, though maybe just slightly less talented when only comparing starters.

James is easily the best player in the series, which is usually the #1 factor in deciding who wins a playoff series. DeRozan/Lowry aren't really that close to superstar status even. I didn't see most of the game, but CLE's defense was very solid late 4th/OT.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick/Anonymous:

We don't know how long LeBron's cramps are going to linger so this may or may not be his worst game.

I disagree that Cleveland should win this series "easily." This is going to be a tightly contested series.

Toronto is a jittery team for some reason but the Raptors were better over 82 games and I expect them to prove to be just slightly better than the Cavaliers by the end of this series.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 7:45:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

You may be right about the cramps. I can't recall a previous playoffs where they recurred, but that does not mean they won't this time. Still, I'll stand by "likely his worst game of the series" until something changes.

I agree that the Raptors were better over 82 games but on the other hand Lebron's Cavaliers teams have a history of upsetting playoff teams that were better than they were in the regular season, and the Raptors have a history of losing series they really ought to win.

I do not think it will be an easy series by any means; I assume that part of your response was not directed at me. My guess would likely be Cavs in 6 or 7, but it's hard for me to imagine Toronto winning a close-out game against a presumably engaged Lebron, especially after they crumbled in Game 1.

 
At Wednesday, May 02, 2018 11:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

LeBron has had cramps/dehydration a few times over the years.

I understand what you are saying about not believing that Toronto can beat LeBron in game 6 or 7 but I think that this season will be different.

 
At Thursday, May 03, 2018 8:42:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

All those Hakeem Olajuwon-like turnaround fallaway jumpers? James was straight clowning the Raptors tonight. They should be embarrassed enough to play harder and better in Cleveland, but given their past history of crumbling under pressure, it's not likely.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 7:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

James was great, no doubt about it (as Hubie Brown would say).

Toronto's effort level in a must win game at home as the number one seed was awful, though. Nick's comment "Raptors gonna Raptor" sums it up. Until James retires or completely falls apart physically, I can never pick Toronto to beat him. It looks like I was just flat wrong about this series. I would not usually concede that with at least two games to go but it is hard to see Toronto taking four of the next five. As Jim Mora would say if he were coaching Toronto, "I just hope we can win a game."

Kenny Smith always says that blowouts are the players' fault. Toronto led for all of regulation in game one, so I don't want to hear that the Raptors do not have enough talent to beat Cleveland. There is just no excuse for the Raptors to get blown out at home, even if James had dropped 60. Jordan went nuts against Boston back in '86 and still got swept. This game should have at least been close, if the Raptors had been fully engaged.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 11:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if James only had 25-30, TOR's defense was horrible. And for all the talk about the lack of help James is getting, his cast is certainly showing up in this series.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 11:30:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Devil's advocate here as I agree that this series is effectively over, but if ever there was a team that could get cocky at home and let the Raptors back into this series, it's this Cavs team. It will be interesting to see if Lebron can keep his supporting cast (and himself) engaged while they've got their boots on Toronto's neck.

 
At Friday, May 04, 2018 3:12:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I may be wrong, but if Raptors are going to do anything meaningful, they need different playoff coach next season.
I never trusted Lowry/DeRozan duo either, but this year it seemed they could get to the Finals... with Boston injuries and Cleveland roster shake up. Too bad they are collapsing...

 
At Saturday, May 05, 2018 11:35:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Lebron James.

That is all.

Destroyer of the Eastern Conference. The Raptors need to relocate elsewhere. Toronto is cursed. They played Game 3 with pride and played hard. Lost anyway.

A running one-handed fade off the wrong leg, off the glass? WTF.

Also. Toronto is paying $30 million per year for DeRozan and he couldn't even get on the court down the stretch for the most crucial game of the season? Enough said. 3-12, -23 in a 2 point loss. Tsk.

 
At Sunday, May 06, 2018 10:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, CLE should never had let TOR back in game. Lucky shot by James, but almost no chance TOR could win this series. Who does TOR have their big 4? It's amazing they had as good of a regular season as they did. They remind of ATL a few years back when they won 60 games, but still weren't contenders and had almost no chance of winning a title. Valanciunas/Ibaka are decent players, but not close to AS status. Lowry is a borderline AS maybe. If DeRozan was a top 5ish player, then yea, but he clearly isn't.

 
At Tuesday, May 08, 2018 6:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This series is both a tribute to LeBron James' greatness and a major disappointment for a Toronto team that earned the number one seed in the Eastern Conference.

 
At Tuesday, May 08, 2018 10:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought TOR would've done a little better, but not surprised at all. While they had another solid regular season, it just goes to show that you need at least one eliteish player to really be a contender unless there's very special circumstances.

CLE's team is a lot better on paper than most give them credit to. Obviously, they haven't played well at times(though not this series), but that has a lot to do with James.

 

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