NBA·Preview

Raptors vs. Cavaliers: In series of stars, 'Bench Mob' could turn the tide

Toronto's second unit has been the best in the NBA this season, and it will need to maintain that level if the Raptors are to finally get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

VanVleet, Wright and Co. are key to the Raptors' chance of success against Cleveland

Fred VanVleet has played sparingly in these playoffs because of a shoulder injury suffered in the final game of the regular season. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Raptors meet Cleveland in the NBA playoffs for the third consecutive year, beginning Tuesday in Toronto.

Here are five keys to the series:

Still the King

So much of this series is about LeBron James. The four-time NBA MVP has averaged 30.9 points against Toronto in their last 12 meetings, and proved once again in Cleveland's 4-3 series win over Indiana that he can almost single-handedly win games, scoring 45 points in Game 7. The 33-year-old James logged 41.1 minutes a game in the opening round, sitting briefly in Sunday's deciding game because of muscle cramps.

Lebron James has averaged more than 30 points in each of the past 12 games between his Cavaliers and the Raptors. (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

Is Freddy ready?

Toronto's fondly named "Bench Mob" led the league in the regular season, and then closed out the Raptors' series-clinching win at Washington on Friday by outscoring Washington's bench 17-2. Led by guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, the second unit makes Toronto, from top to bottom, a better team than Cleveland. The Raptors need VanVleet to remain healthy, however. A shoulder injury kept him out of all but three minutes of the first five games against Washington, and his presence was sorely missed.

Getting a breather

When the Raptors faced Cleveland in the conference finals two seasons ago, the Raptors had played 14 games, while the Cavs had eight days off awaiting their opponent. Last season was similar: the Cavs had a week off, while Toronto and Milwaukee battled through a six-game series. The Raptors are the more rested team this time around, dispatching Washington on Friday, two days before Cleveland's series finale. And Lowry played just 31 minutes in Game 6, while DeMar DeRozan played 33.

Toronto beats Washington 102-92, wins series 4-2. Will face Cleveland or Indiana next round. 1:56

Homecourt help

The Raptors achieved one of their biggest goals of the regular season when they locked down the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, giving them homecourt for the conference playoffs. The Raptors have lost just seven times at the Air Canada Centre this season. The two games Toronto took off Cleveland in the 2016 conference final came at the ACC. The Raptors hope to get off to a running start with wins in Game 1 and 2 in Toronto.

Role players

Canadian Tristan Thompson has made more headlines on TMZ than on sports pages for his off-court indiscretions. But in his first start since March 28, Thompson made his presence felt immediately in Sunday's win, and finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds. He could be a handful for Jonas Valanciunas. George Hill also returned after missing three games with back spasms. While their laser focus on LeBron, the Raptors have hope no-one else on Cleveland comes up big.

SCHEDULE

  • Game 1 Tuesday, May 1, 8 p.m. ET:  @ Toronto
  • Game 2 Thursday, May 3, 6 p.m. ET: @ Toronto
  • Game 3 Saturday, May 5, 8:30 p.m. ET: @ Cleveland
  • Game 4 Monday, May 7, 8:30 p.m. ET: @ Cleveland
  • *Game 5 Wednesday, May 9 TBD: @ Toronto
  • *Game 6 Friday, May 11 TBD: @ Cleveland
  • *Game 7 Sunday, May 13 TBD: @ Toronto

* If necessary

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