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The Toronto Raptors begin a pretty easy four-game week on Tuesday when they visit the Cleveland Cavaliers, at 7 p.m. on Sportsnet One. From there, they’ll play at Boston on Wednesday, at home against Boston on Friday, and at Orlando on Sunday. Sounds like four wins to me.

To help set the stage, I had an e-mail exchange with Conrad Kaczmarek or Fear the Sword.

Blake: This season has, in short, been a disaster for Cleveland. They expected the playoffs, added Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes, yet here they are at 27-44. In a nutshell, how did things go so awry?

Conrad: Umm, I’m not exactly sure. It’s been a weird year for the Cavs. They definitely wanted to make the playoffs and thought that they’d be able to take a serious step forward. Clearly that hasn’t happened. It’d be hard to pinpoint one reason why the Cavs have been such a disappointment, but I think they’ve just struggled to find something that works consistently. The team started off trying to use Andrew Bynum and use him as a focal point on offense. That ended poorly. Then, they tried to switch all of that up once Bynum was gone and Luol Deng arrived. It seemed pretty clear that the culture and locker room was a total mess — and then they fired the general manager, Chris Grant. Since then, they’ve been pretty good (a bit over .500 for a month and a half). But they’ve just had so much turnover within a season. It’s also Mike Brown’s first season. I think they’ve had a hard time figuring out his system and figuring out what aspects of his system are compatible with this personnel. They won’t make the playoffs, but it seems like things are starting to get better.

Blake: Kyrie Irving has been sidelined with a biceps injury since March 16, and the Cavs subsequently dropped three straight (before hilariously ending the Knicks winning streak on Sunday). With Irving sidelined (along with four others), what should the Raptors be focusing on on the defensive end? It’s not as if the team is flush with intimidating offensive weapons.

Conrad: I would say Spencer Hawes, but he’s been struggling lately. Therefore, I guess the answer is Dion Waiters. He’s really the only guy that can create off the dribble and attack the basket. He’s been playing very well lately and done a nice job making plays for others. So…yeah. Try to stop Dion Waiters, I guess.

Blake: As bad as things have been this year, a future that includes Irving will never look bad. Given some cap space, player progression and another lottery pick, are you comfortable with the Cavs righting the ship for 2014-15?

conrad: Yeah, that’s the thing. As disappointing as this season has been, the Cavs still have a lot of things going for them. This is going to be a big offseason for the franchise. It remains to be seen if Dan Gilbert will hire a new general manager or just keep David Griffin in the role. They have lots of cap space and will need to sign Kyrie to an extension. They have lots of young players and lots of flexibility. There’s a lot of work to be done, but Cleveland certainly has a chance to make things right. Now we’ll just have to wait and see if they can avoid screwing it up.


Conrad: Most years it seems as though there’s at least one team that makes a major jump from bad/mediocre to a legitimate playoff team. Last year it was the Golden State Warriors. This year it appears to be the Toronto Raptors (and the Phoenix Suns, but forget about them for now). A lot of people (including myself) thought that it would be the Cavaliers. It’s not the Cavaliers. What has been the biggest contributor to the Raptors being able to make that significant leap forward?

Blake: Obviously, everyone points to the Rudy Gay trade back on Dec. 9, after which the Raptors have been a top-10 team on both ends of the floor. It wasn’t as simple as addition by subtraction, though, because it’s not as if Gay is a useless player. Instead, Gay’s high usage was spread out across several, more efficient options, with the offense taking on a far more fluid and less predictable dynamic. On both ends, the team moved from relying on a single player to a more holistic approach, leading to several gains at the margin in different areas rather than one “Eureka!” change.

Conrad: Keeping with that theme, do you see any similarities between these Raptors and last year’s Warriors? The styles of play may not be identical, but do you think the Raptors’ success is repeatable so that they can be in a similar position next year?

Blake: There are definitely similarities – young players growing into bigger roles, the removal of a high-scoring, low-efficiency wing making the whole more efficient, and a coach doing a better job than he maybe had any business doing. I think some parts of the success are repeatable, but the team has remained pretty quiet on offseason plans; the two biggest driving forces in the turnaround – coach Dwane Casey and point guard Kyle Lowry – are both in the final year of their respective contracts. Masai Ujiri inherited both, and while there’s every reason to like what’s happened this year, this franchise has gotten into big trouble before when a general manager rolled with a surprisingly successful status quo. The hope, then, would be that similar to Golden State, the Raptors see the need to continue to make improvements.

Conrad: Raptors fans seem to love Jonas Valanciunas. Cavs fans don’t really love him because people constantly say they could have had Jonas instead of Tristan Thompson. What have you seen from Jonas this season? Has he become the magical basketball unicorn that people thought he would be a year or two ago?

Blake: He has definitely not become said unicorn. In fact, his progression has been marginal at best – he’s rebounding a bit more but scoring less efficiently, and he hasn’t made strides on the defensive end to quite the degree some expected. You’ll still take 13.7-and-11.1 per-36 on 52 percent shooting from a 21-year-old (that’s still pretty rarefied air), but given where expectations were entering the season, it’s been a mild disappointment. On the bright side, following an apparent sophomore slump, Valanciunas has had a solid stretch of ball – 15 points and nine rebounds over his past five, shooting 58.3 percent with a 12.7-point impact on the team’s defensive rating. Small samples and all, but he’s playing his best ball of the season of late.

Vegas says: Raptors -4.5 with a stunning 69 percent of action going Toronto’s way; a strong, 59-percent majority also like the over at 195.5
Hollinger says: Raptors -3
Cleveland’s Kid Cudi says: Make her say oh, oh oh, oh, oh…
Blake says: No Kyrie, no problem, right? Over the past four games, Dion Waiters is averaging a ridiculous 20.3 field goal attempts per game. He can score, and he’s flashed an improved ability to facilitate of late, but a ball-dominant guard makes the defensive gameplanning fairly easy. Stick Kyle Lowry on Waiters, let Terrence Ross handle Luol Deng, and DeMar DeRozan can take it a little easier on Jarrett Jack. It’s certainly not an easy post match-up with Hawes, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao in the post, but these aren’t the Memphis Grizzlies. They’ve also been playing smaller of late – Jack, Waiters and Matt Dellavedova combine to average 109.1 minutes in the past four outings – which helps given that Patrick Patterson still isn’t back and the Raps would prefer to play small themselves.

On offense, this is a fairly easy team to exploit. Waiters isn’t a strong on-ball defender, the team gives up a sky-high percentage in close (though they do well keeping teams outside of the restricted area), and they do a piss-poor job watching the corners, an area the Raptors have exploited more than almost any other team in the post-Gay era.

Put it together, factor in that Deng is playing on a wonky ankle and the Cavs only have 10 healthy bodies as is, and this should be a straight-forward victory. Raptors by nine.

An Aside: Am I too negative?
After I predicted a narrow defeat against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, a few commenters made snarky remarks about how negative I, and all the other writers here, always am. God forbid someone be a fan of basketball instead of just one team, or analyze games objectively, picking one of the league’s best teams to win a game. In any case, I went back and looked at all my pre-games to see if I have this anti-Raptors bias a handful of commenters seem to think I/we have. It turns out, it’s quite the opposite, and I’m often too optimistic.

W L Win% MOV
Blake 19 10 65.5% 3.2
Raps in those games 17 12 58.6% 3.7
Raps overall 38 30 55.9% 3.2
Blake’s success 19 10 65.5%