Do the Toronto Raptors Have a Prayer Against the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 15, 2016

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 26:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gets set to make a pass against DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors during an NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on February 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Raptors defeated the Cavaliers 99-97. NOTE TO USER: user expressly acknowleges and agrees by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Congratulations are in order for the two top seeds in the NBA's Eastern Conference. 

First to the Toronto Raptors, who booked their first-ever conference finals berth with Sunday's 116-89 Game 7 victory over the Miami Heat.

But also to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were long ago penciled in as NBA finalists and now skip the potential headache of "LeBron James vs. embittered former club" headlines.

The only thing separating the Cavs from the championship round is a Raptors team that should be thrilled to be there. Sunday's contest might have cemented this matchup, but why even play the games, right? 

Toronto is physically worn down after consecutive seven-game series and losing its starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, along the way. Meanwhile, Cleveland is remarkably fresh, with back-to-back sweeps to its credit and an empty injury report to its name.

The Cavs' Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have never played better together, and the team's perimeter collection is suddenly a record-setting group, according to SAP Sports (via the NBA). James hasn't missed the NBA Finals since 2010.

Meanwhile, Raptors All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan haven't carried over their regular-season shooting success. They're still in search of a reliable third scorer since Valanciunas went down.

Is a Raptors team that needed all seven games to dispatch the retooling Indiana Pacers and injury-riddled Heat really the club capable of snapping that streak?

Probably not! But let's give this series a chance to breathe before declaring it dead.

 

The Case for the Raptors

If the Raptors can somehow bottle up what they found in Sunday's Game 7—the superstar version of Lowry, the aggressive DeRozan, the spacing around the stars, the turbo-charged Bismack Biyombo—and haul it to the next round, they could at least cause some uncomfortable moments in Cleveland.

Lowry scored a game-high 35 points Sunday and averaged 32 over the final three games of the series.
Lowry scored a game-high 35 points Sunday and averaged 32 over the final three games of the series.Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

This stage shouldn't be an issue for Toronto. Yes, the Raptors entered the playoffs with the yips after back-to-back first-round exits the previous two years. Their opening series were rarely pretty, but they showed this core can survive and advance.

"Going through the Indiana series helped them tremendously as far as getting through [the nerves]," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said prior to Game 7, per CBS Sports' James Herbert. "Now, it's about just playing basketball, getting it done on the court."

Focus solely on basketball, and one thing becomes instantly clear—the Raptors are the second-best team on this side of the bracket. Among East squads, only Cleveland topped Toronto in wins (57 to 56) and net efficiency rating (plus-5.8 to plus-4.3).

In three head-to-head matchups, the Raptors actually twice emerged victorious.

Eastern Conference Finals: Tale of the Tape
CategoryToronto RaptorsCleveland Cavaliers
Wins21
Points Per Game100.7106.0
Field-Goal Percentage50.248.7
Three-Point Percentage41.050.0
Rebounds Per Game33.340.3
Source: NBA.com

What do those numbers mean for this series? Maybe nothing. Two of the three games happened before the Cavs switched coaches from David Blatt to Tyronn Lue, and the most recent one was played Feb. 26.

But there are a couple of stats that could carry some importance.

Like the fact Toronto's top stopper, DeMarre Carroll, only played in one of those three contests. And it was by far James' worst shooting performance of their season season series37.5 percent in that game, 55.2 percent in the others. James also struggled with Carroll's defense during last year's Eastern Conference Finals (against the Atlanta Hawks, Carroll's former team), shooting 43.8 percent for the series, five full percentage points below his regular-season average.

"You try to be that gnat on that summer day, when you're eating that barbecue, you know what I'm talking about," Carroll said after their regular-season matchup, per Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun. "And it's in your face, and you can't get it out. That's all I was trying to be, man."

Carroll's containment of James will be the biggest factor for Toronto's defense.
Carroll's containment of James will be the biggest factor for Toronto's defense.Ron Turenne/Getty Images

Lowry is another potential boon to the Raptors' upset hopes. He had his way with the Cavs defense this season—during each of the three meetings, he went for at least 23 points on 53-plus percent shooting. Irving missed one of those contests, but couldn't match Lowry's output in quantity or quality.

"That's what All-Stars do," James said after Lowry's career-high 43-point performance in Toronto's 99-97 win over Cleveland on Feb. 26, per Sportsnet's Michael Grange.

 

Raptors' Missing Piece Kills Them

Those are potential issues for the Cavs at both ends of the court. But Toronto's biggest wild card could be the one not currently in its hand: Valanciunas.

The 7-footer had been playing the best basketball of his career before suffering this ankle injury. He played two-and-a-half games last series and still averaged 18.3 points on 64.9 percent shooting and 12.7 rebounds.

His interior offense could have been a problem for a smaller Cleveland defense that now gives the bulk of its interior minutes to Love, Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye. A strong scoring game from Valanciunas might test Lue's commitment to this new rotation, but it's hard to tell when—or even if—Valanciunas will be healthy enough to get back on the court.

Casey couldn't give an update on Valanciunas' status after Sunday's win, per Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun:

The Raptors have a few glimmers of hope, but they're obviously fighting an uphill battle here.

Cleveland will be the consensus pick for a reason. It had a better regular season and a far more impressive sprint through the first two rounds.

But the Raptors are optimistic, and there are some basketball reasons for why they aren't crazy to feel that way. Not nearly enough of them to sway public opinion, of course, but enough to spot the source of their belief.

"We're not done yet," Casey said during his postgame press conference. "I know what it's like to win a championship. Not saying we can do that, but I think this group is hungry. And never say never."

 

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.