After two rounds of high expectations and intense playoff pressure, the Toronto Raptors enter their Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers cast in the more familiar role of underdogs.
Since booking their place in the last four with a 116-89 game seven win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, the Raptors have been subjected to the same storyline: they are overmatched against the Cavaliers’ potent offense and should be happy if they can pick even one or two games in this series.
While some of the logic is tough to dispute, Toronto does possess weapons and is in the enviable position of having a free swing in this series.
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FREE AND LOOSE
This group of players has taken the Raptors further than they have ever been in the post-season, banishing the ghosts of previous playoff exits and proving that they belong among the game’s elite. Now LeBron James awaits.
Just don’t tell Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan that reaching the conference finals is sufficient cause for celebration. Both all-stars, along with head coach Dwane Casey, have stressed that there’s more to come. After all, they did play by far their best all-round game of the playoffs on Sunday.
“We’re going to go in there and play our game,” Lowry explained after his 35-point masterpiece in the decider against Miami. “And we’ll see what happens.”
COME OUT SWINGING
If Toronto is going to spring an upset, game one is especially key. The Cavaliers have not played since wrapping up a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks on May 8, and all the practice time in the world cannot recreate playoff action. The Raptors have to be ready to take advantage of any rust in the early exchanges of the series opener and willing to ride Lowry for as many minutes as they can.
Casey pointed to the benefits of the rest that the Cavaliers have had, but his own players are the ones in a groove offensively. It will not take long for Cleveland to crank up their play to usual levels, yet there might be enough of a window for the Raptors to land the first punch.
The Cavaliers remain heavy favourites – and with good reason after torching the Hawks and Detroit Pistons with a barrage of three-pointers. But the Raptors arrive in the conference finals with the weight off their shoulders, confident that they can compete. It might just be a tighter battle than many are predicting.