The Toronto Raptors will be seeking to avenge last season’s Eastern Conference Finals loss to Cleveland as they take on the second-seeded Cavaliers.
A lot has changed since the two teams last faced each other. The Cavs went on to win the championship in 2016, and have added veteran players Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, but are without cult figure Matthew Dellavedova.
The Raptors have progressed another year with their core group of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, and have added the tenacious shot-blocking presence of Serge Ibaka.
The Raptors looked as though they would never get to this stage after game three in Milwaukee, where they were comprehensively beaten by what was a more enthusiastic Bucks team.
But three wins later and the Raptors have found a second wind, led by their young small forward Norman Powell. The shot-blocking presence of Ibaka proved invaluable as the series wore on, as he averaged almost two more blocks than any other player on his team.
Cleveland, despite sweeping their first round series with Indiana, was tested and is probably very thankful to have got out of it so comfortably.
Cleveland could very well have lost three of the four games, but executed well down the stretch to get themselves out of trouble, most notably in game three where they overcame 26-point deficit.
While the news is good that Cleveland has done a good job executing when it matters most, the ability of their opponents to score heavily on them is cause for concern.
The Cavaliers defence ranked 22nd in the NBA in the regular season, and fourth worst so far in the postseason. They gave up a lot of second chance and fast-break points, and their paint defence was below the league average.
The offensive talent of their big three combined with the perimeter shooting they are surrounded with was enough to see them record the second best record in the Eastern Conference and win their first four playoff games, but this series will be a good measure of where they are at.
Toronto has a loaded back court consisting of DeRozan and Lowry, and run a lot of pick-and-roll action involving their big men.
Although the explosive duo struggled in the first round, combining for just 36 points per game, their ability to score in volumes against a lowly Cleveland defence could be a huge factor as the series progresses.
Something that could work in favour of Cleveland is the amount of isolation that Toronto plays. A lot of their offense involves giving the ball to one of their guards and letting him go to work.
81 per cent of DeRozan’s points in the playoffs have come unassisted. And while he certainly excels in this aspect of his game, it could allow a sloppy Cavs defence to focus solely on stopping him and Lowry without having to worry about the likes of Ibaka, PJ Tucker and Pat Patterson.
The Raptors are the underdogs in this series. The reason for that? LeBron James. Toronto has never had an answer for him (not many teams have.)
And as long as he is healthy and primed for another championship run, it is going to take a special team to beat him and his Cavaliers teammates, and at this stage of proceedings, Toronto is not it.
My prediction: Cleveland in 5