Sports / Basketball

Roaring to the Finals: Why the Raptors Can Upset Cleveland

Friends, I come bearing good news: April has come. You had to spend the last three weeks watching bricked free throws and horrifying midrange jumpers. Worst of all, you had to pretend to enjoy it, using gambling to trick yourself into an emotional investment. The pain is over. The playoffs are here.

This article is the first in a series of NBA previews from us good folks at the Globalist. To get you ready for the playoffs (THEY’RE COMING), we have done painstaking analysis to find you the teams with the best chances of upsetting the Dubs or the Cavs. The juggernauts have gone to the finals each of the past two years. Both are heavy favorites to return this year. And both have shown weakness. The Warriors will have to reintegrate Kevin Durant and the Cavaliers have more losses than wins over their past 18 games. The time is ripe for a challenger.

Yes, it is the Toronto Raptors! While perhaps not the best team outside of the Cavaliers in the Eastthat honor probably belongs to Washington or BostonToronto is the team most equipped to defeat these Cavaliers. How will they do it? Let’s find out!

Transition Terrorizing and Pick n’ Roll Prowess

The Cavaliers’ defensive struggles have been thoroughly chronicled this season. The team has scuffled of late, and the defense is the primary offender. As of April 7, The Cavs are twenty-first in defensive efficiency, a mark that would be the worst ever for any Finals team. What’s more, only a single team in the bottom ten in this metric has even qualified for the playoffs since 1970. That one exception? The 2015 Cleveland team that lost to the Warriors in the finals. The Cavaliers have a history of tightening it up when the games matter most. However, their weaknesses are real and the Raptors have a roster built to exploit them.

First, the Cavs are the absolute worst in the league at transition defense. This is unsurprising: the team is old, slow, and probably not excited about having to to sprint up and down the floor. The Raptors, on the other hand, are ninth in the NBA in transition efficiency. Toronto is one of the league’s best at pushing the ball down opponents’ throats. Demar Derozan in particular is a wonderful transition player, supremely skilled at catching defenders on their heels and forcing the foul. In transition, Derozan is fifteenth in points-per-possession (PPP) and draws the fourth most fouls of anyone in basketball on those plays.

Some argue that the transition advantage is less important in the playoffs, when the pace slows down considerably. However, the Raptors have shown no signs of relenting in the postseason. Last year, they ran in transition with nearly identical frequencies in the regular season and playoffs. What’s more, even if the Cavaliers players weren’t exerting their full effort throughout the eighty-two-game slog of a regular season, it is difficult to imagine how they will solve this particular problem. The Cavs are a slow team, and it will simply be hard for them to keep up with an opponent that likes to push the pace.

The Cavaliers’ lack of athleticism doesn’t just hurt them in transition, however. The team finds it equally hard to keep opponents in front of them in the half-court. Most worrisome, the Cavaliers rank dead last at defending pick and roll ball handlers. This is a direct result of the team’s slow-footedness; the Cavs’ bigs (Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and Channing Frye) are just not quick enough to stop opposing teams from getting to the rim. The result is a lot of this:

Where do the Raptors fit in? It just so happens that they are tops in the NBA at scoring with the pick and roll ball handler. What’s more, they are first overall despite All-NBA point guard Kyle Lowry missing twenty-one games due to a wrist injury. That is, Kyle Lowry, who leads the league in PPP on plays as the PnR ball handler. Oh yeah, and Demar Derozan? Also top-twenty in this measure. The Raptors are lethal on this kind of play, and the Cavs are vulnerable.

Of course, this advantage all comes down to Kyle Lowry’s health. Lowry returned to the lineup last Wednesday after a lengthy absence and looked to be back in midseason form.

Look out, Cleveland.

Stopping Lebron

Of course, while the Cavaliers may have their defensive deficiencies, they are more than capable on the other side of the ball. Cleveland is third in the league in offensive rating, and even that may sell them a little short; the Cavs’ offense is built for the playoffs. The team’s top-heavy roster and absurd isolation scoring may not be the best formula for the regular season, but it is perfect for a max effort playoff series. Just ask the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.

What makes the offense so unguardable? A typical Cavs lineup has the best player in world, Lebron James, surrounded by lights-out shooters. Lebron is nearly unstoppable in man-to-man coverage. Without help defense or a double-team, he will get to the rim every single time.

Poor Jaylen Brown can attest:

But with the rest of the team spaced out along the three-point line, helping onto James sacrifices a wide-open triple.

Poor, poor Jaylen Brown:

There are no good answers to this problem and most teams just have to hope for a bad shooting night in order to win.

The Raptors, however, are not most teams. At the trade deadline, the team picked up two incredibly valuable players, P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka, that are uniquely suited for stopping the Cavs. Tucker is one of the best isolation defenders in basketball. Watch him shut down Jimmy Butler (with help from Patrick Patterson)! What makes him really special is that he can actually match up with Lebron one-on-one. He can’t completely stop James (nobody can), but he eliminates the need to double-team. However, if Tucker does need some help, Ibaka is an excellent weak-side defender and shot blocker, while also being quick enough to close out on three-point shooters.

With Ibaka and Tucker in the fold, the Raptors can run out a formidable crunch time defense. Lowry, at the point, is a superb defender. Patterson, the power forward, is an excellent help-defender in his own right. Tucker would play small forward, and Ibaka would be a small-ball center. The only subpar defender of the group is Demar Derozan, but the Raptors would be able to hide him on the weakest Cavelier, likely Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith.

There you have it: the Toronto Raptors’ road-map to defeating Cleveland and earning a trip to their first NBA finals. Of, course, the Raps are still underdogs. A lot would have to go right from them to become Eastern Conference Champions. The margin for error is incredibly slim. To have any chance at victory, Toronto must bring its A-game from start to finish. A misstep here or there could mean another ignominious playoff exit. As a wise man once said, if you come at the King, you best not miss.