Through ups and downs, trials and tribulations of what is the NBA season, we enter the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a bit of the expected: the Cleveland Cavaliers facing off against the Toronto Raptors. Both teams took meandering paths to this point but a rematch from last year’s conference finals is a meeting of two teams that are each more than capable of making it all the way and having a little fun while doing so.
As usual, all eyes this series will be on LeBron James and what changes will be made to the Cavs’ rotations as they face mounting pressure to defend their magical title from a season ago. Cleveland may have swept Indiana in the first round but looked mightily unimpressive while doing so, struggling to put away the Pacers in each of the four close wins. The step up in competition during the upcoming series will be a big test for a squad that has the pieces to keep rolling but have shown little on-court progress the past few weeks.
Standing in the Cavaliers’ way is a Raptors team that has the pieces to win the series but will similarly need to take the next step in order to get past the East’s top dogs. Injuries have played a factor in the way the season has gone for Toronto but this is a good defensive team that can force turnovers each night while also putting up highlights behind the dazzling DeMar DeRozan and company.
Cleveland won the regular season series 3-1, but a closer examination shows that you shouldn’t put too much stock in it (other than giving them home-court advantage in this round). Either way, this conference finals rematch from last season should be one of the highlights of the second round and instantly give the winner the inside track to make it to the final series of the year.
No. 3 Toronto Raptors (51-31) vs. No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31)
Game 1 - Monday, May 1, 7 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 - Wednesday, May 3, 7 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 - Friday, May 5, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 - Sunday, May 7, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 5 (if necessary) - TBD
Game 6 (if necessary) - TBD
Game 7 (if necessary) - TBD
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will take place at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Keys for Toronto
It probably goes without saying but how the Raptors guard — or rather slow down — LeBron James will determine how long this series goes and if the team has a chance of pulling off the upset. P.J. Tucker likely gets first crack but this will be a team effort with DeMarre Carroll, Norman Powell and others rotating over for coverage. Don’t discount having Serge Ibaka in the paint to deter drives either, as help defense will play a big role in forcing the ball to others in the lineup. If Kyle Lowry can step up and shake off the cobwebs, he could be a huge x-factor on the offensive end.
Keys for Cleveland
Right away in Game 1, the Cavaliers will have to shake off the rust they likely developed from such a long sit from the first round to the second. While the defending champions have proven they can do that in the past, it’s been such a lengthy layoff that getting easy shots early in the series will be crucial. Defensively, the entire starting five need to step things up — particularly when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll and keeping the Raptors out of the lane. In addition, getting Kyrie Irving going offensively will be a welcome development for this series and future ones.
Personnel-wise, Toronto is probably the East’s best challenger to the Cavaliers this season. While it’s been a bit rocky at times coming into this series, the Raptors have a top-tier scorer in DeMar DeRozan and a host of defensive options that can slow down Cleveland’s big three. They don’t have LeBron James however, and that’s the biggest factor in why the defending champions are the favorites to make it to the Finals once again. The Cavs haven’t played well in over a month but it would still be a surprise to see them fail to make it to the conference finals after this one. There’s simply too much firepower in the starting five to let this one escape even if the Raptors pose a formidable challenge in this series.
Prediction: Cavaliers in six
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)