While the gates of the Eastern Conference are not exactly wide open, LeBron James’s chokehold on conference supremacy is as weak as it’s been in many years. The Cavaliers’ defense is worryingly porous and even though they just swept the Pacers, the series featured multiple blown leads and every game was close. Most concerning of all, the Cavs gave up at least 102 points in all four games.
The problem is, the teams that looked most likely to give them a run have looked like butt. Boston lost both of their first two games to a misshapen eighth-seeded Chicago team, and Toronto suffered two blowout losses to the Bucks while narrowly squeaking by them twice. Both teams have stabilized a bit, and tonight the Raptors ground the Bucks into a fine paste, winning 118-93 in a critical Game 5 after their best offensive performance of the series.
Milwaukee plays with an ultra-stretchy lineup featuring the combined width of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, Khris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon. Toronto has had their issues dealing with that lineup, which makes sense considering that Kyle Lowry is a bit undersized and Jonas Valanciunas is a bit slow. Valanciunas has made way for shooting guard Norman Powell over the past two games, and the small lineup has helped both Valanciunas and the team’s spacing. They’ve won both Game 4 and Game 5, and tonight Powell, Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan combined for 59 points on 55 percent shooting against a solid defensive backcourt. Powell was particularly good.
When the Raptors have more passers on the floor, the game opens up for them, and Serge Ibaka’s three-point shooting ability only stretches the game out even more. At one point, they ripped off a 17-0 run in the first quarter. The Raptors’ ball movement tonight was arguably as good as it’s been in the playoffs under Dwane Casey.
The Raptors can and should emphasize floor spacing while they can get away with it. The faster they play, the better they look. A good deal of that hinges on Ibaka’s ability to stretch the floor (and jam in cool dunks) on one of the court while blocking shots on the other. It also helps that their bench is deeper than most any other team they’ll play, with P.J. Tucker, Valanciunas, Corey Joseph, and Patrick Patterson all capable of winning their matchup any given night. Hell, Delon Wright has even chipped in a few good stretches here and there. Staggering Valanciunas to start on the bench makes more sense for this particular series, since he gets to match up with fellow lumbering big man Greg Monroe. He wasn’t bad against Maker either.
They now hold a 3-2 lead over Milwaukee, with the topsy-turvy series headed back to Wisconsin. The winner gets Cleveland, who will be more rested than either opponent by nearly a week. If Toronto surfaces, they won’t be the favorites by any means, but their newfound defensive punch (courtesy of Ibaka and Tucker) gives them more of a chance to spring the upset. Should they move the ball and shoot like they did tonight, they could give Cleveland some legitimate problems, particularly against a bench unit that relies on a bunch of old guys and the husk of Iman Shumpert. Cleveland will and should be the heavy favorite, but the Raptors at least look like they might truly test Cleveland’s soggy defense.