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The Toronto Raptors needed seven games to defeat the Miami Heat and reach the Eastern Conference Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers did not. Cleveland swept the Atlanta Hawks and has had time to rest and prepare for this matchup. The Cavs are also 11-point favorites in Game 1, which perhaps seems harsh in some respects. But the Cavaliers are the toast of the Eastern Conference and it will be the Raps attempting to prove itself as heavy underdogs.
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The Raptors are still expected to be without starting center Jonas Valanciunas. He is battling an ankle injury and is expected back in this series. Just not yet. That means backup center Bismack Biyombo will get the start. But Toronto has hardly been negatively affected, and that is because Biyombo is playing like a man that deserves a starting role. His hustle was huge in Game 7 against the Heat, and had 17 points, 16 rebounds, two blocks and an assist.
Biyombo played 41 minutes in the game, and he appeared much longer and bigger than his listed 6’9”. A lot of that may have been because the Heat went so small, but Biyombo’s rim protection will loom large in this series too. It will be Biyombo who is the last line of defense when Kyrie Irving and LeBron James beat Raps’ perimeter defenders off the dribble.
But as much as Biyombo will factor into Game 1 in this series, the Raptors need the offensive production from its All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
The tandem combined for 63 points in Game 7 against Miami, going a combined 23 of 49 from the field. Lowry hit 5 of 7 from three-point range as the Raptors shot 9 of 20 from downtown as a team.
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Toronto will need to connect better from the free throw line, though, where Toronto was just 29 of 43 (67 percent) in the final game against Miami. The fact that Toronto turned it over just nine times may have been its saving grace.
A lot of things have to be done right when a team is struggling that badly and getting fouled that often, but Toronto appeared sharp offensively the entire game (Is there any other way to score 116 points?).
The Cavaliers finished just one game better than Toronto in the standings this season, so it is fitting the two clubs meet in the ECF. Cleveland of course will rely heavily on its “big three” of Irving, James and Kevin Love. This will likely be the last year we see the Cavs configured like this with James and Love about to hit free agency this offseason. Of course, if Cleveland really captures the title this year, that all changes.
For the meantime, the Cavs will turn heavily to a trio that averages 66 of its 107.8 points per game in the postseason. Irving leads the team in postseason scoring at 24.4 points per game, but that could all change as James begins to flex his will against a Raptors team that will likely counter by putting DeMarre Carroll on James. Love will be countered by Patrick Patterson.
Irving will have to work his magic on Lowry. The Cavaliers may seek to put a bigger defender on Lowry, but it is unclear how that will accomplished that without relegating Irving to the bench. That can hardly be done with him being a key piece in the Cavs’ attack.
The Cavaliers are averaging 11.8 offensive rebounds per game this postseason, and Love is a big part of that with 3.1 per game. His backup Tristan Thompson, all the more so: Thompson is averaging five offensive rebounds per game as part of his 8.3 rebounds per game.
The Cavs may have more firepower than the Raptors, but it could be the rebounding battle that ends up factoring so large in this series. Love and Thompson combining for over eight offensive rebounds per game is reason enough to believe the Cavs can dominate this game by owning the glass.