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The Eastern Conference Finals: The five things that will decide the series

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After an eight-day break from playoff action, the Cleveland Cavaliers will return to the court tonight as they entertain the Toronto Raptors in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Quicken Loans Arena. 

The two teams' path to this stage couldn't have been more different. The Cavs have played the minimum amount of games after sweeping both the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks, whilst the Raptors have played the maximum after dispatching both the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat in seven games. 

Cleveland is the overwhelming favourite to win the series and make it to a second consecutive NBA finals.

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The Wine and Gold also hold home court advantage after finishing ahead of the Raptors in the regular season standings which also works in their favour. 

Prior to game one in Cleveland, GiveMeSport looks at the five things that will decide this encounter.

LeBron James

The King has ruled the east for a long time, reaching the conference finals for the last six years - four times with the Miami Heat and twice with the Cleveland Cavaliers - winning in his previous five appearances and it'll be a surprise if he doesn't make it six against Toronto. 

No team has had an answer for LeBron in the east, hence why he has been to the NBA finals five times in a row. If the Raptors are to be the team that stops that run, they'll have to find a way of stopping the man himself.  

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

James averages 30 points in the conference finals and after the luxury of an extended period of rest, the four-time MVP will be in great shape to keep that going and dominate this series.  

DeMarre Carroll will be the man tasked with guarding LeBron, and though he's a very competent defender, the Raptors man gives up too much size and if the 2014-15 Eastern Conference Finals is anything to go by - when Carroll guarded James as a member of the Hawks - there will only be one outcome.  

James has been slightly reserved in these playoffs so far, that's largely due to the help he's had from Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, with the latter leading the Cavs in scoring.

The two-time champion is averaging a career-low 23.5 points in the postseason but that doesn't bother him too much as he enjoys being a facilitator and getting his teammates involved. This series, though, may require James to go into takeover mode and if that happens, the Raptors may be in trouble.   

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns

No Jonas Valanciunas

Toronto has confirmed that the Lithuanian big man will miss game one and is a doubt for game two. He missed the final four games against the Miami Heat after spraining his ankle but before the injury he was a dominant factor for the Canadian outfit and if he didn't get hurt, the series may not have gone all the way to seven games. 

He missed the final four games against the Miami Heat after spraining his ankle but before the injury, he was a dominant factor for the Canadian outfit and, if he didn't get hurt, the series may not have gone all the way to seven games. 

Without him, the Cavs will have the advantage on the glass and Tristan Thompson can wreak havoc with offensive boards. Valanciunas would provide a big body for the Raptors to counter that and to also score. 

Bismack Biyombo deputised well for Jonas against the Heat and was huge in game seven but Cleveland will pose more problems with their inside-outside game.   

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven

Dwane Casey will hope his big man can play some part in the encounter, but if he does miss multiple games, the series could well be over by then. 

Point guard battle

The matchup between All-Star point guards Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving will be one of the most fascinating aspects of this series. 

Irving has been in terrific form in the playoffs after an indifferent regular season by his standards, whereas Lowry has been quite the opposite. He had the best campaign of his career but has largely struggled to translate that into the postseason.

After a poor showing against the Pacers, Lowry got back to his best with a number of impressive outings against the Heat, most notably in game seven where he helped the Raptors close it out with a 35-point outing. 

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game Four

Kyrie, as mentioned above, is the Cavs' leading scorer with 24.4 points a night over the team's eight games so far and is playing some of his best basketball on the biggest stage. 

Expect the guards to go one-on-one from time to time and try to outscore each other as both men can get hot instantly. But there will be more of an onus on Lowry to be at his best for the Raptors to stand any chance of progressing. 

Three-point shooting

The Cavaliers had a historically good series from beyond the arc against the Hawks in the conference semi-finals. They broke the NBA record, regular or postseason, for threes in a single game when they hit 25 in a game two demolition and hit a total of 77 over the four outings.

Tyronn Lue's men have been the best three-point shooting team in the playoffs, which is surprising with the Golden State Warriors around. Toronto does not guard the perimeter well and if the Cavs get hot, it could become a problem for them. 

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks

There's no doubt that Casey is preparing his team to do a better job of defending the three and to avoid giving open looks to the likes of J.R. Smith, Love, and Irving. 

The Wine and Gold have been averaging 16 makes from downtown compared to the Raptors' six which is a clear indication of where this series may be won and lost.

Others

As is so often the case in the latter stages of the playoffs, the 'others' on each team become a huge factor. So both teams will be looking for contribution outside of LeBron, Kyrie, Love, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. 

The likes of Smith, Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and Channing Frye for Cleveland and Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Biyombo and Carroll for Toronto. 

Miami Heat v Toronto Raptors - Game Two

As Biyombo showed with his 17 points and 16 rebounds on Sunday, the others really do have a huge role to play and can be the difference.

You expect the All-Stars from both teams to get their points, but it is the production off the bench and from those who don't get plays called for them that defines a championship winning team. 

The stars will be leaned on throughout the game and particularly down the stretch, but role players must come to the fore too and it will be interesting to see which team benefits from that. 

Topics:
Toronto Raptors
Atlantic Division
Eastern Conference
NBA
Kyrie Irving
Cleveland Cavaliers
Central Division
LeBron James
Kevin Love
DeMar DeRozan
Kyle Lowry

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