By Chris Molicki
Heat-Raptors looks like it has a decent chance to be the most closely contested series of the second round (we’ll see if the Thunder have something to say about that). What might be more intriguing, however, is who might fare better against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. No offense to the Hawks, but even after a highly entertaining Game 1, they don’t have the size or the LeBron stopper to win that series. Miami and Toronto are both better equipped to knock off the king.
But who would be the toughest challenge? At first, it seemed like the Raptors were clearly the Cavs’ top adversary. But after struggling against the Pacers, that may no longer be true.
For what it’s worth, Cleveland went 1-2 against each of these teams. But this is playoff basketball, and this is where LeBron take it to another level. Therefore, the first question is which team is better equipped to slow down James?
I’d be curious as to who the Raptors’ primary defender would be on James. DeMarre Carroll is someone most people would say, but he hasn’t really looked like himself since returning from injury. Norman Powell did a great job defending Paul George at times, but he’s probably not strong enough to guard LeBron. The same goes for Terrence Ross. Dwayne Casey’s best option might be Patrick Patterson, a stronger player who can match up with James at the 4. We could even seen some James Johnson in this series.
The Heat seem to have better options. Joe Johnson and Luol Deng have the ability to give James trouble, not giving up as much strength or speed as most wing defenders. Justise Winslow will surely have a turn on LeBron, and the rookie has been developing into a top-notch defensive player. But the biggest thing Miami might have going for them is their help defense when James attacks the lane. Hassan Whiteside averaged 3.8 blocks per game in the first round and absolutely terrorized the Hornets in the paint. I think the Miami defense would have more success slowing down LeBron and cutting off some of his passing lanes.
Another issue is LeBron’s second banana, Kyrie Irving. Kyle Lowry started this season in much better shape, and should be better at defending the Cavs point guard than Goran Dragic, but guys like Josh Richardson and even Winslow could be deployed on Irving to give him fits. We’ll see how creative Erik Spoelstra gets.
Speaking of being creative, the ECF could really boil down to throwing unique looks at the Cavs, who have the luxury of supreme lineup flexibility. They can go big with Tristan Thompson at the 5, Kevin Love at the 4, and LeBron at the 3. They can go small by sitting Thompson and shifting the other two down a position. They can do a hybrid of the two by playing Channing Frye at center. They have an extremely good scoring point guard in Irving, and a hounding defender in Matthew Dellavedova backing him up. Spoelstra and Casey are going to have to be constantly countering these lineups with ones that have less talent, so they’ll need to find an advantage somewhere. I think the Heat are more equipped to do so. Not only do they have a better coach (who knows LeBron pretty well), but they also have more versatile players. Deng, Johnson, Winslow, and Richardson can play different positions on the floor, allowing maximum lineup flexibility. I trust them more than Patterson, Carroll, Ross, and Powell at this point.
Toronto finished comfortably in second in the East behind Cleveland. But after the way Miami made adjustments when they lost Chris Bosh, playing smaller and faster, I think they’d give the Cavs a better series. And I think that’s the series everyone wanted all along. LeBron tasked with taking down Wade and his former franchise to get to his sixth straight Finals.