The Raptors have been eliminated by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers each of the past 2 years.
In 2016, the Raps set a franchise record with 55 regular season wins, and won 7-game series’ against Paul George’s Indiana Pacers in the 1st round and Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat in the 2nd. The Raptors had not won a playoff round since their lone victory over the Knicks in 2001, and made their first-ever Eastern Conference Finals appearance. LeBron dispatched them in 6 games. When the series was tied 2–2, he scoffed at the idea that this was a “pressure situation”. The Cavs won the next 2 games 116–78 and 113–87. LeBron gave our crowd props but that’s where it stopped.
In 2017, the team won 51 games, the second-most in franchise history but still a step back. They beat Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in 6 games for the first series win in team history that didn’t go the distance. LeBron and the Cavs were there a round earlier this time. The team had acquired PJ Tucker to help guard LeBron. It did not work.
The Raptors got swept. Free-agent-to-be Kyle Lowry sat out the last 2 games with an injury. Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl and Fred VanVleet barely played. When they did it was in garbage time.
A “culture change” was announced by Masai Ujiri. Tucker, Carroll, Cory Joseph and Patrick Patterson departed over the summer. The Raptors were going to let the youngsters play. Experts expected the team to take another step back, maybe even miss the playoffs, while the kids matured.
Instead, they formed the best bench in the league and the Raptors set a new franchise record with 59 regular season wins. They entered the playoffs as the East’s #1 seed for the first time ever. They beat John Wall’s Washington Wizards in 6 games in the first round, avenging 2015's 1st-round loss. Now they will meet LeBron in the 2nd round for the second straight year. So is it going to be the same old story for the third time in a row, or is this the year the Raptors finally beat LeBron?
Reasons for Optimism
The Absence of Kyrie Irving: Kyrie Irving is a superstar. No one on the Raptors could guard him the last 2 series. Now LeBron is the only Cavalier that falls in that category. Who is going to partner with him on plays like this?
That was less than 3 minutes into Game 1 last year, and the series already felt like it was over.
Homecourt Advantage: The Raps have homecourt advantage for the first time against LeBron. Both of the previous series started with the Raps getting blown out in Cleveland. They had the best home record in the league this season at 34–7. The one time Cleveland visited Toronto, the Raps blew them out 133–99. That was before all the trades, but remains an encouraging sign. The Raptors lost both times the teams met in Cleveland after the trades. If they just win their home games they will advance. Setting the tone for the series in Game 1 at home will be key.
Depth: The Raptors’ bench has been better than the Cavs’ over the season and 1st round. However, they are less experienced, and other than Poeltl, physically smaller. They will be tested, and have to play tough to contribute meaningfully to a series win. LeBron is going to play a lot, and wearing him down with waves of fresh legs will be part of the gameplan.
Size: The Cavs are the bigger, stronger team at every position other than Center. Dwane Casey likes playing multi-point guard lineups, but that makes this problem even worse. JV, Poeltl and Ibaka have to be big inside to minimize this weakness.
The Referees: Expect the refs to favour the Cavs, and LeBron in particular. Veterans get more calls in the playoffs. It’s how the NBA goes. The Raps have to suck it up and play through some extra contact.
Guarding LeBron: The main guys guarding LeBron will be OG Anunoby (a rookie) and Pascal Siakam (a sophomore). Other guys will be on him at times as well, but the 2 African youngsters have to come of age in this series for the Raptors to win. This may end up being too much to ask too soon.
LeBron is still the best player in the world. Top 4 at worst. He’s been to the Finals every year this decade. You cannot stop him, only hope to contain him. He is not going to go quietly.
So can the Raptors take LeBron out? It’s possible. He could get tired and the Raps’ superior depth and revamped 3-point friendly play style combined with home court advantage could carry them through. I go into this series hopeful but with a healthy fear of an all-time great player.
Let’s go Raptors.