By: Jeffrey Newholm
Most NBA fans were hoping for a Cavs-Heat East Finals, a matchup that would pit Lebron’s home team versus the Miami team he had his best success with. But Cavs-Raptors is a matchup that is just as compelling. For the first time in NBA history, a Canadian team will be playing for the chance to go to the NBA Finals. The Raptors take their role as Canada’s hoops representative seriously, as seen by their #wethenorth hashtag in vogue the last few postseasons. The Cavs, on the other hand, are now not just playing for “The Land” (as in Cleveland, the benighted sports city), but for the pride of America. It’s a matchup not only with unique international flair, but a good matchup in its own right as the two teams finished just one game apart in the standings. I’ll take a look at how these two teams got this far, preview each positional matchup, then predict a winner.
Cleveland: 57-25, #1 seed Eastern conference, beat Detroit 4-0; beat Atlanta 4-0
The Cavs may be the top seed in the East, but it’s been a less than smooth ride to the top. They had to overcome the shocking firing of coach David Blatt mid-season, a move I found rather questionable myself. It took until game 81 to wrap up home court in the East, and the Pistons and Hawks were supposedly not the usual East pushovers. But Lebron’s team always seems to kick it into another gear come spring, and the 2016 Cavilers have proven to be no exception. Despite my skepticism coach Tyronn Lue has remodeled the Cavs into a three point terror, breaking both the single game and four-game series records for playoff treys. The Cavs are more well balanced this year with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving both healthy, putting less of a burden on Lebron. The team’s 8-0 postseason record is a bit misleading: almost all of those eight games were battles not won until the fourth. The Cavs are therefore in the unusual position of being well-rested, yet still battle-tested.
Toronto: 56-26, #2 seed Eastern conference, beat Indiana 4-3; beat Miami 4-3
Although the Raptors and Cavs had almost the same record, the Raptors’ season was much more energizing because expectations have been historically much lower for Toronto. When the Raptors suffered a listless game one loss to Indiana, many fans surely thought “oh boy, here we go again”. Toronto just barely squeaked by the Pacers in seven, then fought the Heat to another game seven in an epic back-and-forth affair. Up to their second game seven Toronto had all the makings of another East paper tiger, as previous Hawks and Pacers teams proved to be. That is to say Toronto was a talented team with a good record, but lacked a champion’s drive and heart. But Sunday’s game helped dispel that notion as the Raptors demolished the Heat by 27. The Raptors may not have a lot of energy left after playing 14 games, but they can’t be faulted for not having the grit to win.
Forward: Cavs’ Lebron James and Kevin Love versus Raptors’ DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson
It’s easy to see the names Lebron and Love and just give this one to Cleveland. That would be, well, absolutely correct. Those two average more than twice as many playoff points and rebounds than any of Toronto’s forwards. Patterson didn’t even start a single regular season game before being thrust into the lineup in these playoffs, and he contributed the least scoring among starters in game seven against Miami. However, it should be noted that the days of a Cleveland team automatically winning this matchup just by having Lebron are coming to a close. Lebron’s minutes and points have been down this postseason, and at 31 he’s past his peak. Some of his numbers decline is due to having much more help this spring, but some is also due to his gradual move into a leader emeritus role, a role Tim Duncan now plays completely for the Spurs. For now though, Lebron still has explosive talent and is still capable of taking over a game.
Guard: Cavs’ Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith versus Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry
If Lebron’s time is waning then Irving may soon be the future face of the franchise. Irving has actually led the Cavs in scoring this postseason and hit the biggest shot so far, a dagger three in game three against Detroit. Smith has been an enigma for Cleveland, being suspended for fighting last April and making some bonehead plays this year, but managed to contribute to the avalanche of threes the Cavs used to bury the Hawks. Lowry and DeRozan have been the motor behind the Raptor’s rise this spring, combining for 38 points a game in the playoffs and 44 in the regular season. Together those two offer much more than Irving and Smith considering Smith is mostly just a bit player.
Center: Cavs’ Tristan Thompson versus Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo.
Valanciunas would easily take this matchup, but the problem is he suffered an ankle injury against Miami and will likely miss at least the first two against the Cavs. Valanciunas is the team’s third leading playoff scorer and also its leading rebounder, while Thompson and Biyombo are minor contributors. Verdict:
Tie with Biyombo in the lineup, edge to Toronto with Valanciunas
Coach: Cavs’ Tyronn Lue versus Raptors’ Dwane Casey
This one’s hard to handicap seeing as this is the farthest either coach has ever gotten and there’s a small sample size to evaluate Lue. But I have to give the edge to Casey because Lue already had a talented, first-place team to work with while Casey inherited a poor Toronto Team. Lue certainly deserves credit for improving the Cavs, but Casey got his team to the same place without the benefit of a trio of superstars already on the roster. In fact none of the Raptors’ players were household names before their very recent run of success. Both coaches are in good situations, but Lue’s success is largely inherited.
Obviously the Cavs have a huge edge in rest, not having played since last Sunday and also needing to play six fewer games. But the mannerisms Lebron has shown this spring have shown he’s finally matured as a superstar and is focused on his goal of getting a title for his hometown team. Two moments in these playoffs stand out to me in this regard. In the crucial game three against Atlanta, the Hawks blew a seemingly sure win and found themselves hopelessly behind the Cavs in the last minute. In frustration, one of the Hawks shoved Lebron into the stands, drawing a flagrant foul. When something similar happened to Marcus Smart a few years ago, Smart lost his cool and ended up suspended. But LeBron coolly got up and went to the free throw line, only glancing back to make sure the fans weren’t hurt. It’s also noteworthy Lebron didn’t engage in any of the showboating he’s been known to do after big wins. Secondly, after game four, a reporter tried hard to bait Lebron into putting up bulletin-board material by stating his preference to play either Toronto or Miami. But Lebron refused to bite, even when the reporter chided him by saying “c’mon Lebron!” I think after years of having an over-sized ego, he has realized that his window of opportunity to win another title is closing. With a good supporting cast at last in Cleveland, he’s serious about his desire to win another title, and is willing to take on a lesser-and less marketable-role to do so. Judging by what I’ve seen this spring it would take someone special to beat this Cavs team. The 73 win Warriors are just such a team. Hokey talk of patriotism aside, I don’t think the Raptors are. They may not be a paper tiger, but they still don’t have fangs as sharp as the Cavs’. With Valanciunas out, the Raptors could quickly be in too big of a hole to climb out of. And Lebron isn’t toying with his opponents this time around. Cavs in Five
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