This was supposed to be a marquee week for the Toronto Raptors. With the G League Showcase in town and two big-name opponents visiting, this was a chance to make a statement, in front of the league and with U.S. eyeballs watching on TV. That can still happen, but the bloom has been taken off a bit here – Kyle Lowry is injured, Serge Ibaka is suspended, and Steph Curry may not play Saturday. It feels like the Raptors have slightly less of an opportunity to make an emphatic impression now.
They’re not looking at things that way. While they’re fond of talking about every game like it’s the same, it would be impossible to hide that the Raptors would like to see how their progress measures against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. So even shorthanded, the expectation for the Raptors is to answer the call, rising up to the stiffer competition regardless.
“They are important. We’re playing a couple champions,” team president Masai Ujiri said on TSN 1050 on Wednesday. “You really have to recognize that. And do we fear anybody? We don’t. It’s all about competition, and our guys are learning to compete more at a higher level. These are the games you pray for.”
The Cavaliers are up first, in a bit of a mini-skid but always dangerous on the offensive end. There will be opportunities for offense if Toronto can make shots – no team does worse defending the corner three than Cleveland – and the Raptors are 3-4 over the last seven regular season meetings. (They’re 2-8 in the last 10 postseason meetings, you may recall.) They employ LeBron James, they have matchup issues everywhere on offense, and they possess an extra gear when challenged. They’re beatable, though, and perhaps working in Toronto’s favor, if you really want to psyche yourself up, the Cavaliers often seem to underestimate shorthanded opponents. Plus, two nights in Toronto.
The game tips off at 8 on Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 590.
Blake Murphy: The Celtics, Raptors, and Cavaliers are all tight enough in the standings to have a shot at the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That would likely allow one team to avoid the other two until the conference finals. This matters a lot to the try-hard Celtics and should matter to the Raptors some, too. Do the Cavaliers give a damn?
Justin Rowan: I don’t think it truly matters to the Cavaliers. In terms of giving yourself an easy path, the fourth seed is likely going to be occupied by either the Milwaukee Bucks or Washington Wizards, so I don’t think advancing beyond the second round is a given for whoever gets the first seed out of Toronto and Boston. The Cavs need to find out how to work new pieces into the lineup and develop some form of chemistry before the post-season. This isn’t like years past where they could just rely on LeBron, Love and Irving. They need to start giving a damn and building towards something. But if experimenting and growth comes at the cost of losing home court, in later rounds… it’s probably worth it.
Blake Murphy: Derrick Rose is almost back! Can he start and play 48 minutes in this one, please? In seriousness, Isaiah Thomas made his return a little over a week ago and has appeared in three games, even starting two. How has he looked? More importantly, does Cleveland have to fundamentally change the way they’ve been playing at either end to work him back into the fold?
Justin Rowan: The Cavs haven’t changed how they play so far with Thomas, other than playing even worse defensively. In his first game he came off the bench and essentially shot every time he touched the ball. He’s done some variation of that in every game, it just looked ugly when they didn’t go down against the Timberwolves. There will be a time where he will need to learn how to play alongside LeBron, but that likely won’t start until he is off his minute restriction.
Blake Murphy: I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to ask. How is the new pup?? And how did you not name it Earl or Pipe or, as I did when I got a dog and he was a Raptor, Jose?
Justin Rowan: She is fantastic. She already had a name when we adopted her and is four years old, so it wouldn’t feel right to change it up now.
Blake Murphy: You’ve been on Cedi Hive so long I think you might actually be its queen bee. The rookie is a rookie, of course, but he’s been in the rotation pretty frequently with Iman Shumpert down. What have you seen from Osman so far?
Justin Rowan: I see the Turkish LeBron. On a serious note, he’s an incredibly intelligent player that consistently plays with energy. He doesn’t try to do anything he can’t do, moves off ball, and is one of the few strong defenders on the team. He’s kind of the small forward version of Tristan Thompson, in that he understands what the team needs from him and doesn’t deviate from that. Now we just need to find out if there’s a Kardashian available for him.
Blake Murphy: Jae Crowder still better than DeMar DeRozan, right? (Why has the fit seemed to come a little slower than expected with Crowder? It can’t all just be shooting variance.)
Justin Rowan: I mean, neither of them are Khris Middleton. I kinda worried that the shooting was a mirage coming into this season, and that proved to be true. Crowder wasn’t in great shape coming into the season, likely still dealing with the death of his mother. Since then his role has changed a few times and he really has struggled to find consistency. Ultimately I think the team would be better off moving him to the bench, where the pace is increased and his ability as a cutter could be highlighted. If he can find consistency on defense, I think people would be willing to put up with streaky shooting.
Toronto won’t be putting their best foot forward here. Kyle Lowry missed Tuesday’s game due to a bruised tailbone and back spasms, and it would seem unlikely that he plays here. While he’s technically listed as questionable and there was no practice Wednesday for a proper update, Ujiri said in that same TSN 1050 interview that Lowry is still in a lot of pain and that the team intends to be cautious with the injured All-Star. Ujiri didn’t completely rule Lowry out, but it sure sounded unlikely that he’ll suit up Thursday or Saturday.
Adding to Lowry’s likely absence will be the absence of Serge Ibaka, who earned a one-game suspension for his physical confrontation with James Johnson in Tuesday’s game. That takes away two of the Raptors’ three primary players and two of their biggest 3-point threats, as well as two of their usual closers (and their best small-ball center option, an important consideration against a team with Kevin Love and Channing Frye on the roster).
This presents an opportunity for some young players, at least. Delon Wright was adequate starting for Lowry and is in the middle of a damn fine third season. Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell will need to fill the remaining minutes a little more effectively if the Raptors are going to hang with Cleveland. What the Raptors do in Ibaka’s spot remains a question mark, with C.J. Miles and Pascal Siakam standing as the options. Miles would provide more spacing on offense and could be slotted on Jae Crowder, but Siakam offers more defensively, with him and OG Anunoby able to take turns on LeBron James in that scenario. The bench rotations will be disrupted regardless, and Lorenzo Brown should once again see minutes in the trickle-down.
PG: (Kyle Lowry), Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Alfonzo McKinnie
PF: Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Serge Ibaka
TBD: Kyle Lowry
905: Malcolm Miller
Cleveland enters in much better shape than Toronto, having been in the city for two days to rest up, watch Game of Thrones spoiler theories on YouTube, and post Instagram with heart-warming captions. Sure, they’re without Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert a while longer, but at least one of those things could be looked at as a positive (or a non-negative). What’s more, Cleveland might be coming in a little bit angry after getting embarrassed in Minnesota on Monday, their sixth loss in the last nine games.
How the Cavs will look is still unfolding a bit after the return of Isaiah Thomas. He’s bumped Jose Calderon back to the bench (for now!), and the resulting starting fivesome has been crushed in their small minutes together, getting outscored by 25.6 points per-100 possessions. The starting lineup with Calderon was a plus-6.6 in 334 minutes, the only Cavaliers group to top 100 minutes on the year. Perhaps most interesting to Raptors fans with bad memories of the last two playoffs will be what a James-and-bench unit looks like – lineups with James and without Love, Crowder, and Smith are plus-20 in 186 minutes so far. At least there’s no Dellavedova?
Still not sure how Thomas avoided suspension.
PG: Isaiah Thomas, Jose Calderon
SG: J.R. Smith, Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver
SF: Jae Crowder, Cedi Osman
PF: LeBron James, Jeff Green, Channing Frye
C: Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
OUT: Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert
Canton: John Holland, London Perrantes, Ante Zizic
The game was off the board as of 9 am this morning. As of 11, the Cavs are 3.5-point favorites.