Cavaliers, Raptors meet in playoff rematch
Sunday, April 30 at 11:32 PM (EDT)
CLEVELAND -- In so many ways, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors have been here before.
For the second consecutive season, they are preparing to face each other in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference playoff series in Cleveland on Monday, with the Cavs coming off a long layoff after a sweep and the Raptors fighting through a tough matchup to get to this point.
The Raptors are 1-11 all time in Game 1 of playoff series. The Cavs are 15-1 against Eastern playoff teams at home dating back to 2015.
Signs seem to be pointing toward more of the same.
However, third-seeded Toronto and second-seeded Cleveland are different clubs heading into this Eastern semifinals series than they were when they squared off in the conference finals last season.
That 2016 series ended 4-2 in the Cavs' favor, and Cleveland went on to win the first championship in franchise history. The Raptors built themselves up since then specifically to take Cleveland out in a seven-game series the next time.
"They're still the champs," Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said, according to the Toronto Star. "Doesn't matter what seed you are. Once you are in the playoffs, they are still defending something they won last year. You still have to give them all the respect in the world, but it's on us Game 1 to start something new and start chipping away at it."
DeRozan led the Raptors with an average of 23.5 points per game in their 4-2 triumph over the Milwaukee Bucks in a series that ended Thursday. Toronto came through that series as the best defensive unit in the playoffs so far, holding Milwaukee to a league-low 93.2 points per game and keeping the Bucks under 100 points four times.
The Cavs swept the Indiana Pacers, and LeBron James became the first player to average at least 30 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks in a playoff series.
Cleveland averaged 112.5 points against the Pacers -- a franchise record for a playoff series -- and averaged 13.5 3-pointers per game, all while failing to get Kyle Korver (5.3 points per game) or J.R. Smith (6.8 ppg) going from the perimeter.
The Raptors added two key pieces -- Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker -- to deal with the problems the Cavaliers present.
Ibaka is a big man who can defend all the way to the edge and shoot 3-pointers, giving the Raptors a chance to match up with the likes of Kevin Love and Channing Frye -- two post players who stretch the floor.
Frye shot better than 58 percent against the Raptors during the playoffs last year, and Cleveland earned its wins by an average margin of 15.5 points.
Tucker is a wing defender brought on to help defend James.
"I think whoever we had to beat, Serge and P.J. were great acquisitions for us to build a playoff-style team," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, according to the Star. "I don't think you wake up dreaming: 'We've got to make every move to beat Cleveland.' But to play playoff basketball, you have to have guys like that."
The Cavs face more questions because of their poor defensive performance throughout the regular season that, for the most part, carried into the first round against the Pacers.
Cleveland ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency during the season and allowed 111 points per 100 possessions to Indiana -- which was worse than the Cavs' regular-season average.
Toronto and Cleveland finished the regular season with identical 51-31 records, as the Cavs stumbled to a 10-14 finish. However, Cleveland is the higher seed because of three early-season wins against the Raptors, while the Cavs were still humming along on a championship honeymoon.
All is not lost for the champs now, not by a long shot. They haven't played in seven days, and they are healthy and confident. And they have a player in James who has gone to the last six Finals and who has won at least one road game in 27 consecutive series.
"Doesn't mean I'm going to be able to win a road game in this series," James said. "Just play the game. For me, I just go out and try to win every game and do whatever it takes to help our team be successful. Going to a hostile building in Game 3 and Game 4, and we know that. Their fans are unbelievable. I stated that last year after we closed that series out. Doesn't mean we're going to be able to win this year. We've got to go out and make it happen.
"We have to worry about Game 1 first."