On the surface, if the Toronto Raptors had a shot at making noise in the Eastern Conference Finals, they probably had to get to it in Game 1. The Cleveland Cavaliers were as rested as playoff teams come, yes, but a combination rust and a feisty opponent had led to tight opening games in each of their first two series this postseason, and a Toronto squad that finally found a bit of rhythm in Game 7 just two days ago could hope to carry that over.
It looked promising for about six minutes, but that might be as rosy as things get for fans north of the border in this series.
This wasn’t the three-point demolition the Atlanta Hawks saw in round two, but an early look at Toronto’s defensive approach suggests they might be going to unhealthy lengths to prevent the long ball. Limiting the Cavs to 16 attempts from deep through three quarters (a generous proxy for the competitive minutes Tuesday night) is good in theory, but when the trade-off is allowing over 70 percent from inside the arc on a steady diet of layups and dunks, the math changes quite a bit.
It already feels like a no-win, pick-your-poison situation for the Raptors. They had no answer for any of LeBron James’ preferred offensive options; LeBron walked by DeMarre Carroll at will from the block or the perimeter, and found easy buckets in transition (the Cavs won the fast break battle 16-0 through three quarters) and as the roll man in pick-and-roll sets. Kyrie Irving effortlessly poured in 27, and the two combined for 22 of 30 from the field and 51 points. There aren’t really any easy answers for either one that don’t involve opening up the floodgates from three and simply hoping a pretty excellent shooting cast misses shots.
There are Cavs advantages all over the place. They won the rebounding battle by a landslide, grabbing a third of their own misses and nearly 65 percent of all the available boards during the competitive minutes in the first three quarters. They bottled up Raptors’ engines Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan with an expected trapping game defensively, and none of Toronto’s roll men have the playmaking moxie to hurt the Cavs’ speedy recoveries. The skill gap in this series isn’t confined to each team’s top players.
If keeping their best tricks in the bag wasn’t already prominently on the minds of the Cavaliers’ coaching staff, it probably should be at this point. They don’t need this machine in anywhere near high gear until the Finals, and they can focus on keeping the main cogs fresh and in rhythm. James in particular has never been to a title series while shouldering this little burden through the first three rounds; it’s tough to predict how much this could impact things next round, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Keeping defensive focus will also be important heading into the Finals, and it’s been a positive through Cleveland’s cakewalk thus far. A team that’s been shaky with focus from time to time over the last 18 months has kept it mostly locked in even during periods where their offensive firepower could likely carry a lesser effort defensively. There aren’t many worries in Believeland at the moment.
Game 2 Prediction: Cavs win to take a 2-0 lead.
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