Article Written by Travis Aylward (@travaylward)
2018 will mark the third straight season that the Raptors will have a playoff meeting against Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Toronto has not fared well in the past playoff series, losing 4-2 in 2016 and getting swept 4-0 last year. This year’s different though. They’re not intimidated.
This season was the first in which Toronto had to wait for their 2nd round opponent. After besting the Washington Wizards in 6 games, all eyes were on the Pacers/Cavs Game 7, in which Cleveland ending up winning behind a 45-point output from Lebron James. In winning that game, Cleveland booked their ticket to a 2nd round showdown with the Raptors. As imagined, the questions came pouring in from the media.
When DeRozan was asked about facing Lebron and the Cavs once again, he seemed to think the Raptors are better equipped this year.
“I feel it, we all have that confidence in ourselves. And the way we play now is (because of) the mistakes that we had from the series (against Cleveland). You know? Going down in them that’s what made us better, that’s what made us at the point where we’re at now … top of our conference, having the confidence that we have, and the style of play that we go out and play with.”
Fred VanVleet was also asked about facing Lebron.
“Obviously, I respect the guy a lot, the type of player he is, obviously the person he is, but for me, the most respect I can give him is to not give him any respect, in terms of going out there and just trying to challenge him and take him down. And that’s our job, and that’s what we need to do this week.”
VanVleet and DeRozan were two of many Raptors asked about the upcoming challenge. Many had similar answers. They all acknowledge that you can’t get to the finals without facing Lebron and they all seem up to the challenge. And while they won’t say it aloud, they also know this is the most beatable version of Lebron they have ever faced. If they are going to beat Lebron, the time is now. A serious test for this very criticized Toronto Raptors team.
After defeating the Pacers in 7 games, Lebron admitted he was tired. Postgame Lebron told reporters he was “burnt,” and “wanted to go home.” You can’t blame him for being tired though. He was as close to losing a round as you can while leading his team all series and averaging 42 minutes per game.
This year is the first in which the Raptors have good depth. All Raptors fans know the narrative - DeRozan and Lowry choke in the playoffs and don’t trust their teammates in clutch time. This year is different. Both players currently have better offensive numbers in these playoffs then the regular season. They’re also trusting their teammates, especially DeRozan. Exclude the late stages of game 3 where he was forcing too much and not passing, and DeRozan has been passing well these playoffs. He’s currently averaging 4.8 assists per game these playoffs, while still producing offensively averaging 26.7 points per game.
The bench mob has been the most unexpected thing of these new Raptors, and Fred VanVleet might be the most valuable member. He averaged 8.6 points per game, 3.2 assists per game, 2.4 rebounds, and had a 41% 3-point percentage in the regular season. Whenever the Raptors needed a big-time bucket, they could rely on Fred. VanVleet only played in 2 games this past series, but his presence was felt in game 6. He controls the pace of the game and can get a bucket when needed. He’s been an unexpected and very valuable part of this team.
One of the most interesting things in this series will be who guards Lebron. Pascal Siakam is probably the best option. In the most recent meeting between these two franchises, a Cavaliers win, Lebron had only 6 points in the 2nd quarter. Lebron also happened to be covered by Siakam the whole 2nd quarter. Another option is OG Anunoby.
After 2 straight postseason defeats at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, this series means everything for the Raptors and the city of Toronto. The Eastern Conference finals awaits if the Raptors can pull out a series win. Toronto is looking to silence the critics, the haters, the doubters, everyone.
This series begins on tonight (see previous article for full schedule).
Let’s go Toronto!
Follow South of the 6ix on Twitter (@SouthOfThe6ix)