Even though they floundered in the first-half of the regular season and subsequently fired their head coach, it was a foregone conclusion in basketball circles that the Cleveland Cavaliers would cruise past Eastern Conference comers and make haste for the NBA Finals for the second straight season.
Except the Cavaliers, and their much-heralded trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, must now face a Toronto Raptors squad that isn’t simply content with earning their first spot in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavs stand as overwhelming series favorites over the Raptors with Game 1 set to tip off on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena. But stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry don't seem prepared to lay down to the James and Co. just yet, particularly after an impressive regular season and an arduous playoff run.
“I told all the guys, it’s going to come,” DeRozan told the Toronto Star. “We’ve had struggles here and there, but it’s going to come. We didn’t win 56 games for no reason. We didn’t get to this point for no reason.”
Those struggles included the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers pushing Toronto to the full seven games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, difficult shooting stretches for both Lowry and DeRozan, and the severe ankle injury suffered by leading rebounder Jonas Valanciunas.
DeRozan’s scoring has dipped from 23.5 points a game during the season to 20.0 in the playoffs, and he’s shooting a mere 35.5 percent from the floor, though he’s exploded for 30 or more points in three games, all Toronto victories. The seventh-year shooting guard has played through a thumb injury on his right shooting hand.
Preparing to face a Cleveland defense that’s allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent overall from the field, Lowry’s shot has also been erratic. The point guard is shooting just 36.6 percent while coughing up 3.0 turnovers a game, but in the final two games against Miami he rediscovered the groove that made him an All-Star. Lowry scored 36 and 35 points in Games 6 and 7 of the series and went 8-for-12 from three-point range, a hot streak that may be difficult to maintain against a Cavs perimeter defense allowing only 37.4 percent shooting from deep.
Toronto will also miss Valanciunas for the fifth straight game and likely one more. Head coach Dwane Casey ruled the Lithuanian seven-footer out for Game 1 and he’s currently doubtful for Game 2. Valanciunas went down in Game 3 of the Miami series, and his 15.0 points and 12.1 rebounds per game during these playoffs should be missed against Cleveland.
Still, the Raptors have been more than respectable in the season series against Cleveland. Toronto won both their home games and never shot less than 49 percent, winning the Nov. 25 matchup 103-99. In the Feb. 26 meeting, Lowry dropped a career-best 43 points and hit the game winner in a 99-97 victory.
"My first game winner in my illustrious 10-year career," Lowry said after the game. The win came after the Cavs earned a 122-100 home victory on Jan. 4.
The Raptors also must overcome their poor postseason road record against a Cavs squad that has had few issues. Toronto is 2-4 on the road during these playoffs, while Cleveland has gone a perfect 8-0 to reach the conference finals after a 33-8 regular-season record at Quicken Loans.
After replacing David Blatt in January, head coach Tyronn Lue has helped guide the Cavs to a thoroughly dominant playoff run, and he has rarely needed to rely too heavily on James. The four-time MVP is netting 23.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game over 38.8 minutes, yet Irving leads the Cavs with 24.4 points and he’s healthy this go-round after a knee injury limited him in the build up to last year’s finals.
Love, who missed the last three rounds of the postseason due to a separated shoulder last year, is also enjoying a solid string of play. Marking just the second postseason of his career, the 27-year-old is totaling 18.9 points and 12.5 rebounds despite shooting 36.4 percent from the floor.
Love continues to have his woes on the defensive end, but Cleveland’s hot shooting has helped quiet criticism. The Cavs are knocking down an exceptional 46.2 percent of their threes, even better than defending champion Golden State’s 40.3 percent, with reserve forward Channing Frye connecting on 57.1 percent and Irving 53.8.
Overall, Lue's squad should be able to overcome a series upset. The Raptors finished with one less regular-season win than the Cavs and are capable of giving Cleveland a real scare, but the Cavs are rested, have home-court advantage, playoff experience and James' unwavering determination. Those ingredients are probably enough for Cleveland to clinch a conference title in six games.
Game 1 Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
Betting Odds: Cleveland 10.5 points
Over/Under: 201.5 points
Prediction: Cleveland over Toronto, 101-97