Following their opening-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers, the Cleveland Cavaliers have plenty of time to prepare for the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks.
The Raptors currently hold a 3-2 series edge, but will have to close out Game 6 in Milwaukee to even get a little prep time for the defending champs. Should the series go the full seven games, either the Raptors or Bucks will have just a single day off before facing a rested Cavaliers squad.
Both potential opponents represent a tougher foe for Cleveland than the Pacers, who the Cavs only defeated by an average of four points per game.
Milwaukee and Toronto are both good enough to avoid a sweep, but only one stands as a real threat to the Cavaliers' title defense.
Here's what a Bucks-Cavs matchup would look like:
|Bucks Individual Matchups|
|Kyrie Irving||Malcolm Brogdon||Cavs|
|J.R. Smith||Tony Snell||?|
|LeBron James||Khris Middleton||Cavs|
|Kevin Love||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Bucks|
|Tristan Thompson||Thon Maker||Cavs|
|Williams, Frye, Shumpert, Korver||Monroe, Dellavedova, Terry, Beasley||?|
Obviously the most intriguing duo to watch is LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, two players who can lead their team in every major statistical category.
While Milwaukee may want to open the game using Antetokounmpo's size on Kevin Love, there's no way it won't move him on James for much of the series. There's no one else who has a chance to slow him down.
Limiting James' impact is priority No. 1 for Milwaukee, and Antetokounmpo is as good an option as there is in the Eastern Conference with his length and athleticism.
With James reasonably covered, this could mean feasting time for Kyrie Irving.
While Malcom Brogdon will earn some Rookie of the Year votes for his surprisingly strong play, asking him to guard Irving would be a death sentence for Milwaukee. In four games against the Bucks this season, Irving went off for 26.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists—his highest assist average against any East opponent.
Both teams sport strong benches, with NBA champion Matthew Dellavedova and Greg Monroe (the Bucks' second-leading postseason scorer) for Milwaukee. Cleveland's reserve core is far deeper and more experienced, however. In four games against the Bucks this season, the Cavs bench posted a minus-5.7 net rating.
Here's what a Raptors-Cavs matchup would look like:
|Raptors Individual Matchups|
|Kyrie Irving||Kyle Lowry||?|
|J.R. Smith||DeMar DeRozan||Raptors|
|LeBron James||DeMarre Carroll||Cavs|
|Kevin Love||Serge Ibaka||Cavs|
|Tristan Thompson||Jonas Valanciunas||?|
|Williams, Frye, Shumpert, Korver||Powell, Tucker, Patterson, Joseph||Raptors|
DeMar DeRozan is going to outplay J.R. Smith. James will take care of business against DeMarre Carroll for the third straight postseason. After that, most individual matchups are a complete wash.
Kyle Lowry is probably the best overall point guard in the East, but he's battled postseason demons in the past and had to "decompress" in the locker room while a Game 2 108-89 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was still ongoing last season.
While Toronto is going small against Milwaukee by benching center Jonas Valanciunas for shooting guard Noman Powell, they'd likely have to go back to their traditional lineup against Cleveland.
The Bucks have little outside of Antetokounmpo to guard James, while Toronto can throw Carroll, P.J. Tucker and even Serge Ibaka at the four-time MVP. No one player can do the job individually, but all can be physical and attempt to wear James down over the course of the series.
Against the Raptors this season, the Cavaliers' bench struggled mightily, posting a minus-8.3 net rating. The starting unit needs to impose its will and build up enough of a lead where the second unit won't crumble it away.
From a personnel standpoint, the Raptors pose a much greater threat to Cleveland.
Despite sweeping the Pacers, the Cavaliers registered a first-round defensive rating of 111.0, good for 13th among the 16 playoff teams.
Clearly, they're still vulnerable.
Milwaukee and Toronto will look to attack Cleveland in different ways. For the Bucks, making the Cavs get out and run in transition will be key.
The Cavaliers registered the NBA's worst transition defense in the regular season (1.18 points per possession allowed) and were only slightly better against the Pacers (1.07).
In the playoffs, the Bucks are collecting 16.8 points in transition per game and scoring 53.4 percent of the time they push the ball, per NBA.com. Antetokounmpo has proven to be a one-man fast break, able to go coast-to-coast in as little as three dribbles.
While the Bucks run, Toronto will look to exploit individual matchups in the halfcourt instead.
Cleveland was the only team better in isolation per possession than the Raptors during the regular season, and no team shot a higher percentage (44.8 percent) than the Canadian dinosaurs when going one-on-one, per NBA.com.
Irving is already a suspect defender, and Kyle Lowry averaged 20.5 points and 6.5 assists against the Cavs in the regular season. DeRozan can pick apart Smith if the latter's not mentally locked in, and Ibaka can draw Love all the way out to the three-point line.
Toronto had the sixth-best offense during the regular season (109.8 rating), and that was with Lowry missing 22 games due to a broken wrist.
Defensively, Milwaukee and Toronto are on different levels when defending the pick-and-roll.
The Bucks allowed just 0.80 points per possessions to opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers, good for third overall in the NBA. The Raptors were just 21st overall at 0.86.
Any kind of containment may force Cleveland to move the ball side to side instead, stopping at whatever open hand is ready to release a three-point attempt.
No playoff team is making more threes per game than the Cavs (13.5), who are sinking them with 40.3 percent accuracy. Containing Cleveland's mix of Irving, Love, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye on the perimeter is a must if an opponent has any intention of winning.
So which team guards the three-point line better?
Going off of the regular season, no one. That is to say, both teams allowed opponents to shoot 35.4 percent. Cleveland certainly preferred to shoot from deep against the Bucks, making 41.8 percent of their long-range shots during four regular season games compared to just 36.6 percent against the Raptors.
When shooting 41.8 percent or better from deep this season, the Cavs went a sparkling 21-1. If teams can't make it difficult from Cleveland on the arc, this will be a quick series.
The Raptors offensive versatility trumps that of Milwaukee's, but the Bucks' length could be a problem for the Cavs high-powered scoring attack.
Milwaukee is one of the NBA's best young teams and should be a top-four unit in the Eastern Conference as early as next year.
There has to be a fear of the Bucks taking the next step, especially if they can pile up confidence by taking down the Raptors as the No. 6 seed.
The Bucks' X-factor is their unpredictable ceiling, led by Antetokounmpo. Unfortunately, this is still a very young team who desperately needs some seasoning.
This leads to Toronto, who's main advantage is its experience.
The Raptors were the only East team not to get swept by the Cavaliers last postseason, losing in six during the conference finals. They added Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, two veterans known for toughness and leadership.
Even with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards making waves in the East this year, Toronto not only should concern the Cavaliers more than the Bucks, but perhaps poses the greatest threat to them not making it out of the conference.
With a dynamic offense, previous playoff wins under their belt against Cleveland and a chance to end their current series with just one more game, the Raptors aren't a team the Cavs can take lightly.
Cavaliers Insider Notebook
Bron the GOAT
The debate between James and Michael Jordan will rage for decades, but soon there will be no questioning who sits atop the postseason scoring list.
James moved past Kobe Bryant for third in career playoff points (5,703) and is just 59 away from passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second place.
Jordan's record of 5,987 could fall as early as the conference finals, if the Cavs make it that far. If James continues his scoring pace from the first round (32.8), he'll become the greatest postseason scorer in history in just nine more games.
Home Sweet Home
The Cavs will be playing basketball in Cleveland for at least the next 17 years, or approximately the time LeBron James Jr. will be trying to deliver more titles at age 30.
As part of a $140 million renovation project for Quicken Loans Arena, the team's lease with the building has been extended until 2034, per Daryl Ruiter of 92.3 The Fan.
One reason for the expensive renos? The NBA has promised the Cavaliers an All-Star game, as early as 2020 notes Karen Farkas of Cleveland.com. The Cavs last hosted the game in 1997, and was represented by point guard Terrell Brandon.
Deron Makes History
Playing a key reserve role behind Irving, Deron Williams simply couldn't miss against the Pacers.
He shot 76.9 percent from the field and 77.8 percent from three, the first ever to do so in a playoff series (minimum 10 shots made).
Williams scored 8.3 points in just 15.5 minutes per game with zero total turnovers.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.