The Cleveland Cavaliers are looking more vulnerable than ever, but because of their convenient geographic location they haven’t really been threatened. That may be changing, thanks to Canada’s own Toronto Raptors. Drake’s squad has snuck up only two games behind Cleveland in the loss column, even taking down the Cavs just over a week ago thanks to a Kyle Lowry game winner. They’ve proven over the first 3/4 of the season that they’re the only real challengers in the East. Kyle Lowry is skinny and becoming a star, DeMar Derozan is tough as nails and shooting better, Jonas Valanciunas is showing he’s worth his contract, and everyone else is falling in line.
Despite all this, it probably won’t be enough. Cleveland has so much star power, so much experience, and Toronto has yet to show it can do anything about that in the playoffs. To have a shot, these will need to be their main points of emphasis.
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Finishing at the Rim
Over 1/3 of Toronto’s shots come within five feet of the rim, with a success rate of 57.6 percent. That’s just below the 76ers, not even in the top half of the league. With an attacking backcourt with Derozan and Lowry and post players like Valanciunas and Luis Scola that percentage could easily go up. And that may not be that tough in a playoff series. Despite Cleveland’s trove of (highly-paid) big men they have the second-fewest blocks per game in the league, and Boston is almost laughably thin in the frontcourt. Toronto should be fearless taking it to the rack, although a matchup with Miami and Hassan Whiteside could cause problems here.
Three Point Shooting
Toronto has quietly placed themselves third in the league in three point percentage, despite Derozan still figuring his shot out and Patrick Patterson shooting an entirely-too-many 3.8 per game. As a team the Raptors are shooting 36.6 percent, but Cleveland and Boston are holding opponents to 34.1 and 32.7 percent, respectively. Other potential playoff matchups Chicago, Indiana, Miami, and Atlanta are all in the top ten in opponent three point percentage. Those few percentage points will make a big difference in a seven game series. It’s up to their shooters to take advantage of defensive weak points like J.R. Smith, Mo Williams, or Isaiah Thomas.
It’s a simple concept, but not a simple execution. This is how LeBron & Co. nearly took down the mighty Warriors last summer: overwhelming you with size and getting another possession darn near every time they missed a shot. Valanciunas is top-fifteen in defensive rebound percentage and top-five in total rebound percentage among players with regular minutes. The team’s rebounding percentage is right around league average but tends to drop against teams with competent big men. That can’t continue, but in those situations it may not need to because of the next point…
Jonas Valanciunas’s Defense
There won’t be many rebounds to grab if the opposing team makes every shot. The only two Raptors with a higher defensive rating (higher is bad) than Valanciunas are Bruno Caboclo, who has played in three games, and Anthony Bennett, who just got cut. Not good. If he can bring that 106.9 rating anywhere near 100 and protect the rim even occasionally, it would be a much needed boost to a defense that isn’t quite cracking the top third of the league. Lowry and Derozan are active in the backcourt, but something noticeable is missing.
DeMarre Carroll’s Health
This may be the X-Factor for a team trying to prove its championship acquisitions. Carroll was Toronto’s marquee free agent acquisition but has only played 23 games this season. He’s the guy that could tie all of this blueprint together. He can get to the rim against bigger defenders, efficiently shoot the three, and his strong on-ball and team defense (he’s their best shot at containing LeBron) makes the whole team better on that end.
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It’s a long shot that this team can break through to the Finals in a conference that still includes LeBron. First they have to prove they can get past the first round, then there’s another series before you can even think about Cleveland. But with a healthy team that works to correct its deficiencies, even for a few games at a time, they’ll have to be in the conversation.
*All stats from nba.com/stats