It was a more of a sense of relief than ecstasy for the Toronto Raptors after their 116-89 win over the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Raptors finally got the monkey off their back and for the first time in their NBA history, they will play in a conference final. But a big task looms ahead for the Raptors and it is the unstoppable force that is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
How each team got here
The Cavaliers have steamrolled over the Eastern Conference and are the hottest team in the playoffs right now. Lebron James and company haven't lost a game this postseason as they swept through a gritty Detroit Pistons team in the first round and took care of an Atlanta Hawks team that faded down the stretch of games. The Cavaliers have played brilliantly and they can't seem to miss from deep. Cleveland is shooting a league-best 46.2% from three and it has been a big part of their success. Especially in the series against Atlanta in which the Cavaliers tore apart a good Hawks defense as they took advantage of its weaknesses.
The Hawks love to trap on ball screens and pressure the ball handler coming off a screen. Because of this, it usually leaves the roll man open coming down in the lane or wherever he chooses to go. The Hawks gave up the second most three-point attempts per game this season (34.1) and the Cavaliers used that weakness to their advantage. With Kevin Love playing the P&R, the big man would be able to set the screen and move straight to the three point line and shoot an uncontested three-pointer. With Love being the three-point shooter that he is, most of the time he will make those shots. This was also the case with Channing Frye as well. Any time you give a talented team an ample amount of chances from three-point land, you will pay and Atlanta learned that the hard way.
The Raptors had a much tougher road to the conference finals than their counterparts. In both series, the Raptors went seven games but prevailed in the end. Toronto got past an Indiana Pacers team that looked good during the series but in the end, Indiana's offense couldn't convert when it mattered. The Heat also pushed Toronto to the brink but just like Indy, the Heat weren't good enough offensively to keep up with Toronto. The loss had a lot to do with their injuries and Miami just didn't have enough firepower on the offensive end.
Kyle Lowry - Kyrie Irving
Kyle Lowry had an interesting series against Miami. He hit a prayer of a half court shot in Game 1 to force the game into overtime. But then he proceeded to disappear in the extra period as Toronto dropped their second straight Game 1 in the playoffs. He stayed at the Air Canda Center till 1 AM shooting jump shots and it looks like it paid off. Lowry had three 30+ point performances in the series along with a 25-point performance in Game 5. He showed he can hit big shots and hit some timely shots when Toronto's offense started to struggle.
He will be matched up against Kyrie Irving, who has been a key part of the Cavaliers perfect run so far. Irving outplayed both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder as he scored more than 20 points in three games in the series against Atlanta and also averaged around 6 assists per game in that series. Irving isn't that much better of a defender than Goran Dragic, who was matched up against Lowry in the previous series. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Cavaliers try to match up defensively against Lowry. With DeMar DeRozan on the court along with DeMarre Carroll, who both command some defensive presence, the Cavaliers will have to get creative. Maybe more minutes for Matthew Dellavedova could be in line.
A mini-matchup that will be fun to watch will be Bismack Biyombo versus Tristian Thompson. Both are good rebounders and it will be a physical battle of the boards. Miami couldn't contain Biyombo and he certainly has earned some playing time against the Cavaliers. If Biyombo can help contain Thompson off the glass, the Raptors's chances of being competitive in this series go up.
In all honesty, the gap between these two teams may be too much for Toronto to overcome. The Cavaliers are playing like the best team in basketball and they can't stop making baskets at the moment. But the Raptors do have a shot and it's in the hands of Kyle Lowry. He can hit the big shots and can get hot quickly. If Lowry can keep up his scoring, the Raptors can make this series competitive. But the Cavaliers have been the popular pick to make the NBA finals and it looks like nothing can stop them. But the Raptors will surprise some people with their play, but in the end, the Cavaliers have too many weapons on offense. Unlike last year, both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are healthy and expect Lebron and his crew to march on.
Cavs in 5