Written by: Josh Gutbrod
Image: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
The Cleveland Cavaliers narrowly survived a seven-game fist fight with the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. An iconic 45 point explosion from LeBron James led Cleveland past its division rival. James averaged over 40 points per game during the four Cavalier wins throughout the first round series.
Of course, the journey is only just beginning. The Toronto Raptors have waited patiently for another shot at Cleveland. The Raptors flexed their muscles in a gritty first-round series against Washington. DeMar DeRozan and company were able to edge out John Wall and his Wizards in six games. It is also worth noting that Toronto clinched their first-round series win on the road.
In short, Toronto looks better and the Cavs look worse. The Cavaliers not named LeBron James struggled heavily against Indiana. Meanwhile, Toronto flexed its newfound depth with multiple players turning in impact performances to beat the Wizards. Yet LeBron James is playing arguably the best basketball of his entire playoff career. The third installment in the budding rivalry is seemingly a toss up.
The bench matchup will be one of if not the most important matchup in the series. Both teams feature bench units that were highly productive in the regular season. Cleveland’s bench has gone cold in the post-season while Toronto’s remains at peak form. The improvement to the bench unit is certainly something that benefits the Raptors in the matchup.
Another matchup favoring the Raptors is that of Kevin Love versus the assortment of Toronto big men. Love is the most talented big in the series but has a habit of shrinking in the post-season. In 49 post-season appearances over the past four seasons with Cleveland Love is averaging 15 points and 9.4 rebounds on an abysmal 39.9% shooting from the field. Each of those numbers falls below his regular season average in each of the same four regular seasons in Cleveland.
There is also the major loss of Kyrie Irving to consider. It seems odd to mention, given that the move occurred almost a year ago, but the impact remains the same. The Cavaliers no longer possess a talent that can simply take over a game if LeBron is struggling or on the bench. The subtraction of Irving also places the bulk of the supporting pressure firmly on Love. It is hard to imagine adding more pressure to a struggling playoff performer ends positively for Cleveland.
Cleveland does still have LeBron James. James seems to be the one clear advantage the Cavaliers possess in any series. There is also the mental pressure facing Toronto having two previous playoff exits thanks to James and company. That mental pressure would only magnify should Cleveland manage to steal an early game in the series. Expect LeBron to come out in full force, fully aware of this potential advantage.
The early games in Toronto will dictate how the series goes. If Cleveland can steal one it might be enough to remind Toronto of their previous failures. If Toronto can jump out to an early 2-0 lead it would likely throw the monkey off the teams back. I find the latter to be more likely given the circumstances. I have no faith in Kevin Love or the majority of the Cavs bench. LeBron may be the greatest player of all time, but it is still a team sport. James will dominate enough to win a few games, but the Raptors finally take the series. Toronto in 6.