If the Toronto Raptors wanted to reach the first NBA Finals in franchise history, there was really no chance they were ever going to avoid LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at some point in these Eastern Conference playoffs. The two clashed in last year’s East Finals, but it’s a round earlier this time. NBA odds have the Cavs as big series favourites to eliminate the Raptors again.
Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers Odds
Series lines: Raptors +366, Cavaliers -478
Game 1 spread: Cleveland Cavaliers -7
Game 1 total: 209
Date: Monday, May 1, 7 p.m. ET
Location: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland
Cleveland’s late-season fade handed the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the Boston Celtics and dropped the Cavs into the second seed and thus this conference semifinal matchup vs. the No. 3 Raptors. Toronto fans should at least take solace that their team isn’t facing LeBron in the first round.
James & Co. swept out the Indiana Pacers with a 106-102 victory in Indianapolis last Sunday. That series was much closer than a sweep might indicate as every game was decided by six points or fewer. The Pacers nearly erased double-digits deficits in three of the four games and missed a shot at the buzzer to win Game 1, which might have changed everything. The 16 combined points the Cavs won by tied with the 1975 Golden State team that swept Washington in the NBA Finals as the smallest margin of victory in a four-game sweep.
It was the 10th playoff sweep of LeBron’s amazing career, which is the most all-time. His teams, including the Miami Heat, also have won 21 straight first-round games, the most by any player since the playoffs expanded in 1984. LeBron was ridiculous against the Pacers, averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 54.3 per cent from the field, 45 per cent from 3-point range and averaging 43.8 minutes per game.
Russell Westbrook will win this season’s NBA MVP Award, but it’s obvious who the best basketball player on the planet still is. The Raptors traded for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker earlier this season in part because they are good defense players who can potentially help slow James.
The Cavs were 3-1 vs. the Raptors this season – and thus earned the tiebreaker as Toronto finished with the same 51-31 record — and the loss was the regular-season finale that meant nothing. LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all it sat out. James averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds in his three games against Toronto. Irving averaged 24.7 points and 5.7 assists, and Love 21.7 points and 12.3 rebounds.
Cleveland is -303 on NBA futures to win the East.
Here at Sports Interaction we projected Toronto to beat the Bucks in six games in the first round and that’s what happened. Toronto improved to 2-5 all-time with a chance to close out a series on the road by winning Game 6, 92-89, in Milwaukee on Thursday despite blowing a 25-point lead. Toronto snapped a five-game losing streak in Game 6s overall and got some needed extra rest – hard to imagine the Raptors going to Cleveland and winning Monday after playing a Game 7 on Saturday.
While the Raptors had some trouble with the Bucks’ defense in the series, scoring just 83 and 77 points in the two losses as well as less than 100 in two of the wins, things should be easier on that end against Cleveland and the games much higher-scoring. The Cavs were one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams since the All-Star Break and had a defensive efficiency rating of 111.0 (points per 100 possessions) in the first round. For comparison, the Lakers were last in the regular season at 110.6.
Cleveland is also vastly better than Milwaukee on the offensive end. The Bucks had a LeBron Jr. in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but not much else scoring-wise without the injured Jabari Parker. The Bucks reached triple digits in only two games and didn’t top 93 in the final three.
The big question here for Toronto is what to do with guard Norman Powell. He became the X-factor against Milwaukee as Coach Dwane Casey went small by inserting Powell into the starting lineup in Game 4 and bringing Jonas Valanciunas off the bench. Powell, who brought needed energy and helped space the floor, played a total of 21 minutes the first three games (none in Game 2) and not less than 31 in the final three. Valanciunas did help improve the bench’s numbers substantially. The Cavaliers would appear to be a better fit for Valanciunas back in the starting five for rebounding purposes – the Bucks were one of the NBA’s worst teams on the boards — but that remains to be seen.
Toronto lost in six games to Cleveland in last year’s East Finals by an average score of 105.8-90.3 (all defeats were blowouts). James averaged 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.0 assists while shooting 54.6 percent from the field. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan struggled from the field in that series and most of the 2016 postseason.
Lowry still wasn’t sharp vs. the Bucks in averaging 14.3 points and shooting 42.6 per cent overall and 28.1 per cent from long range. That won’t be good enough vs. Cleveland. DeRozan was hit-and-miss against the Bucks and finished averaging 23.5 points on 43.9 per cent shooting and just 8.3 per cent from 3-point range.
In the regular-season series against the Cavs, DeRozan averaged 29.7 points in three games. Lowry put up 20.5 points and 6.5 assists in four. Valanciunas was at 10.3 points and 10.8 rebounds in four. Ibaka didn’t play in any of them – three were before the trade deadline — and Tucker just six minutes in the regular-season finale.
The Raptors are +500 to win their first conference title.
Raptors vs. Cavaliers Predictions
A LeBron-led team has won the Eastern Conference six years in a row. Barring injury to James or Irving, it’s hard to bet against the Cavs here. That said, the additions of Ibaka and Tucker give Toronto arguably its best-ever chance to reach the NBA Finals. If Lowry and DeRozan can find their strokes, winning this series is doable against a weak defensive team. Cavaliers in seven.