As Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry walked around his team’s practice Monday afternoon, his head tucked into a grey hoodie displaying the cover art of New Order’s landmark 1983 record Power, Corruption & Lies, he did so with a thick, spiral-bound manual under his left arm.
“This,” he said, with dramatic effect, holding the tome up for all to see, “is the book.”
It was the scouting report Toronto’s staff has prepared for each of its players in advance of its second-round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, beginning Tuesday. Pages and pages of schemes, tendencies, shot charts, and more — the accumulated data and strategy the Raptors hope will help them finally topple the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
Cavaliers know, they will use that information to their benefit. But when facing an opponent like the Cavaliers, a versatile team that can beat you in many ways and, oh, also employs the greatest player of a generation, it’s often a pick your poison scenario.
“Well, you’ve got the head of the snake in LeBron [James]. Everything starts and stops with him,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “There’s certain things you want to give up with him, and certain things you have no choice in the matter. There’s a pecking order as far as what we want to give up, what we want to live with. You’re not going to take away everything from a good offensive player like him or a good offensive team like them.
“So, there’s a priority list that we want to go down and have our checklist. And that’s going to change, maybe from quarter to quarter, and definitely from game to game. It’ll be a chess match in trying to stay a step ahead of what they’re trying to do.”
Yes, it will be a series of adjustments, as all series are. And in that chess match, the Raptors will have a definite advantage in Game 1, having been waiting at home for their opponent for 72 hours while Cleveland played an intense Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers Sunday.
And, in turn, Toronto will have a distinct strategy for the first confrontation, which many presume will be similar to one the Pacers utilized, which left James in singular coverage. Indiana focused on taking away Cleveland’s options, forcing the 33-year-old James to carry a significant offensive load. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It’s likely the Raptors will try it out, but not marry themselves to it.
But while limiting James is no doubt a significant chunk of that book under Lowry’s arm, there are a number of other areas the Raptors will need to focus on if they’re going to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Limiting Cleveland’s three-point shooting is an obvious one. In Toronto’s two losses to Cleveland this season, the Cavaliers shot a combined 51.8 per cent (28-of-54) from beyond the arc. That simply cannot happen. And while the Cavaliers struggled shooting from distance against Indiana — Cleveland had the first round’s second-worst rate from three at 32.2 per cent — they certainly weren’t hesitating to take those shots, averaging 32.4 three-point attempts per game, second only to the Houston Rockets. It’s an essential feature of their game plan.
The Raptors can’t count on the Cavaliers to be as poor from range as they were against the Pacers, and they absolutely can’t allow the Cavaliers to shoot as well as they did during those two regular season games. Cleveland’s many three-point threats — JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love, and more — must be contained.
“There’s certain things you’ve got to live with and some things you want to take away,” Casey said. “When you put Korver, JR Smith, Kevin Love out there and you put Tristan Thompson diving to the rim, you’ve got to cover something and you’ve got to take away something. It depends on what you want to live with and try to win the game with.”
The sheer pace of play is another area in which the Raptors will almost certainly look to assert themselves in the early going Tuesday. The Cavaliers and Pacers played at the slowest pace of all eight first-round series, averaging 92.85 possessions per 48 minutes. The Raptors and Washington Wizards, meanwhile, averaged 99.76.
This is where Toronto’s depth advantage can have one of its most tangible impacts. The Raptors will be rotating fresh legs onto the court throughout the game, while the Cavaliers trust fewer players with heavy minutes. If Toronto’s starters set an up-tempo pace early in the game, and the reserves that follow them maintain it, Cleveland’s shorter rotation will be forced to expend more energy.
The Raptors used 10 players for 17 minutes or more in their Game 6 victory over the Wizards, while the Cavaliers used only seven in their final game vs. Indiana. The Raptors are also a generally younger team, with only two players over the age of 28. More than half Cleveland’s roster is 29 or older, including four of the five players who started Game 7.
“That’s something that we pride ourselves on — having guys that can really move their feet,” said Pascal Siakam, an integral member of the Toronto second unit who will likely spend some time guarding James. “Just playing the type of basketball that we played all season — making it fast-paced, picking up guys, and making it hard on them.”
Siakam said the Raptors’ tempo became a factor late in the series with the Wizards, as Washington relied heavily on John Wall and Bradley Beal, who fatigued under the constant pressure of Toronto’s deep rotation.
“We could kind of see it. At some point in the fourth quarter of Game 6, with Beal and Wall, they played a lot of minutes and they were out there, and we’re chasing them all over the place, and you could tell that they were kind of tired,” he said. “That’s what we want. Just being able to wear down our opponent and playing physical.”
That’s another factor — physicality. If the Raptors are going to wear down Cleveland’s veteran roster, they’ll need to be making the Cavaliers work harder on the ball and off, and feel the weight of defenders draped all over them.
The Raptors’ physicality has fluctuated at times this season. What’s good is that they’ve demonstrated they can play that way. But it’s also challenging to remain so forceful throughout a game, particularly on the road.
The Raptors also have a number of younger players — Siakam and Jakob Poeltl come to mind — who don’t often get the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of officials. There’s a tight rope to be walked between playing with physicality and taking unnecessary fouls.
“It’s going to be a physical series from both sides. They’ll be physical, we have to be physical, and that’s the way the game has to be played,” Casey said. “Now, what we have to do is draw the line where it’s a foul and not a foul, and understand how the officials are going call it and adjust, and not complain, not look at them for help — take care of business ourselves.
“But, physically, we have to make sure we have a presence. Whatever they’re trying to run, have a presence. And do it within the rules.”
To that end, one of Toronto’s more physical players is Jonas Valanciunas, and just how sizeable the seven-foot centre’s role is in the series will be fascinating to watch. The Cavaliers often use Love at centre, which poses a difficult cover for Valanciunas, who would be torn between protecting the rim and guarding against Love’s ability to shoot from beyond the three-point line.
The other side of that coin is that Valanciunas would have a significant advantage over the smaller Love at the other end, and the Raptors could feed him in the paint for easy buckets. Love has also been playing through a left thumb injury, which appears to have hindered his offensive effectiveness. He shot only 33.3 per cent from the field in Round 1 (27-of-81) but it’s also worth noting he was dependable from range, hitting 40 per cent (14-of-35) of his three-pointers.
Either way, it appears Valanciunas showed Casey something against Washington. Valanciunas played a big role late in Game 5, a 10-point Raptors victory that turned the series, putting up a plus-18 in eight-and-a-half minutes of rare fourth-quarter run. For the series, Valanciunas was a team-high plus-8, and finished with a 15.4 net rating that was second to only Fred VanVleet, who played just 22 minutes in the series.
The Cavaliers will certainly pose different challenges than Washington did. But if Valanciunas can be relied upon at both ends of the floor, particularly when Love is playing centre, it could be an underrated X-factor in the series.
“He’s done a much better job of guarding bigs when they go small,” Casey said. “JV’s awareness is much better, not perfect, but much better than it was.
“He’s got to dominate at the other end. Whether it’s on the boards, finishing plays at the rim, rolling to the basket and finishing, all those things he has to be great at, and he will be. He’s much improved as far as his approach defensively and guarding guys like [Love].”