While the Golden State Warriors chase their 73rd win and fans and pundits around the NBA fantasize about a possible Western Conference finals matchup against San Antonio or Oklahoma City, there’s only really one Eastern Conference finals matchup people are looking forward to: Cleveland vs. Toronto.
After being swept by Washington in last year’s first round and having not won a playoff series in 15 years, most Raptors players had little to no interest in discussing a potential clash with the Cavs. Understandably so.
“Talk to me when we get there,” Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry replied to one reporter. “We’re not even out of the regular season yet.”
Sorry, but we’re going to start talking about a potential matchup of the East’s top two seeds now. And there were a few Raptors players who talked to SheridanHoops about facing the top-seeded Cavaliers.
Toronto won two of the three regular season meetings against Cleveland, with each team holding serve at home. A major key for the Raptors will be who defends LeBron James, and that important task will go to someone who has played just 25 regular season games.
DeMarre Carroll missed three months after undergoing knee surgery in January. His first game back was Thursday against Atlanta – his former team – followed by 17 minutes of action Sunday in New York. Toronto plans to slowly increase his minutes and reduce its current restrictions on Carroll, who likely will serve as the team’s primary perimeter defender in the postseason.
That defensive ability, along with his positional versatility, is why the Raptors signed him to a four-year, $60 million deal in the first place.
“Playing LeBron, he’s very selfless,” Carroll told SheridanHoops. “He’s trying to get his teammates involved. LeBron knows when to turn it up and when not to turn it up, and you’re definitely going to get his best games in the playoffs.”
James nearly averaged a triple-double in Cleveland’s four-game sweep of Atlanta in last year’s conference finals, but Carroll helped hold him to 43.8 percent shooting during that series.
Carroll likely won’t have to do all the work himself. All the Raptors’ wings will probably take a turn guarding James, according to reserve forward Terrence Ross.
“Everybody tries to guard him, throw our bodies at him and make sure we keep him from really hurting us outside the 3-point line,” Ross told SheridanHoops. “We try to mix it up.”
Carroll said his main goal when he guards James is to just be a pest and a nuisance.
“You don’t want him hitting the same shots he was hitting earlier in the game,” Carroll told SheridanHoops. “If you do that, then you did your job. You want him to have every look he takes be tough.”
James is obviously not the only reason why Cleveland is third in the league in offensive efficiency this season. They have other stars who can create their own shots in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Another major goal defensively is to keep Cleveland’s shooters in front of the 3-point line, Ross said. While the Cavs are second in made threes per game and seventh in 3-point shooting percentage, they make the second-fewest 2-point shots per game in the NBA.
Irving’s abilities from the arc leaves much to be desired, but Raptors guard Cory Joseph said that keeping Cleveland’s point guard out of the paint is crucial. When defenses tighten up and every possession becomes more critical, players who consistently drive to the basket and draw fouls are more valuable in the postseason. The potential Cleveland-Toronto series would have a quarter of the league’s top 16 drivers, according to NBA.com.
James and Irving are 15th and 16th in the NBA in drives per game, and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Lowry are third and 13th, respectively. Not coincidentally, DeRozan, Lowry and James are all in the top 12 in free throw attempts per game. So clogging up those driving lanes will be key.
Both teams also are in the top half of the league in rebounding. Charlotte castoff Bismack Biyombo is a major reason why Toronto was able to be successful while starting center Jonas Valanciunas missed several weeks with a broken hand in November.
Biyombo is second on the team in rebounds per game behind Valanciunas and leads all Raptors in defensive rating. He told SheridanHoops that he likes his team’s matchups down low against Love, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson.
In facing Love, Biyombo said, making him put the ball on the floor is important because he’s such a good spot-up shooter. When he posts up, watching out for Love’s fadeaways are vital as well.
“More than anything, just being able to know what the coaches are telling us to do as far as the game plan and stick with it and be confident in it,” Biyombo told SheridanHoops.
All Raptors players watch plenty of opponents’ games on film, so every defender will be ready against Cleveland’s multiple offensive threats.
Toronto has been much more consistent this season than last – something coach Dwane Casey has stressed more times than we can count – and the reward has been the largest single-season win total in franchise history. The team is grittier, more hard-nosed and better positioned for the playoffs this year, Casey said.
But everyone is still cautious about how the team will perform in the postseason, mainly unwilling to look ahead to potential second- and third-round opponents. That makes sense, given Toronto’s two straight first-round exits as the higher seed.
“Everybody is curious, anxious,” Casey said.
Everyone is also curious to see how Toronto would stack up against Cleveland in a seven-game series, the East’s best potential matchup in this year’s playoffs.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.