It’s just one of 82. It’s just another game. What happens in May or June matters more than what happens now. These are all things that have been said and will be repeated, but Monday’s game between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers feels at least a little bit more important than usual.
That’s not because there are higher stakes, but because the Cavs represent a great test for a Raptors team playing their best ball of…well, maybe ever. Toronto’s won six straight, many of those games by substantial margins, and while the streak has come against lesser competition, the team is humming at both ends. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have dropped three in a row as LeBron James calls for them to shake out of the “honeymoon phase,” the type of lull some elite teams tend to have every year. The net results of the two streaks is that the Raptors ahead of the Cavaliers by a significant margin in scheduled-adjusted net rating (the Raptors are actually second to only the Golden State Warriors), and that they have a chance to take over the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a victory.
At least one Raptor, DeMarre Carroll, is being real about what this game means:
Yeah, I think we owe it to ourselves and to the city and the fans to come out and give the same effort we did tonight. They’re going to be a desperate team, we’re a desperate team, we’ve lost to them twice this season and we want to, kind of, show we’re a top team so we just have to get ready for the battle for Monday.
The game tips off at 7 30p .m. on TSN 2 and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: The Cavaliers are on a bit of a slide, as much as a team that good can really be on a slide. Is there anything at the root of this three-game dip, or is this just the kind of malaise established, elite teams can fall into without an immediate goal or target?
Justin Rowan: While I don’t believe there’s cause for panic, there are issues that need to be addressed with the team. There have been hiccups going away from isolation basketball, after what was a surprisingly smooth start. It seems as though the less intensity play with, the sloppier the offense gets. LeBron has had 20 combined turnovers over the losing streak and the team and the sloppiness has carried over to the defensive side of the floor. So while we know the team can play better, these growing pains might just be something they need to go through.
Blake Murphy: The Raptors, on the other hand, have been playing some of their best basketball ever over the last six games. Yes, the competition has been lighter (they’ve been favoured in five of those games, and by eight or more in their last four), but for what feels like the first time, they’ve actually dominated rather than just skated by lesser teams. Has their play on this streak changed your opinion of them at all?
Justin Rowan: It hasn’t changed my opinion of them, because it was already fairly high. It was only a matter of time before Carroll and Patterson started to get it going. Although I’ll say the development of both Ross and Powell have been a pleasant surprise. They’re the clear-cut second best team in the conference, and I believe they’re proving that.
Blake Murphy: Blending the last two questions kind of, are the Raptors a legitimate threat to take the No. 1 seed, and do the Cavs even care?
Justin Rowan: I still believe the Cavs finish with around 64 wins this year, so while Toronto may be able to win at that clip, I don’t believe Cleveland would care if they pushed them for the top seed.
Blake Murphy: ave we settled on a nickname for the balaclava-wearing J.R. Smith? Are we going with God Pipegod? Pipe-Zero? Do you think he’s made it so that I’m finally fashionably justified in my wearing of the casual balaclava?
Justin Rowan: I’m personally going with J.R. Spliff, but no amount of celebrity endorsement will ever make your casual wear look cool.
Blake Murphy: The Cavs need a PG and the Raptors have a surplus. There’s not a deal that makes sense, but what about Delon Wright or Free VanVleet for free, on the agreement the Cavs can never play Channing Frye against the Raptors again?
Justin Rowan: I’ll need to give that some thought. Still holding out for Mario Chalmers once he has recovered from his Achilles tear. They’ve also been linked to Deron Williams, should the Mavericks hit detonate on their season. But while free is tempting, the second unit is held together by Frye and LeBron playing together. So ultimately I’ll need to pass.
There’s not much to report on Toronto’s side. Absent a back-to-back situation, DeMarre Carroll should be good to go. That means the Raptors have their best option for trying to slow down LeBron James on-hand, and it will be interesting to see how the Raptors attack that matchup. James has terrorized the Raptors some by working into the post and flinging skip passes all around the arc, getting his shooters going and making it difficult for the Raptors to send too much help his way. Guarding James takes a village, so expect Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam, and maybe Norman Powell to get turns on the Eastern Conference Player of the Month.
Around that matchup, the Raptors’ defense needs to contest aggressively and not let Cleveland’s shooters settle into a groove. That tends to be an issue against Cleveland’s bigs, and the play of Jonas Valanciunas once again comes to the forefront in this matchup. Valanciunas appears to be laboring of late, perhaps slowed by the minor left knee and ankle injuries from earlier on, and he’ll need to shake that off to scurry around with Channing Frye and Kevin Love or keep Tristan Thompson off of the glass. Perhaps Lucas Nogueira can offer something against Frye, too, but if so, the team will need to be aggressive covering the defensive glass in support. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Raptors go small with Patterson or Siakam as the de facto center, either, at least when any five other than Thompson is on the floor for the Cavaliers (and especially if James has slid to the four).
PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross
PF: Pascal Siakam, Patrick Patterson, Bruno Caboclo
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl
OUT: Delon Wright, Jared Sullinger
Cleveland enters a little banged up but with things trending in the right direction on the health front. J.R. Smith is dealing with some knee soreness but isn’t expected to miss the game, while Lil Dun returned to practice Sunday as he works his way through the league’s concussion protocol.
Those are both players who could see time on DeMar DeRozan, with Smith likely to draw the assignment out of the gate as the starting two. Smith’s an under-rated on-ball defender and has performed capably in that role in the past, but he’ll likely turn it over to Richard Jefferson for long stretches, too. The Cavaliers mostly dared DeRozan to beat them one-on-one earlier in the year, tasking Jefferson with getting way up inside DeRozan’s jersey, and the result was a 10-of-27 shooting night. DeRozan’s shown a really nice willingness to becdome a facilitator on nights his shot isn’t dropping, and the Cavs could make life for challening on the rest of the roster if they’re not blitzing DeRozan at every turn, instead staying tighter to shooters. That can change in a hurry if DeRozan gets cooking, off course.
The bigger question for Cleveland may be hown to slow down the red-hot Kyle Lowry, who hasn’t missed a three since Kyrie Irving was at Duke. Lowry had 28 points in the last meeting, the start of an 11-game stretch in which he’s shot 53.3 percent on nearly seven threes per-game. Irving is a gifted scorer with the best handle in basketball, but he can’t guard Lowry, and it’s on the Raptors’ elder statesman to tilt that matchup well in Toronto’s favor for the Raptors to take one here.
PG: Kyrie Irving, Jordan McRae, Kay Felder
SG: (J.R. Smith), Iman Shumpert
SF: LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, DeAndre Liggins
PF: Kevin Love, (Mike Dunleavy Jr.), James Jones
C: Tristan Thompson, Channing Frye, Chris Andersen
TBD: J.R. Smith, Mike Dunleavy
Out: Mo Williams
You’re not going to believe this, but the Raptors are favored against the Cavaliers tonight. At least right now. The line opened at Raptors -1.5 and has nudged to just Raptors -1, and it’s even gone as far as to Raptors +1 on one site I saw. Expect the line to fluctuate around the push-em mark for most of the day, an indication that the Cavaliers are still viewed as the better team in neutral conditions but that the market sees Toronto’s streak as a legitimate bellwether for a potential Cavs upset. (Is it even an upset? Are the Raptors to the point where beating Cleveland at home isn’t an upset? That’s probably a question for a piece of its own.) The market is expecting a high-scoring affair here, with an over-under of 216.5. The two meetings this year produced totals of 185 and 238, so it’s a little tough to peg that down.
The respect the Raptors are getting these days…we’re all gonna have to find something else to get mad about.