After a lengthy rest, the Cavaliers start round two Monday against the Raptors. What will be the key or keys to the series for the wine and gold?
It's no surprise that a LeBron James team breezed through the first round of the playoffs. In case you somehow missed it, LeBron has now won 21 straight first-round playoff games and has never lost a first-round series. He's impossible.
But round one is over, and that brings us to round two against Toronto. The Raptors were the source of an exciting series last year, giving the Cavs a scare and pulling even at 2-2. The atmosphere was wild, the team was amped, but they couldn't shake a stick at the Cavaliers in games five and six.
Cleveland won their four games by a staggering total of 114 points. This year, however, things could be different.
The Cavaliers struggled down the stretch before an oxymoronic unconvincing sweep of Indiana in round one. Toronto looked vulnerable after a mind-blowingly terrible game three before winning three in a row to reach round two. Both teams added pieces vs. last year, although Toronto changed their starting lineup by adding Serge Ibaka.
On paper, this will be a tough-but-winnable matchup for Cleveland. In practice, with the way the Cavs have vacillated between good and bad all season, who knows?
Here's what the Cavaliers will need to do to win the series.
Move like crazy
Per Synergy Sports, the Raptors are mid-level or worse in defending both parts of the pick and roll, ranking 21st and 19th against the ball-handler and roll-man, respectively. The Cavs rank 7th and 11th in those categories. Moving around and forcing this relatively new lineup to work together is how the Cavaliers can take advantage of them. Furthermore, Toronto ranks 22nd in the league in stopping opponents on cuts. The Cavs don't do this enough (less than 6% of their possessions), but when they do, it's effective. Cleveland ranks 5th in the NBA in scoring efficiency on cuts. It's simple: Move, get guys covering for each other, and there will be open shots.
Remember how to stop the pick and roll
It happened in last year's playoffs, I swear! You'd never believe it after watching these guys this year, but honestly, the Cavs stopped the pick and roll often enough in last year's post-season to win an NBA title. This year, in the regular season, Cleveland ranked 26th in points allowed per possession by ball-handlers in the pick and roll. Want to guess what Toronto's #1 most common play-type is? Ta-da! Pick and roll where the ball-handler finishes. 24% of Toronto's plays end this way, and with Lowry and DeRozan in the backcourt it's easy to see why. They're the 2nd most efficient team in the NBA at PnR scoring, so it's no wonder they do it so often. The Cavs need to rein this in at least a little. Granted there's some weird aura around the Toronto backcourt that makes them suck in the playoffs, but you can't count on that if you're Cleveland. You have to force them into tough shots even though - plain and simple - the Cavs haven't done that all year.
This is admittedly an extension of the above, but Toronto has two exceptionally talented offensive players. That means that when they're not running a pick and roll, they're setting picks in order to get the matchups they want, then running isolation plays. While 30% of the Raptors' plays are pick and rolls, 28% are spot ups or isos. Those are simply 1-on-1 situations. Thankfully, the Cavaliers are pretty good at stopping 1-on-1s.
However, it's more important to realize that they now have to stop multiple players who are good at this. If the Cavs can stop Lowry, they also have to stop DeRozan. If they stop both of them, Ibaka might be left open for threes. This is a very talented team.
Keep having LeBron James
It's hard to bet against the best player of the past 20 years. It's hard to bet against one of the five best players in NBA history. It's almost impossible to bet against a team that typically doesn't need that player to have a particularly great game to win. Recently, he's had to do it all, but if Kyrie Irving rediscovers his deadly stroke, the Cavs can destroy anybody. LeBron is like the Fast and the Furious movies: He does the impossible, then does more the next time you see him. Did a guy just skydive a car? Sure. Next time is he in space? Yep. Are they throwing missiles? Of course. For LeBron it's: Can't believe a guy in his 12th year can average 36/13/9 in the Finals and win two games virtually by himself against one of the best teams ever? He did. How about a guy in his 13th year averaging 30/11/9/2.5/2.5 in the Finals and winning three straight against the undisputed best (regular season) team ever? Fine, how about...you see where this is going.
LeBron James is a real-life cheat code. It's hard to imagine that DeRozan and Lowry - who historically choke in the playoffs - will be the ones to derail LeBron's unparalleled dominance over the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James, not surprisingly, is the key to this series. If he doesn't play well, the Cavs should still be able to compete and/or win. If he does play well, Toronto has no chance.