Throughout the playoffs, we’ll be doing series previews for each and every matchup. For more in-depth analysis, check out our Eastern and Western Conference Preview Articles, which covered the conferences at-large. Find all of our NBA playoff content here and on Twitter (@GamblingPodcast and @NBAZachB).
Series Price and Game 1 Line
Cleveland Cavaliers +160 vs. Toronto Raptors -190.
G1: CLE @ TOR (-7), O/U 215, +220/-270.
Regular Season H2H (2-1 CLE)
1/11/18: Cleveland 99, Toronto (+2.5) 133. Over 221.5.
3/21/18: Toronto (-1.5) 129, Cleveland 132. Over 225.
4/3/18: Toronto 106, Cleveland (-1.5) 112. Under 223.
Facts and Figures
Cleveland Cavaliers (#4)
- 50-32 Overall. 31-50-1 ATS. 39-41-2 O/U.
- Leading Scorer: Lebron James, 27.5 PPG.
- Best Stats: Lebron James Exists (#1), 54.7% Effective FG (#3), 12 3-PT/Gm (#3).
- Worst Stats: +0.9 Scoring Margin/Gm (#14), 41.8 Opp. FG/Gm (#30), 47.4% Opp. FG (#28), 11.7 Opp. 3-PT/Gm (#28).
- Notable Injuries: None.
Toronto Raptors (#1)
- 59-23 Overall. 43-38-1 ATS. 40-40-2 O/U.
- Leading Scorer: DeMar DeRozan, 23 PPG.
- Best Stats: +7.8 Scoring Margin/Gm (#2), 111 OffRtg (#3), 44.9% Opp. FG (#5).
- Worst Stats: 21.8 Fouls/Gm (#27), 35.8% 3-PT (#18).
- Notable Injuries: None.
What We Learned in Round 1
Round 1 revealed just about everything that’s wrong with Cleveland, and also that the greatness of one individual has the potential to shine through it all. The Cavs were outscored and arguably outplayed by Indiana, looking relatively disinterested in doing much else besides watching Lebron do everything. Their trade deadline roster overhaul did not lead to the bouncy young rotation many thought it would; instead, Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood combined to go 4/26 from three-point range while playing objectively horrible defense, Larry Nance was unable to stay on the floor with his porous defense, and George Hill provided little more than applause aside from a nice second half in Game 7.
Beyond the incompetence of the fresh blood that was supposed to be a huge part of this playoff run, the Cavs have been shooting themselves in the foot. Tyronn Lue still can’t figure out how the heck he wants to play, or who to run on the floor to accomplish that goal. Per NBA.com’s lineup data, not a single Cavs lineup played more than 44 minutes together in the first round. It’s too late in the season to still be figuring this shit out. And after using an astonishing 29 different starting lineups during the regular season, Lue came up with an even more astonishing four different starting lineups during a 7-game series. The roster composition itself is problematic, and the lack of comfort that these guys have with another is likewise exacerbating the issue.
The Cavs had a -4.4 Net Rating in their first round series against the Pacers. That number is worse than the one posted by the Knicks (-4.2) during this regular season and would have ranked 25th in the entire league. It suffices to say the Cavaliers are legit bad… yet the Lebron James effect is stronger than it’s ever been. His first-round performance against Indiana was one for the history books, averaging 34, 10, and 8 in 41 minutes a night. He single-handedly willed the Cavs past an inferior, yet momentarily superior Indiana team.
After their 105-101 victory over the Indiana Pacers in Game 7, the Cleveland Cavaliers have advanced to the second round. Here's how all #WhateverItTakes players have fared in TPA throughout the 2018 playoffs: pic.twitter.com/d2IBFgsNg1
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) April 30, 2018
SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THAT GRAPH.
What we learned in Round 1 is that, to a certain extent, the Cleveland Cavaliers suck, and that the extent to which Lebron James is great is slightly greater than that.
I was impressed with Toronto’s mental toughness against Washington. They hung in some close games and trusted their superior team to win out over the course of four quarters — I liked how, despite Washington having some moments here and there, Toronto had a “we’re just the better team” type of series, ultimately proving so in the fourth quarters of Games 5 and 6 wherein they played flat-out dominant defense and hit timely buckets.
There are causes for both optimism and concern. The Raptors’ net rating dropped from +7.6 in the regular season to +3.5 in the first round; that drop in efficiency was conveyed more on the defensive end, where the Raptors struggled to defend the elite guard play of Wall and Beal. Yet, for a team who is most well-known throughout this decade for being unable to come through when it matters most, the Raptors were nothing short of excellent in the fourth quarter. They flat-out dominated the Wizards in the fourth, posting a +21.3 net rating with an impeccable 90.5 defensive rating. They defended like maniacs and led the first round in contesting shots with a remarkable 70 contests per game. The Raptors were stifling at times, but more importantly always engaged and playing hard.
Still, though, watching Toronto play is a frustrating and uncomfortable experience. They seem to still be bothered by their playoff demons and the threat of extreme franchise purgatory if they are unable to make the Finals once again. And, if you pay close attention, they still show signs of slipping back into the DeRozan-Lowry hero ball days that almost destroyed this iteration of this team. Not only is their fourth quarter offense riddled with intermittent DeRozan isolations that, after failing, compel the team back into moving the ball, but their passing statistics are down across the board. The team’s AST% went from 59% in the regular season to 56% in the first round and 50% in the first round’s fourth quarters. Likewise, the Raptors threw over 20 fewer passes per game, going from 300 per game in the regular season to just over 279 per game in the first round. The Raptors need to be careful about wading back into the murky waters of hero-ball-ville.
Key Overall Matchup
Toronto’s mental toughness vs. Lebron
I could throw out a million stats as to why Toronto should win this series. I could start by saying they are the more efficient team by a wide margin, could tell you all about how good they are at defending the three-point line, could point to their advantages on the glass, off the bench, and in transition, and I’d finish by saying they just flat-out have a better roster and a better coach. I’d feel incredibly good about all those advantages across the board, and tell you the Raptors would win this series with ease.
All of that would be good, honest journalism if it weren’t for the absolute wild card presented by Lebron James, the second best player of all time and the superstar who, more than anyone before him has ever had to do, makes up for his teammates’ incompetence with unprecedented frequency and success. Lebron has not just beaten the Raptors before, he’s embarrassed them. We were in the exact same position just a year ago, with a higher-seeded Toronto team going up against a seemingly problematic Cleveland team. Lebron was cold-hearted then, and he’ll try to be now.
It’s insane how dominant this dude has been:
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) May 1, 2018
And yet, what this series comes down to is whether Lowry, Derozan, and the gang can grow a pair of onions and play to their expected level against a Lebron-led team. If we see deer-in-headlights Toronto once again, they don’t have a chance to beat the Cavs. Cleveland can drag ahead with a -4.4 Net Rating against Indiana, but they won’t be able to do so against this Toronto team if it plays to its potential. We know what we’re gonna get from Lebron in this series: greatness. What we don’t know is whether or not Toronto will show up. If they do, they are good enough to bury Cleveland. But if they’re struggling mentally and haunted by the demons of playoffs past, they are going to get clipped.
Key Individual Matchup
Lebron James vs. OG Anunoby
It seems that Anunoby, the precocious rookie, will be the Raptor initially tasked with the challenge of defending James. Guarding Lebron is not about limiting his individual statistics, as he’s pretty much a lock to grab those regardless of who is guarding him. Instead, guarding Lebron is all about limiting his control over the game, making him uncomfortable, exhausting him, and most importantly making him feel you, possession after possession, every time he touches the ball.
Anunoby’s needs to focus on doing just that — staying connected and physical, despite the fact that James went 13/21 with Anunoby guarding him during this regular season. If Anunoby can bother James and limit his control over the game, Toronto’s team-based advantages across the board will be given ample room to take control over the outcome of the series. But if James has free reign and doesn’t respect the defender right in front of him, all of Toronto’s team-based advantages become mitigated by the fact that Lebron is just that good.
Cleveland wins if…
Lebron is Lebron; they can survive the 5-7 minutes per game that Lebron sits; the supporting cast hits threes; DeRozan and Lowry choke away a game or two with terrible performances.
Toronto wins if…
They are over their Lebron James PTSD; they dominate every second during which Lebron is on the bench; their fourth-quarter defense continues to be elite; they stay committed to their new ball-movement system even when things start to get tense.
Cavs in 7.