After what has felt like an eternity, the NBA Eastern Conference Finals is set to begin today, May 17th at 8:30 PM EST on ESPN. The Toronto Raptors emerged as winners of consecutive seven-game series, dismissing the injury-riddled Miami Heat two weeks after having sent the Indiana Pacers on summer vacation. They will travel to Quicken Loans Arena to square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has played a total of eight games since the playoffs began on April 16th. The matchup features the East’s top-two seeded teams, though the Cavs will be returning as last year’s Conference champions while the Raptors have never advanced this far in the post season in franchise history. Will Toronto be the first team to hand the Wine and Gold a loss in the 2016 postseason? Their fan base seems to think so, as they could be heard chanting “We Want Cleveland!” with the clock winding down during the final game against Miami.

The All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan overcame historically bad shooting to lead their team to this stage. After sinking 43% of his attempts from the field and 39% of his three-point tries during the regular season, Lowry’s efficiency has dropped to an uninspiring 35% and 25%, respectively, in the playoffs. DeMar has experienced a similar drop in productivity and this simply must change if they hope to avoid the same fate realized by the Cavs’ last two opponents. Admittedly, the duo combined for 63 points in the closeout game against the Heat while hitting a respectable 47% of their attempts. Perhaps the return of their shooters’ touch in such a critical game will help to restore the confidence that made them one of the most dangerous backcourts throughout the season.

The jury is still out as to when Toronto can expect a return from center Jonas Valanciunas. The seven-footer went down with a sprained right ankle in Game 3 of the series against Miami and is “nowhere close to being ready to play,” per head coach Dwane Casey. Prior to the injury, Valanciunas had been a huge part of the Raps attack with nightly averages of 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks – while shooting 55% from the field. Though reserve Bismack Biyombo has filled in quite admirably with his defense and rebounding, the question marks surrounding the health of Jonas will serve to be a significant factor in how competitive his team can make this series. Toronto will be asking a lot from their reserves to win without their budding big man.

Waiting for the Raptors in Cleveland will be none other than a well-rested, four-time MVP and two-time champion in LeBron James. He seeks to return to the Finals for what would be an NBA-record 6th straight appearance. The perennial All-Star has done his usual damage in leading his team through the playoffs thus far, boasting a stat line that includes 23.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. A year removed from his storied return to the franchise that drafted him, James has to love his supporting cast. For the first time in his career with Cleveland, he is not the squad’s leading scorer at this juncture in the postseason. The only other time LeBron did not lead his team in scoring in the playoffs was in 2011 when Dwayne Wade led in scoring for a series. This year that honor belongs to Kyrie Irving, who is playing at a very high level. The guard has averaged 24.4 PPG on 48% shooting while also hitting at a mindboggling 54% clip from deep. Irving is peaking at just the right time, as he missed the first two months of the season while recovering from a knee injury that he suffered during game 1 of last year’s NBA Finals.

Did Lowry just throw shade at LeBron?

Rounding out the Cavs Big Three is three-time All-Star Kevin Love, who has dropped almost 19 PPG while grabbing over 12 RPG in this year’s playoffs. The 6’10” power forward has helped to spread the floor in head coach Tyronn Lue’s fast-paced offense by making better than 44% of his three-point attempts in the postseason. The Cavs tortured the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in previous rounds with a buffet of Kyrie/LeBron/Love pick and pop/roll plays, which always seemed to create opportunities for them or a wide open shot for a waiting sniper like J.R Smith or Channing Frye. Love initially struggled to find his identity within an offense that had mostly been structured around James and Irving under former coach David Blatt, yet his increased involvement has undoubtedly led to an improved morale as showcased by his enhanced focus on the defensive end. The Cavs clearly have an edge in superstar power and it will be interesting to see how the Raptors attempt to overcome this challenge.

One aspect that Toronto may seek to exploit is the point guard battle between Lowry and Irving, where Lowry put up a career high 43-point performance in their last matchup. I expect that the Cavaliers will have schemes to counter this, such as blitzing Lowry when he tries to free himself with a screen or harassing him with defensive-minded Iman Shumpert. The reality for Toronto is that their offense can be very predictable at times with so much of it driven through Kyle and DeRozan. Therefore, they will really have to focus on slowing down a Cleveland offense that has been red-hot.

Such a task will be much easier said than done, as the Cavs splashed home an NBA-series record 77 three-pointers against the Hawks in the previous round. This unbelievable production contributed to the 46% long distance marksmanship that has their team looking very formidable against any opponent. The question remains if this level of efficiency is sustainable for the title hopefuls.

Toronto actually got the better of the Cavaliers during the regular season, winning two of the three games played. Both victories occurred in Toronto, however, and they do not have the luxury of home-court advantage in the ECF. Cleveland’s superstar forward is not putting much stock into what transpired then, as shortly after the matchup was confirmed, James spoke about the season series by saying, “We were a totally different team during the regular season.”

Bottom line, the deck appears to be stacked against Toronto. They were a great rebounding team against a Heat team that lost double-double machine Hassan Whiteside to injury. The Cavs happen to employ a number of effective rebounders in Love, James and Tristan Thompson and the Raptors cannot expect to enjoy a similar advantage in this series. Add to the fire that Lowry has thrown his first shot at James, and the writing is on the wall for a troublesome series for the Canadian team:

“LeBron’s probably one of the best players in the league – besides Steph,” said Lowry after closing out the series with Miami.

Many have thrown their jabs at LeBron in the past, whether it is with subtlety or not. Usually, this approach does not end favorably for the man throwing such a punch. The Toronto home crowd can really amp it up, and for that reason, they may find a way to steal a win. Make no mistake, though, the Cavs will be returning to the NBA Finals.

Prediction: Cavs in 5

~Malik Wiggins

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