• Jonathan Ebrahimi

3 Things: How the Raptors Can Beat the Cavs

Coming into the Raptors-Cavaliers series, a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, Coach Casey’s scouting report on the Cleveland Cavaliers probably looked something like this:

Unfortunately for the Raptors, Game 1 went a little something like this:

- LeBron James did everything well: 35 PTS, 10 REB, 4 AST, 57% FG, 88% FT, 40% 3PT

- The Cavaliers took a lot of 3-point shots, and shot them well: 14 / 34 3PA (41%)

- The Cavaliers out-rebounded the Raptors: TOR 43 - 46 CLE, Tristan Thompson: 4 O-REB and 10 D-REB

- Seven Cavaliers hit at least one 3-point shot, and five of them shot 40%+ on their 3-point attempts.

The good news is that last year’s game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals actually went worse for the Raptors, and they were still able to extend the series to a sixth game. What this means is that the series is far from over, and with a few adjustments Toronto can make this a series worth watching.

Obviously, if the Raptors are going to make this series competitive, they will have to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor. Here are three things the Raptors must do to slow down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers:

Run the Cavaliers off of the 3-Point Line

The Cleveland Cavaliers like to shoot the three-ball, and they shoot it really, really well. It’s not a secret. Generally, it’s not a wise proposition to try and outgun a team like the Cavaliers who boast snipers like Kyle Korver, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, etc.

If Toronto is going to have any hope of beating the Cavaliers, they have to force them off of the 3-point line. This means every defender needs to be mobile and active with their hands up. It also means that they are inevitably going to give LeBron James and Tristan Thompson a few easy baskets at the rim, but against a team as talented as the Cavaliers, you essentially have to pick your poison. In order to keep them away from the 3-point line, they will likely have to make a couple of line-up changes, which leads me to my next point…

Go Back to a Small-Ball Lineup

Although I am generally a big fan of Toronto’s starting center, Jonas Valanciunas should probably spend the majority of this series stapled to the bench. The Cavs are a nightmare match-up for the Lithuanian big man, particularly when he gets caught in the pick-and-roll and pulled away from the basket. Cleveland’s ability to play with 5 shooters on the floor at the same time really limits his effectiveness defensively, especially since he is already limited in his ability to protect the rim.

Although Norman Powell was used to replace Valanciunas in the previous series, he isn’t big enough to match up with the Cavaliers. Instead, Coach Casey should opt to start P.J. Tucker at small forward, have DeMarre Carroll slide down to power forward and have Serge Ibaka play center. This gives the Raptors five players who are capable of defending the perimeter, and tempts Tyronn Lue to play Kevin Love in the post, to take advantage of the mismatch. If the ball is played through Love, the ball is out of LeBron’s hands and they will run less pick-and-roll plays, which ultimately means less open threes.

Play Physical and ‘Muck Things Up’

The difference between the Raptors and Cavaliers is pretty simple: The Raptors are a really good team, with some really good players and the Cavaliers are elite and have the best player in the world. From the onset, it would seem as though the Raptors have no chance to win, but lesser teams have beaten elite teams on plenty of past occasions.

In order to beat Cleveland, Toronto has to outwork them. They have to play physical defense, crash the boards with purpose and grind out tough possessions on the offensive end. Toronto need to do whatever it takes to wear the Cavs down: lean on them in the post, thump them in the paint, hand-check a little. It’s the playoffs after all, where foul calls are fewer and far between.

The Raptors have to force the Cavaliers to play slow, play ugly and slug it out with them. That way if they get a lucky bounce here or a lucky call there, it might actually be the difference between winning or losing a game – or if they’re really, really lucky – the series.

Do you think the Raptors could make this series interesting? Let me know on Twitter at @awrashoo

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