Can the Raptors dethrone LeBron James and the Cavaliers?
Toronto looks to topple reigning champs in 2nd-round playoff series
A little less than a year after meeting in the NBA's Eastern Conference final, the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers will square off one round earlier when their playoff series tips off Monday at 7 p.m. ET.
Though the Cavaliers are seeded No. 2 in the conference (behind Boston), they're still the favourites to represent the East in the NBA Finals for the third straight year since LeBron James returned to Cleveland.
Here are some key points to consider as the No. 3-seeded Raptors try to dethrone King James and his cavalry.
Tale of 2 defences
Prior to the all-star break, Toronto ranked 16th in defensive rating at 106 points allowed per 100 possessions.
It was clear the Raptors needed more tenacity defensively if they had any hopes of challenging James and the Cavaliers, and the Toronto brass responded by acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.
The duo has turned the Raptors into an elite defensive team.
From the time Ibaka and Tucker joined the club through the end of the regular season, Toronto boasted the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.
During the same period, Cleveland ranked 29th, surrendering almost nine points more per 100 possessions.
While the Cavaliers swept the Pacers in the opening round of the playoffs, their defensive struggles have carried over.
Indiana — a middle-of-the-pack offensive squad — hit the century mark in each game, and while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are gifted offensive players for Cleveland, they're both liabilities defensively.
Cleveland's juggernaut offence is a huge reason why it has been able to win games despite a porous defence.
The Cavaliers are averaging almost 113 points a contest on 48 per cent shooting during this year's post-season.
A huge part of their arsenal is the three-point shot, which accounted for 35 per cent of their points scored during the regular season.
2️⃣5️⃣ THREES!<br><br>We just set the <a href="https://twitter.com/NBA">@NBA</a> All-Time record for threes in a regular season game with 25! <a href="https://t.co/dmGE4aRHRt">pic.twitter.com/dmGE4aRHRt</a>—@cavs
The defending NBA champions made 1,067 three-point field goals during the regular season — the third-most ever.
In last season's playoff matchup, Cleveland connected on 44 per cent of its long-distance attempts in its four victories over Toronto.
The Raptors will have their work cut out for them again, especially with the Cavaliers' addition of sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
We the Norm
With the Raptors' backs against the wall in the opening round, head coach Dwane Casey turned to Norman Powell and, for a second consecutive year, the sophomore altered the complexion of the series.
In Game 5 of last year's first-round series against the Pacers, the rookie Powell shut down Paul George in the fourth quarter and electrified the sold-out Air Canada Centre crowd with a game-tying dunk.
Powell had another Game 5 to remember this year against the Milwaukee Bucks, pouring in a career playoff-high 25 points, including some highlight reel dunks to punctuate the victory.
"He's the X factor," Casey said. "So many times you're so concerned about DeMar [DeRozan] and Kyle [Lowry], rightfully so, that that next spark plug, that next guy, the next instigator is the guy."
Norman Powell's ability to drive into the lane spaced out Toronto's offence allowing more cleaner, high percentage looks <a href="https://t.co/LKVaWWHxUa">pic.twitter.com/LKVaWWHxUa</a>—@chicco_n
Powell's shot-making — 4-of-4 from downtown in Game 5 — and aggressive penetration into the paint creates spacing for his teammates to operate while alleviating pressure from Toronto's all-star backcourt.
The Raptors won't completely stop LeBron James, but they may have the answer to slowing him down.
The 60-year-old Casey was an assistant coach on the Dallas Mavericks squad that upset James and the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle called Casey his "defensive coordinator."
James was limited to just 17.8 points per game, a large credit to the zone defence used by Casey starting in Game 3.
From Games 3 through 5, the former No.1 overall pick shot only 38 per cent from the field.
The Mavericks took away the paint from James, forcing him to be a jump shooter and keeping him off the free throw line.
Whether this strategy will work six years later is tough to say, but it's an option.
As talented as the Cavaliers star is, he doesn't shoot a great percentage from mid-range and just below the arc. James is only a career 34 per cent shooter from long distance but shot 45 per cent against the Pacers in the opening round.
Much of the small forward's damage comes in the paint, where James is an excellent finisher.
Only James Harden has driven more to the net than James during this year's playoffs, and James is scoring 12 points a game off the drive.
If the Raptors take away the paint, it's one less way James can hurt them, but Toronto still needs to be wary of his excellent court vision.
The three-time NBA Finals MVP can facilitate for his teammates from anywhere on the court, and unlike 2011, James is surrounded by an array of three-point threats.