One year after seeing their best season in franchise history ended at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors are back in a familiar spot and this time with added reinforcements.
Toronto bolstered their roster with mid-season trades for Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker for a series just like this one, which begins tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland have stood in the way of the Raptors reaching the next level, whether directly as they did in the playoffs last year, or by proxy as the East’s assumed top dogs.
Over the past year, there’s been little to suggest any change in the pecking order. The Cavaliers were taken to six games in the conference finals, but were hardly threatened as they outscored their opponents by an average of 15.5 points.
This season’s four head-to-head meetings were much closer, but Cleveland won the series 3-1 and that lone Toronto win came in the regular season finale which saw players on both sides rested.
However, the Raptors can hang their hat on the fact the Cavaliers have yet to see their newly-revamped roster at full strength and playing together. All three of Cleveland’s head-to-head wins came before the All-Star break, when Toronto pulled off swaps for Ibaka and Tucker.
After adding the pair, Toronto went 18-7 to close out the season, improving their defensive rating from 106.0 before the trades to 102.3 after.
No longer a team as heavily reliant on their offence and star-studded backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors will give the Cavaliers another look.
“Just a different dynamic,” Cleveland’s Kevin Love said of Ibaka. “Definitely shooters with both him and [Patrick] Patterson out there. He brings a ton of energy.
“Played really well in round one, so he just gives them a whole different look and a guy who has a ton of playoff experience coming from Oklahoma City. Obviously getting traded from Orlando, but all his playoff experience being there and playing in a lot of big games. He really helps them.”
While Toronto come into the series after a six-game slugfest against Milwaukee, the Cavaliers enter with a week of rest following their sweep of Indiana.
The rest could be particularly helpful to LeBron James, who leads all players in the playoffs with 43.8 minutes per game. “I mean, I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of minutes,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games, and then he had a week off again. So next [series] he might play 48 minutes.”
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