You may have read my Western Conference Finals preview, highlighting three reasons the Thunder will beat the Warriors, and three reasons the Warriors will beat the Thunder. I’m obviously a man of clear, concise opinions. Well this one is going to be a little different. With my apologies to Drake, I just don’t think the Raptors have a realistic shot to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. I know, Toronto fans feel like they get no respect. They’re playing up in Canada with no nationally televised games and no one is taking them seriously, even with second best record in the Eastern Conference.
But the fact is, you’re going up against a team that has LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Your answer to that is DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas, who’s out for game one and doubtful for game two. Don’t get me wrong, those are good players, but Cleveland has great players. You’re running into a Cavs team that’s playing their best ball since bringing LeBron back to Cleveland and assembling their big three. The Cavs swept their way through the first two rounds with ease, while out-Warriors-ing the Warriors by shooting a ridiculous 46.2% from beyond the arc while knocking down 16.8 three-pointers per game.
There’s always one big question for any team preparing for a series against LeBron James: Who’s going to guard him? Toronto’s big offseason free agent acquisition, DeMarre Carroll, will likely take the bulk of this task, as he did as a member of the Hawks last season when they were swept by the Cavs. LeBron averaged 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists in that series (not too shabby). Carroll is an underrated player, and he’s capable of playing the lockdown defender role at times, but that tends to change when the man you’re trying to lock down is LeBron James.
I’m not trying to bring you down, Raptors fans. I just see two teams that are on completely different levels right now. Is it possible that the Raptors could knock off the Cavaliers and advance to the NBA Finals? Sure. But a lot of crazy stuff would have to happen to lead to that result. So here it is…
3 Improbable ways the Raptors can beat the Cavs:
1. LeBron retires
LeBron James never really runs into serious injuries, so it might be more likely that he retires before, or during, the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe he pulls a Michael Jordan and wants to try another sport while he still has some good years left in his body. There’s always been talk that he could play in the NFL. OTAs start in about a week for most teams, so if he wants to take a shot at a football career, now is the time. Or maybe he decides he wants to leave Cleveland again and go back to Miami, but he wants to get it over with before Cavs fans get their championship and become that much more attached. If, by some unforeseen circumstance, LeBron James doesn’t end up playing in the series, the Raptors would have a pretty good shot. Unfortunately, they will likely be facing a Cavaliers team that will feature LeBron James playing a lot of minutes in every game and doing a lot of incredible LeBron James things. This means Cleveland will likely be coasting back into the NBA Finals. Unless…
2. The Cavs get Bismack’d!
Ok, I’ll admit, I just wanted to work Bismack’d into an article… But the Raptors backup center, Bismack Biyombo, will actually be a key factor in this series. Not only does he feature one of the best names in the NBA, but he proved he can be a force down low against Miami. When starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, went down in game three with a sprained ankle, Biyombo stepped in admirably. Starting the final four games of the series, Biyombo averaged 11.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game.
Biyombo has shown he’s up for the challenge before. In the 22 games he started in the regular season, he averaged 12.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. He also led the league in Bismacks, but apparently that’s still not an official NBA statistic. He’s an athletic, high energy big man who can rebound on both sides of the court, swat shots, and find ways to get points down low. Sure, it may be overly optimistic to think Bismack Biyombo could be the secret weapon that gives Toronto an edge against Cleveland. But with Valanciunas expected to miss the first game, and likely more, the Raptors will need to rely heavily on their Congolese big man. I’m just hoping he plays well enough to keep his name relevant so I can keep saying Bismack Biyombo. Try it: Bismack Biyombo… Watch out Cleveland, or you might just get Bismack’d!
3. The Raptors make the Cavs a one-man show
I’ll admit it, the odds of LeBron James retiring in the middle of the conference finals are very slim. The odds of Bismack Biyombo putting the Raptors on his shoulders and leading them to a major upset over Cleveland might be even slimmer, regardless of how cool his name is. Unless the Raptors are counting on a series of shocking misfortunes to strike the Cavaliers, much like the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team faced, causing Mr. Burns to lose all of his MLB ringers leading up to their big game against Shelbyvillle, Toronto will have to find a way to limit the effectiveness of as many Cavs as possible.
They’re not going to stop LeBron, but they can do their best to tempt him into shooting instead of letting him drive to the hole, draw fouls, get dunks and lay-ups, and make amazing passes to open shooters. If they clog up driving and passing lanes and limit LeBron’s ability to rack up assists, he’ll still do some damage in other ways, but it will at least help take guys like J.R. Smith and Channing Frye out of the game. It will also force Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to create offense on their own instead of relying on LeBron’s playmaking abilities.
Kyle Lowry can potentially outplay Irving and win the point guard battle, and Love can be mentally taken out of games when he gets frustrated. Bottom line, the Raptors need to do a much better job limiting the production of Cleveland’s ensemble cast (we’ll call them the LeBronnettes) than the Hawks did, and they are certainly capable of doing that. But even if Toronto does turn Cleveland into a one-man show, that one man is still LeBron freaking James! Remember, when Springfield lost all their ringers, they still had one left: Darryl Strawberry. That one man was still able to lead them to victory (I know, Mr. Burns pinch-hit Homer for Strawberry and Homer got beaned with the bases loaded to score the winning run, but that totally ruins my analogy).
Cavs in 5.