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Previewing tonight’s game with Tom Pestak of Cavs the Blog.

I apologize, for this preview will be a fairly brief. Midterm season is in full-swing, and this 21-year old student has been running on a steady diet of coffee, four hours of sleep, and self-loathing for what feels like a month straight. Also, these two teams played a mere four days ago, and exactly nothing has changed, so I really don’t see the point in giving a full breakdown for this game. If you need a refresher of their last match-up, be sure to read Blake’s preview, Tamberlyn’s quick react, and Zarar’s recap.

Despite their shiny new acquisitions, these Cavaliers are still not a good team. Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes help fill gaping holes for this roster — namely outside shooting and perimeter defense — but they’re nothing more than hired guns, and they have yet to be inoculated into Mike Brown’s incredibly mundane offensive playbook. The young nucleus of the team remains unreliable, and cannot be counted on for consistency, which creates an awkward schism between developing for the future, and playing for the present. Things have been rough for the Cavs ever since Lebron left town, and despite great fanfare last off-season, the 2013-14 Cavaliers have been nothing short of a disappointment.

Here to tell us about suffering and pain, is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, err, I mean Tom Pestak of Cavs the Blog:

1. Zach Lowe seems skeptical of the Cavs’ recent surge, claiming that despite major personnel changes, the offense remains bland and the porous defense is still shaky. Is he correct in his assessment, or will you dare tempt the word of God and challenge the assertions of Mr. Lowe?

Hah.  Blessed are those that hear the Word of God and keep it.  The Cavs recent surge can be described in many different lights.  Certainly, they played some weak opponents.  However, their level of play was orders of magnitude better than previous weeks which saw them bludgeoned  by some very bad teams.  “Bland” is an interesting choice or words.  Clearly their offense was better during the 6 game win streak than most of the season.  They were sharing the ball quite effectively and creating more easy baskets than normal.  Defensively they’ve been a sieve since…well, for a very long time.  There have been some mild incremental improvements but they are still a team that suffers at the point of attack and they lack a rim protector to cover up the warts.

2. Speaking of the new personnel, what role will Spencer Hawes play on this team once Anderson Varajeo returns from injury? As always, the Cavs front-court seems a little too crowded with five bigs (Zeller, Bennett, Thompson, Hawes, Andy) vying for precious playing time. Who will be the odd-one-out in the starting five?

Hawes has played pretty well in his two games with the Cavs.  He gives them 2 things they desperately lack: passing and floor spacing.  There probably won’t be an odd man out, just a few less minutes for each big.  Varejao was playing too many minutes this season anyway, which may have led to his recent absence (which really seems more like a boxer resting up after going 15 rounds than an injury)  Bennett’s going to hit the rookie wall if they try to play him 35 minutes a night like many Cavs fans would like.

3. Time for a little Canadian content (or “CanCon”, as we canucks call it). Anthony Bennett looks noticeably fitter, and he’s managed to string together a stretch of decent performance. Tristan Thompson switched handedness in the offseason, and he’s showing some promise of being more than JJ Hickson v2.0. Perhaps it’s a bit silly to ask, but are these two lottery picks (#1 and #4 respectively) the cornerstones of the future, or will one of them be dealt?

Bennett has recently looked like a rookie with upside, which is a huge relief for everyone.  He has the skillset to be a star player but my guess is he’ll peak as a solid starter or a Lamar Odom (2009 version) X-factor off the bench.  Tristan Thompson is a nice player, and clearly a hard worker, so you never want to say never, but I fear his lack of rim-protecting abilities and his inability to stretch the floor is going to make him a limited power forward in the NBA.  Could he be a starter on a playoff team?  Perhaps.  He’s an elite rebounder, and puts together some strong scoring nights now and then, but he seems pretty far away from someone like Serge Ibaka, who most people still consider a role player.  It should probably be stated that regardless of how the national NBA-sphere feels about the Cavs’ non-Irving core, the Cleveland faithful are pretty smitten with TT, Waiters, Bennett, and even Zeller these days.  Everyone seems optimistic about each player’s future.

4. What’s the key to stopping the Cavaliers on offense? Close out on their shooters, and hope Kyrie Irving doesn’t catch fire? Along the same vein, where are the Cavs weakest on defense?

The only Cavaliers that must be respected off the ball are CJ Miles and Dion Waiters.  And they’re currently hurt.  Every other guard/wing on the Cavs will try to attack off the dribble.  The best way to stymie the Cavs is to aggressively trap Kyrie Irving.  Because the Cavs lack floor spacing shooters (Jarrett Jack has lost the ability/confidence to shoot spot 3s) and Kyrie Irving isn’t a great passer out of hard traps, cutting off the head of the snake, in this case, Uncle Drew, renders the Cavs offense “bland”.  The Cavs transition defense is poor and they suffer against lightning quick point guards.  They’ve done a better job recently of not giving up wide open 3s but for most of the season, drive and kick has really killed them. Last season bruising big men just killed the Cavs, that isn’t so much the case this season.  It’s more the stretch 4s and active 5s.

5. Mini eulogy for Chris Grant’s tenure as GM?

A lot has been written and said about Chris Grant.  I think most critiques have been unfair.  No one really knows what most ails the Cavs.  How abstract could the problem be?  Could it really be “culture”?  Or possibly on-court chemistry (“fit”).  Maybe it’s a lack of talent that no one wants to admit.  It’s still too early to say.  So for Chris Grant’s eulogy, if you want to try to fit him into a narrative and keep it somewhat in line with reality: “Chris Grant mastered the CBA and built a foundation from draft picks.  They did not fit together, at least, not before Grant was shown the door.  He made some questionable moves that surprised no one when they failed.  He made some great moves that surprised everyone when they failed.”

As Tom astutely mentioned, the Cavaliers elect to run their offense through their lead guards in Jarrett Jack and Kyrie Irving, which means the Raptors’ defense needs to be sharp at the point of attack. Irving and Jack are at their best when they’re getting dribble-penetration. This opens up opportunities for their teammates once the defense collapses. Luckily, they both tend to veer on the side of hogging the ball, so the Raptors defenders can afford to help when needed, especially since the Cavs are light on perimeter shooting.

Defensively, this Cavaliers team is a mess. When healthy, Anderson Varajeo plays the role of Amir Johnson on defense, playing sound positional defense and providing timely help rotations, but he is out due to a sore back. His replacement at the five is Spencer Hawes, whose defensive efforts most closely resembles a tranquilized Bargnani on stilts, which is to say it’s not good. Matthew Dellavedova is a giant pest on the perimeter, and Luol Deng — sans Thibs — remains vigilant on defense, but their efforts are betrayed by the malaise that wracks their teammates.

Positional Match-Ups

Point Guard — Irving is a gifted scorer, and despite his poor assist numbers, he’s an extremely capable playmaker, but Lowry has been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference all season. Jarrett Jack is an excellent back-up, but the same can be said of a healthy Greivis Vasquez, who is on a roll of late. More than any other position, this one has the most potential to make my prediction look silly, but the Raptors hold the edge at the one. (“but” count: 3)

Advantage: Raptors

Shooting Guard — The position is called shooting guard for a reason — you need to be able to shoot. Unfortunately for the Cavs, Bell-of-the-Dova can’t shoot, and he’s their only option at SG unless Mike Brown trots out a two-point guard lineup. Nobody hates Demar more than Raptors fans, but even the haters can’t deny that he’s got a huge edge in this fight. (“but” count: 4)

Advantage: Raptors

Small Forward — On his best day (51 point game aside), Terrence Ross provides what Luol averages. The sophomore could stand to learn a lot from the consummate professional. Trey Rosay (I’m sticking with it) had a nice game against Orlando, but comparing Harkless to Deng is like comparing flora to fauna. What? Seriously, my brain needs sleep. (“but” count: 5)

Advantage: Cavaliers

Front Court — I’m going to operate under the assumption that Amir will sit out tonight’s game, because let’s face facts — he can afford to sit out versus the Cavs. Patrick Patterson will likely take his place in the starting line-up. Jonas will struggle with defending Hawes on the perimeter, but the same can be said of Thompson on Patterson. (“but” count: 6 — seriously I need to learn how English works, and to sleep)

Advantage: Even

Bench — No Waiters, no Miles, no contest. I hope this game turns into a blowout because I want a little more Spicy Chicken (Nando de Colo nickname?) in my life.

Advantage: Raptors

Predictions

The Raptors are above .500 on the road, and Cleveland is short-handed. While the threat of a scoring outburst from Uncle Drew looms large over the potential outcome, Terrence Ross’ quickness and length helped limit Irving to 3-of-14 shooting four days ago, so here’s hoping to an encore performance. Vegas likes Toronto as 3.5 point favorites, but I think that’s a bit modest.

Raptors by 8