The biggest question of the second round of the playoffs is whether or not Kyle Lowry and the Raptors can finally beat the Cavaliers: the biggest obstacle between them and a Finals run.
Ever since Toronto came into its own and became a legit threat in the Eastern Conference, it’s been considered the only team with enough star power to even think about beating LeBron. With two legit superstars in Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, many had hope that a team other than the Cavs would be representing the East come June. But, despite their regular season success that has resulted in two consecutive 50-plus win seasons, Lowry and DeRozan haven’t been able to put it together in the playoffs. Earning the label “Trash Bros,” the two played terribly in first-round exits to the Wizards and Nets before finally getting it together last year and leading the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals. Once they were there, it wasn’t very close. The two didn’t play as bad as their reputation would claim, but they weren’t at the top of their game, and the Cavs went on to win their first championship ever.
Now, it’s time for a second-round rematch, and Toronto looks a little different than in the past. They upgraded at the trade deadline this season, adding two versatile defenders in P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. These two guys will be the difference-makers in the series. The Cavaliers love to switch and get LeBron or Kyrie on a big man as a mismatch, and it worked perfectly last year, as the pair roasted Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson. The only defender who had any sort of success was Bismack Biyombo, who is now with the Magic. Biyombo was quick enough to stay in front of them on the perimeter, and excelled in defending the rim. Now, Toronto has two guys in Tucker and Ibaka who are very similar to Biyombo, even if he’s a better rim protector than both of them.
The adjustment that might just lead the Raptors to the upset was head coach Dwayne Casey’s decision to take out Valanciunas and start Ibaka in his place. By going small and putting Ibaka, a traditional power forward, at center, Casey can now start Lowry, DeRozan, Tucker, Ibaka and Norman Powell. That’s a lineup with two versatile defenders, a lockdown guard in Lowry and an energetic, athletic young guy in Powell. This allows for the Raptors to match up when the Cavs surround LeBron with four shooters, since they can all defend on the perimeter well enough that they won’t get immediately beat. The Cavs have gotten by so far on their offense, and if Toronto can make them work for their buckets, the Cavs will be expending more effort than usual on both ends of the floor.
Ultimately, for Toronto to have any chance, Lowry and DeRozan have to step up. DeRozan is a relic of the past, relying solely on mid-range and drives to the basket to get his points, and he’s had trouble dealing with playoff defense in the past. If DeRozan can hit his shots, and if Lowry can do everything as the distributor/scorer/defender he’s shown he can be, then we might just have a series. Otherwise, LeBron is going to LeBron, and it’ll be Cavs-GSW for the third time.