NBA Playoffs Preview: Cavaliers vs. Raptors

We get an Eastern Conference Finals rematch a round early this season. What should we expect this time around?

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors were both tested in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. Of course, those mean vastly different things.

The Cavaliers, despite finding themselves in close games and needing some historic comebacks, swept the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors needed six games to fend off the feisty Milwaukee Bucks.

By net rating, the Bucks (+0.6) were better than the Pacers (-0.1) in the regular season, but neither team was significantly above or below average. The Raptors (+4.9) were the fourth-best squad this season by net rating, and the Cavaliers (+2.9) were eighth in the NBA.

That led to a better nERD rating for the Raptors this season, as well, and our metrics graded out Toronto as the best team in the East this season and the third best in the NBA.

Will it matter in this series?

Cleveland Cavaliers (2)

Record: 51-31
nERD: 59.0
Championship Odds: 8.2%

Toronto Raptors (3)

Record: 51-31
nERD: 65.1
Championship Odds: 11.0%

Regular Season Series - Cavaliers 3, Raptors 1

The Cavs took three of the four games in this regular season series, the first coming on the second day of the season.

The Cavaliers topped the Raptors in Toronto 94-91 and saw big performances from the usual suspects. LeBron James had 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists. Kyrie Irving had 26 points (on 23 field goal attempts, though) with 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Kevin Love scored 18 and added 10 boards.

For the Raps, DeMar DeRozan scored 32 points (on 28 field goal attempts) and had 7 boards. Kyle Lowry poured in 17 points but had more turnovers (6) than assists (4). The only other Raptor to score double-digit points was Jonas Valanciunas, who finished with a plus/minus of -11 -- in a close game.

On November 15th, the game played more like what the Cavaliers have become accustomed to: a 121-117 win. James turned in a 28-point, 9-rebound, 15-assist showcase, and Channing Frye chipped in five threes from the bench. For Toronto, Terrence Ross, now with the Orlando Magic, had 18 points of his own off the bench. The Raptors won the turnover battle 17-8 but couldn't overcome Cleveland's offense.

Cleveland won again in Toronto on December 5th 116-112. Frye had 10 but was the only Cavalier to score more than 6 other than James (34), Love (28), and Irving (24).

The Raptors were similarly one-sided, with Lowry scoring 24 and DeRozan leading the team with 31. Ross had 14, and Patrick Patterson had 12 off the bench, but the three other starters for Toronto all had plus/minus marks worse than 10. DeMarre Carroll was -11, Valanciunas was -16, and Pascal Siakam was -21.

We can finally lead off with the Raptors here in the fourth matchup of the season, a 98-83 win in Cleveland on April 12th, the final day of the regular season. Toronto posted an offensive rating of 111.1 to Cleveland's 94.1 and dominated the offensive glass (27.3% to 21.7%) and turnover battles (7.9% to 14.8%). And they did it all without DeRozan, who missed the game with an illness.

The catch, of course, is that James, Irving, and Love all sat out in this game.

How the Cavaliers Can Win

Let's just say that limiting turnovers should be on the whiteboard for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers. Even if we throw out the final game between the two teams this regular season, the Cavaliers had a turnover rate of 17.1% against the Raptors. Their full season rate was 13.7%, 12th-best, but the 17.1% rate would have been a league-worst mark.

The Raptors aren't a team that relies on transition points, but they are efficient when given the chance, grading out in the 75th percentile in terms of points per possession in the regular season. Even if the turnovers don't lead to fast breaks, giving the Raptors -- 6th in offensive rating on the season -- extra chances against this weak defense could be a huge headache for the Cavaliers.

Cavaliers Player to Watch - LeBron James

Ideally, we'd go elsewhere with this, but it's quite absurd how much this team -- even with Irving and Love -- relies on James. According to Basketball-Reference, the Cavaliers' offense played 14.7 points per 100 possessions better with James than without him (118.4 to 103.7) in the regular season. In the opening round, they scored 117.8 points per 100 with James and 109.7 without him.

Defensively, the Cavaliers' defensive rating jumped 2.3 points without James (to 112.3 from 110.0 with him) in the regular season. Cleveland posted a 112.3 defensive rating in 130 minutes with James against the Pacers in the opening round. Without him for 14 minutes, they allowed 135.7 points per 100.

James played 90% of the minutes during the sweep, and the volume he can handle could determine the series.

How the Raptors Can Win

We can only discuss the Cavaliers' defense so many times, but that's still something they need to figure out and that the Raptors can exploit. Cleveland allowed 111.0 points per 100 possessions to Indiana in the opening round, the fourth-worst defensive rating among the 16 playoff teams.

One way that Toronto can attack is the pick and roll. The Cavaliers allowed 0.89 points per possession to ball handlers in the pick and roll this season, fifth-highest in the NBA. The Raptors scored 0.95 points per possession on those plays, tied for best in the league. No team ran the play more frequently (24.2%) than Toronto, either.

The Bucks defended the play well, though, giving up just 0.83 points per possession in pick and roll ball handler situations against Toronto in Round 1. The Cavs were torched by the Pacers in the first round, allowing 1.08 points per possession to ball handlers on the play.

Raptors Player to Watch - Norman Powell

Norman Powell entered Toronto's starting lineup in Game 3 against the Bucks, and that sparked a turnaround. The team played substantially better with Powell on the court in the opening series, and he, too, can get buckets via the pick and roll.

In the regular season, Powell was the ball handler on a pick and roll 28.4% of his possessions and scored 0.97 points per play, putting him in the 84th percentile in the league.

DeRozan (40.9%, 0.97, 84th percentile) and Lowry (39.1%, 1.05, 95th percentile) excel there, as well, and even Delon Wright (47.0%, 0.91, 76th percentile) and Cory Joseph (45.1%, 0.80, 50th percentile) could make a difference if they get minutes.

Powell's impact against Cleveland will depend on head coach Dwane Casey's rotation. Powell probably can't start alongside Lowry and DeRozan (one of the three would have to guard James), but he certainly can sway the series in different ways. Powell might not be the real difference maker, but he'll be someone to watch for so that we can figure out what the Raptors' initial, preferred rotation might be.

Series Prediction

The Raptors were the better team this season, over a full, 82-game sample. Cleveland played like a .500 team during the second half of the season, and the Raptors maintained efficiency even without Kyle Lowry for a stretch.

Still, they haven't gotten the better of Cleveland head-to-head this season, and they have no answer for a locked-in LeBron James, who can play nearly every minute of a series.

According to our algorithms: Raptors are 52.94% favorites.

My final prediction: Cavaliers in six.