By Frank McLean
After taking care of the Greek Freak in Milwaukee, the Toronto Raptors go to round two of the NBA Playoffs and this time their opponent is King James and the the Cleveland Cavaliers, a round earlier than last year.
At the beginning of the year it was expected that these two teams would face each other in the Eastern Conference Final for a second time in a row, but the season just didn’t go as planned.
It’s not just the Raptors, but fact of life for all the other teams in the East if they have any aspirations of making it to the NBA Finals the road there goes through Interstate-90 into downtown Cleveland and Quicken Loans Arena where the defending champions live.
After winning their first 10-playoff games last year the Cavaliers up two games to nothing came to Toronto looking for the sweep, but then all of a sudden they found a Raptors team that didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to lay down and die. The Raptors won the next two games to tie the series, but would end up losing in game six to the appreciative cheers of their fans.
Which begs to question, are the Raptors the only team in the East that could put a monkey wrench in the bid for the Cavaliers to make it back to the finals for a third straight year?
Back in February you could see some cracks in the Cavaliers that made you think maybe their window as champions was closing. Injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving plus the loss of Matthew Dellavedova to the Milwaukee Bucks showed that when Lebron James doesn’t have his supporting cast around him the Cavaliers are beatable.
As a result the Cavaliers were 21-20 in the second half of the season and because of that they lost their grip on the top seed in the east to Boston and finishing second set up this second round match-up with the Raptors.
Cleveland’s defense was just not as a good as last year finishing 22nd after being 10th last season.
When you look at the defensive stats of the 16-teams that made the playoffs this year they were 13th in defensive ratings.
There was one point in the season where James was complaining in the press that they needed a playmaker to get him the ball. They had that in Dellavedova, but the Cavaliers let him walk to Milwaukee in the summer.
So when you look at that evidence you think like Lloyd Christmas in the comedy classic Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there is a chance.”
The Raptors do have a chance and you can thank two moves made by president Masai Ujiri at the trade deadline getting Serge Ibaka from Orlando and bringing P.J. Tucker back to the 416 from Phoenix.
He saw the window opening a crack and these two deals were made to make the Raptors better by making them a tougher team to handle in the paint with the sole object being able to stop LeBron James.
Ibaka gets to play the role Bismack Biyombo did last year and that’s to block the paint and scoop up rebounds while P.J. Tucker will get the assignment to shadow James and guard him close enough that he will know what brand of deodorant he puts on in the morning.
So the spotlight is on Tucker and he knows he has the dirty job of guarding the “King” and trying to limit his success?
“I don’t think his game changes,” Tucker was saying Sunday before the team left for Cleveland. “I think for the most part, when he’s aggressive and he’s trying to score the ball and he’s going, I don’t think it matters. I think when he gets a few to the rim, easy, he gets a few dunks, he hits a pullup, he hits a turnaround, and his three starts falling, he’s a feel-good player. If he’s hitting some regular shots, the tough stuff starts to fall. He’s probably the best player in the world. It’s still a feel game (for him).”
The addition of Tucker and Ibaka makes this team better on paper than last year.
The Raptors need to win one game in Cleveland to win this series since they do not have home court advantage in this round. And if there is game they can steal it would be game one since the Cavaliers will have gone eight days without playing since they finished their first round sweep of Indiana.
We will find out starting Monday night if the Raptors can finally slay the dragon of Ohio.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.