The Highlights

  • The Raptors will be in big trouble if they can’t win one of their matchups with Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.
  • Toronto’s bench is so good that it might not need to win the battle of the starters to win the series.
  • LeBron has played the most minutes of any player in the playoffs. It’s time for Ty Lue to give his bench more of a chance.

There are three key elements in play as the Raptors (-6.5) and Cavaliers get set to begin their conference semifinals series Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, TNT):

THE FIVE, AND DIMES

Thompson began the Cavaliers’ first-round series against Indiana out of the rotation. He finished it in the starting lineup. Where he lands in this next series will be big, no pun intended.

Last year in the Cavs’ sweep of Toronto, the Cavs were +26.3 with Thompson on the floor, and actually were outscored with him on the bench. That was the second-best Net Rating differential of any Cleveland player behind Kyrie Irving. Meanwhile, Jonas Valanciunas was a minus-20 in Net Rating.

But that was last season’s Cavs team, and last season’s Raptors team. What’s interesting is how effective Thompson has been in the past, and how much other Cavs lineups were this season.

Consider this: Thompson played scant minutes in the regular season vs. Toronto, but the most-used lineups with him were in the negative in a small sample. Love and Thompson played just 13 minutes together against Toronto this season and were only a +1. But Love without Thompson was +11.

Valanciunas just simply isn’t equipped to handle Love and help protect the rim at the same time:

 

The problem is exacerbated in the presence of Jakob Poeltl. He was routinely cooked trying to close out quickly enough on Love in the regular season, and when he tried to play up on him, well:

 

This isn’t to say that the Cavs can’t win their minutes with Thompson on the floor. The key for Toronto: Win one matchup or the other. LeBron James is going to play almost the entirety of every game anyway. But if the Raptors are losing to Cleveland’s small-ball units and getting beat when they go big with Thompson, that’s a huge issue.

The Raptors can win against both combinations, but they need exceptional play, especially from Serge Ibaka. Toronto’s starting power forward was much better in the playoffs than he was in the regular season, and Valanciunas has been tremendous. They need that to continue.

PINEWOOD DERBY

The Raptors’ bench put up 60 points per game on the Cavs in the regular season. That’s not an exaggeration. They actually scored 60 points per game on them in three contests.  LeBron singled out the Raptors’ bench after Game 7 vs. Indiana.  It can do damage.

The Raptors’ bench came up huge in Game 1 vs. the Wizards, and then struggled more on the road. You should expect the same in this series, and it’s why Toronto protecting home court will be such a big deal. Delon Wright was not only huge vs. the Cavaliers in the regular season, but also against the Wizards in round one. Fred VanVleet will presumably play, and his impact is equally big.

The Raptors predictably are staggering way more than most teams do with their stars and bench units. What’s striking is that almost every lineup with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and some combo puts up stellar net ratings. Lowry and DeRozan have stepped up in a way they haven’t before, and the bench guys are helping them win those minutes.

Quite honestly, there’s no way to know how this goes. These lineups will face James more than they did in the regular season … but it’s not like James rested a lot in the regular season anyway. It’s a rarity for playoff success, but Toronto might be able to get away with just winning the bench minutes in this series, even if the Raptors lose the starters’ minutes. They have to make shots, and both Poeltl and Pascal Siakam have to minimize their mistakes.

A KING’S RESPITE

James enters Game 1 having played the most minutes of any player in the playoffs so far. Not in Round 1. Period. Terry Rozier has played eight total NBA playoff games so far and has played fewer minutes than James. LeBron has played 70 more minutes than Kevin Durant, and he hasn’t even started the second round.

James is always patient and understanding with the media, and yet after Game 7 vs. Indiana, he begged out early of a media session saying “I’m burnt.

What’s James’ limit? We’re about to find out. If anyone can consistently play at a high level for 40-plus minutes a night, it’s James, but man is this thing stacked against him.

 

It’s one reason why James stays on the floor for a bit after getting hit. It’s a way to stretch rest time, little by little. It’s why Lue managing his timeouts around TV timeouts is huge.

But also, the Cavs pulled away in Game 7 vs. Indiana when James was off the floor. When he went out with cramps and they were forced to manage without him, they turned a two-point lead into a 10-point lead. That was essentially the difference. James was actually a minus-3 in the fourth quarter.

There are signs that lineups with George Hill — who continues to battle a bad back — along with Kevin Love and JR Smith can do damage. The Cavs have more wings. Those lineups have enough offense to at least keep pace. Hill is crucial because he’s a floor general who isn’t a defensive liability the way Jose Calderon is.

So Lue — and really, if we’re being honest, LeBron, since he’s the one who gets to decide these things — needs to try to give the bench a chance. Just see how it goes, and if he has to come back in, come back in. But he must give the reserves an opportunity so he cannot be completely without any energy.

Credit:

Pictured: George Hill, Ty Lue, LeBron James. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports