After back-to-back wins, the Raptors leave the friendly confines of the ACC and take off to Cleveland to face Dark Knight Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers.

The Cavs, at 5-20, are actually worse than the 6-19 Raptors, though Irving and rookie Dion Waiters have missed chunks of time. So, it’s actually possible that after tonight the Raptors could have one of these things called a “winning streak,” which I’m told is fun.

Before we get into the breakdown, John Krolik of Cavs The Blog was kind enough to answer a few questions for me. John is in law school, so you can a) trust that he’s smart and b) tweet him for help with all of your legal issues, of which I’m sure our commenters have many.

So Kyrie Irving’s mask…it sure LOOKS like the most bad-ass thing ever. For those who might not have seen him yet this year, how has Kyrie progressed as a sophomore?

Well, you’ve gotta remember that his season is still getting started to some extent because of the injuries he’s had. He came into the season off-track because off an off-season injury, and he just came back from the hand injury. (The jaw injury appears to have only made him stronger.)

Other than that, he’s almost freakishly similar to last season — seriously, check out his Hollinger Stats. Kyrie’s rookie season was odd, because he came into the league as an already-amazing shooter and ball-handler who knew how to pick his shots and assert himself late in games, which are normally the things rookies, even great ones, need to improve on in their second seasons. On the one hand, that’s great, because there’s no chance Kyrie will pull a Tyreke Evans and just kind of watch his career stagnate. On the other hand, there’s a bit less room for upside than there was with a guy like, say, Derrick Rose.

The two main areas that he could improve in are his decision-making on passes and defense, and he hasn’t shown much progress there. In Kyrie’s defense, those could both be systemic issues — he honestly doesn’t have many guys to pass the ball to outside of Varejao, and Byron Scott hasn’t made defense any sort of priority since he took over as head coach.

Tristan Thompson is a Canadian and thus gets some love in these parts. Has he improved this year or is he already in “he is what he is” territory?

There’s love for Tristan? You want to swap him for Valanciunas? Why are you laughing so hard? Also, how did Canada produce TWO undersized lefty shot-blocking forwards who can’t play offense? What are the odds of that?

Seriously, ugh on the Tristan front. It looked like a horrible pick the second the Cavs made it, and it hasn’t stopped looking horrible. He’ll likely never be able to hit a jumper. He doesn’t have great hands. He takes FAR too long to gather the ball and finish even when he does catch it near the basket. He obviously doesn’t have any offensive “moves,” although he tries to utilize some floater-y things around the basket. All his shots come from the restricted area and he shoots 46%. He can’t make free throws. He’s supposed to be a defensive specialist, but he starts alongside a proven defender in Varejao and the Cavs are 27th in defensive efficiency.

To put things bluntly, I don’t think the guy is a rotation player on a quality NBA team, and the Cavs continuing to give him heavy minutes is more a sign that they’re in denial about their massive screw-up than anything else. If TT is a “finished product” at this point, the Cavs made a horrifying mistake. So I suppose the answer to the question you asked is that the Cavs should be praying he’s going to turn a miraculous corner, because he hasn’t given the team anywhere near enough to be satisfied with, regardless of expectations — again, it’s not that he doesn’t look like a top-5 pick, it’s that he doesn’t look like a rotation player.

Yikes. Anyway, the Raptors appear to be turning a corner, even without Lowry and Bargnani. What will the Raptors need to exploit to walk out of The Q with a W?

Hope Kyrie doesn’t have a beast mode game. Pack the paint and dare the team to beat you with shooters instead of giving Varejao layups off of cuts. Match Varejao and Thompson’s intensity on the glass and keep the second-chance points down. Run your offense and exploit the Cavs’ miserable defense. The Cavs are definitely one of the most beatable teams in the league. This is definitely a game any team that considers itself decent should win if it simply takes care of business, provided Kyrie doesn’t go crazy.

Tale of the Tape
O-Rating: Toronto 102.1 (23rd), Cleveland 101.5 (27th)
D-Rating: Cleveland 107.8 (25th), Toronto 108.2 (27th)
Pace: Cleveland 91.8 (17th), Toronto 91.6 (18th)
Strength: Cleveland O-Reb (4th), Toronto Ball Control (3rd)
Weakness: Cleveland Opp eFG% (30th), Toronto Hacking (30th in Opp FT/FGA)

Now THIS is a winnable game if there ever was one. Even though Kyrie’s missed 11 games, when he’s been around the Cavaliers haven’t been great. As John pointed out, the game will come down to controlling the defensive glass (since Varejao and Thompson are killers there) and doing something to control Kyrie Irving.

Positional Breakdown
Point Guard: Jose Calderon and John Lucas v. Kyrie Irving, Jeremy Pargo and Donald Sloan
Advantage:
Cavaliers
So how do you go about controlling Irving when Calderon is your point guard? It’s a tough call, for sure, and the best thing you might be able to suggest is to just counter with an effective offensive game. Opposing guards have a 20.5 PER against Irving and he tends to not force many turnovers while also allowing a lot of assists (this is probably the team’s fault, but still), which plays right into Calderon’s game. Defensively, it’s important to help when Irving isolates Calderon, since he’s the 10th most effective player out of isolations, per Synergy. With the Cavs having weak wings, it might make sense to throw some bigger players at Irving to disrupt his rhythm, too. It’ll be tough, but you can beat a team if only one player goes off.

Wings: DeMar DeRozan, Mickael Pietrus, Alan Anderson, Linas Kleiza and Terrence Ross v. Alonzo Gee, Dion Waiters, Daniel Gibson, C.J. Miles and Omri Casspi
Advantage:
Raptors
Even with Waiters making his return tonight, I’ll give the Raptors a slight edge here. Gee has turned into a nice player but the others are nothing special or dangerous. Waiters, of course, can score, but he’s also more chucker than scorer, rating out pretty poorly in the PRIMO realm. He’s shooting just 36% and getting to the line less than three times a game, so you’ll let him get his 15 points if it takes him 17 possessions or so to get there. The one strong suit these wings have is long-range shooting, as all but Gee are dangerous from outside, meaning the Raptors will have to be crisp with their rotations. They’ll still have to help, though, as the bigs cant hedge out on Irving too much given the offensive rebounding prowess of the Cavalier bigs. For the Raptors, DeRozan should be able to “get his” in a match-up like this, while I’d also like to see Ross bumped up the depth chart to be the first wing off the bench but I’ll have to digress on that point.

Bigs: Ed Davis, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Aaron Gray v. Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, Samardo Samuels and Tyler Zeller
Advantage:
Wash
Varejao is easily the best big in the game, but the Raptors probably have the three best after that, two of whom have been playing pretty well since Bargnani went down. As mentioned, Thompson and Varejao hit the glass hard so Jonas and the gang will need to maintain strong positioning on the defensive end. Offensively, Andy is the only real defensive presence so Davis and Johnson should be able to get some buckets out of the pick and roll (although beware of Varejao sliding over in help to draw a charge). I call it a wash because even though Varejao may get 25-15, I think Davis and Johnson will light Thompson up like a Hanukkah Menorah/Christmas Tree/Festivus Pole/etc.

The Pick
Vegas: Cavs -4.5
Hollinger Power Ratings: Cavs -3
Blake: Raptors by 6. Roll with the hot hand. The Raptors have pulled things together the last two games and have some good vibes going right now, and I can see it continuing at least one night longer. Should be a fun game either way.

Game goes at 7 p.m. on TSN (unless there is even the tiniest update on the NHL lockout, like one of the players or owners got the sniffles, in which case the game will be pumped for an hour of talking heads discussing how said sniffles push the NHL’s start date back. Grrrr).

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