Neither the Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Toronto Raptors had an easy time in the first round. But both teams managed to get by their initial playoff opponents and will meet in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Toronto is hoping to beat James and the Cavs in their third try in as many years. And it seems like they have a better chance to do this than ever before, considering that they won a franchise-best 59 games and have the East’s top seed.
They’re also playing better team basketball than ever before. Head coach Dwane Casey redesigned the offense to move away from repeated pick-and-roll sets with guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. This has helped the Raptors’ assist percentage to go from last in the league in 2016-17 (47.2 percent) to 11th this year (59.0 percent).
These numbers alone don’t mean that Toronto is going to get past Cleveland. They’ve gone to 2-8 against the Cavs in the last two postseasons. And the main reason why is because of LeBron James.
To be fair, nobody has stopped James from reaching the NBA Finals in the last seven years. And this is why GM Masai Ujiri Work has worked so hard to put versatile pieces in place that are capable of stopping Cleveland.
Will that be the case in 2018? Find out as I preview the first game of this Eastern Conference semifinals series. You can also see the odds on this game below and make your wagers at GTBets.
Cavs Raptors Odds – 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1, May 1 at 8:00pm EST
Cleveland +6.5 (-113) / +221 moneyline
Toronto -6.5 (-105)/ -263 moneyline
Over/under 215.5 (-109)
Why the Cleveland Cavs Will Cover +6.5
Looking at stats from the Pacers series, one thing is clear: LeBron is carrying his team more than ever before.
James averaged 34.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG, and 7.7 APG in the first round, while scoring 45 points to extinguish Indiana in Game 7. Cleveland added a number of players in the offseason that they hoped could take the load off LeBron. But many of these players were sent packing in a midseason roster overall.
One thing’s for sure, and that’s how Kevin Love needs to step up in the second round. He averaged 11.1 PPG and 9.3 RPG against the Pacers. While not bad numbers, this isn’t what you’d expect from the team’s No. 2 option.
Of course, Love isn’t the only one who needs to contribute more for Cleveland to beat the Raptors. J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood, and Jordan Clarkson have also been underwhelming so far. Meanwhile, George Hill, Kyle Korver, Larry Nance, and Tristan Thompson (namely Game 7) played up to their abilities during parts of the Indiana series.
Hood has especially been disappointing so far. He averaged 16.8 PPG and shot 38.9% from the three-point line before being acquired from Utah. However, he’s struggled in Cleveland, averaging 10.8 PPG and shooting 35.2% from the arc.
I chalk up some of this to Cleveland playing their first postseason series together. I can’t guarantee that they’ll gel enough to knock off the Raptors. But they should certainly play better as a unit with seven playoff games under their belt.
And Cleveland has one undeniable advantage in that nobody in the East can handle James one-on-one. This was evident in the Pacers series, and it will be true against Toronto as well. He’ll see a lot of rookie OG Anunoby, whom he shot 61.9% against in the regular season.
Another plus for Cleveland is that they led the league in spot-up shooting (1.08 points per possession) and rank well in transition offense (17.5 possessions per game). Defending against these areas is a strength of Toronto’s, but they won’t have these defensive advantages against Cleveland.
Cavs 2018 Playoffs ATS Record: 1-6 overall; 1-2 on the road
Why the Toronto Raptors Will Cover -6.5
As good a job as Toronto has done in sharing the ball, it’s clear that DeRozan and Lowry are still the leaders on this team. DeRozan averaged 26.2 PPG against Washington, while Lowry averaged 17.2 PPG and shot 43.6% from beyond the arc.
Lowry has a history of struggling every time that Toronto has exited the playoffs in the past three seasons. But if he plays as well as he did against Washington and John Wall, then this team has a definite shot to move on.
Point guard play should be a big strength for the Raptors, because they also have Fred VanVleet, who played well against the Wizards. This bench unit as a whole has been outstanding, showing the ability to flip games. Their offensive net rating led the lead (8.3) while their effective field goal percentage was 54.0%.
Toronto should also have the better defense in this series. They ranked eight in the league by allowing 104.9 points per 100 possessions, which makes them better than Indiana (16th, 106.3). It’s doubtful that this team defense will slow down James, but it could affect the supporting cast even more than the Pacers were able to do.
This looks like the Raptors’ best chance to take down James in years, especially since he no longer has Kyrie Irving as a sidekick.
Raptors 2018 Playoffs ATS Record: 4-2 overall; 3-0 at home
Final Thoughts on Cleveland and Toronto Odds
Cleveland has never looked more vulnerable in the four years since James has came back to the city. Of course, this has nothing to do with LeBron himself, but rather a supporting cast that hasn’t provided much support at all.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have been crafted to take down James. And they have the numbers and roster to back up this vision. However, they didn’t look so dominant against Washington. I think that they’re going to have another tough series when facing off against James.
They’ll most likely take down the first game in the series, but look for this to be another close affair for both teams.
Final Score Prediction: Toronto wins Game 1 by a score of 106-101 – Cleveland covers -5.5