The hunters have become the hunted. Or some such cliche. For the first time during the respective current eras for both teams, the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers will square off Wednesday with the roles somewhat reversed. No, nobody is anointing the Raptors as the Eastern Conference champions, nor have Vegas lines swung as such. The road to the NBA Finals has run through LeBron James for nearly a decade and will continue to do so. The Raptors, though, are the ones with a substantial lead atop the conference and with a general sense of being who and where they need to be for three or four weeks from now.
“They’re in a better place than we are right now,” James said at shootaround Wednesday. “Because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year. They know what they wanna accomplish, they know who they are at this point in the season. And obviously, you guys know about us. We’re still trying to figure that out.”
In the last meeting between the sides, the Raptors ran Cleveland off of the floor. In the time since, James has played against the Raptors in 2K, streamed Raptors-Rockets on social media, and now dapped up the entire Raptors bench. He’s either a fan or he’s playing some next-level mind-games. This validation, if it’s that, isn’t all that meaningful, but for a fanbase that seems to feed off of the absence of it, it’s probably nice to see. For a night, though, all that means is that there’s a target on them, as there has been so often this season. They’re atop the East, the Cavaliers are still finding themselves, and so it’s a rare occasion where the Cavaliers have a bit more to gain. (I don’t subscribe to this being a lose-lose for the Raptors. Wins against the Cavaliers always carry a psychological weight.)
The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
Toronto’s injury report ended up a little richer than maybe expected here, with Fred VanVleet and his hand contusion (questionable) not alone. DeMar DeRozan was still listed as questionable with a thigh bruise and C.J. Miles joining him as questionable due to illness. DeRozan will return here as largely expected, while Miles and VanVleet are game-time calls, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN.
The team’s depth has been one of their primary strengths all year, particularly with the chemistry the second unit has together. VanVleet and Miles stand as paramount, then. The depth is also a big part of what’s changed at least one opinion on the team compared to last year.
“They’re a better team,” James said. “I think they’re a better team ’cause they were able to re-sign Lowry, re-sign DeRozan. They kept that nucleus together. Valanciunas has gotten better. And they shored up their bench. With Poeltl, Siakam, Wright, VanVleet – who killed us in Toronto before, last game – C.J. Miles, they do a good job of keeping up the tempo when they make those subs. But it all starts with DeRozan and Lowry, and they’ve been playing exceptionally well this season.”
It’s possible the Raptors make a late announcement of rest given it’s their fifth game in seven days and 10th in the last 16, but Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have had recent nights off and they figure to want to beat Cleveland, even if the game doesn’t *mean* a ton in the tangible.
UPDATE: VanVleet is available, Miles is out. At least the second unit gets their general back, but the lack of shooting could hurt.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, Malcolm Miller
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Nigel Hayes
Cleveland comes in very banged up here. Larry Nance is out with a right hamstring injury and Cedi Osman is out with a left hip strain. Cavaliers beat reporters were calling Rodney Hood (back strain) and Tristan Thompson (ankle sprain) questionable initially, but they’re both sitting, too, per Larry Drew’s pre-game comments (passed on from multiple beat reporters). Kyle Korver is also away from the team due to the death of his brothers (thoughts with him). And of course, Ty Lue is away from the team for health reasons.
Starting on place of Korver is Jose Calderon, who remains undefeated in battles for starting positions his entire career. Even with London Perrantes and John Holland called up from Canton, Cleveland is operating with just 11 bodies here, one of whom (Okaro White) is a recent 10-day signing. No Cavs lineup available here has played even 15 minutes together, and the starters haven’t played a single minute together yet. When the ball is rolled in, it will be their first run together as a five-some. That is some kind of challenge for Drew and quite a way to underscore all of the tumult through the season, deadline, and post-deadline injury issues.
Then again, that lineup still includes James, so it commands respect. It’s also not the easiest of lineups to match up wit defensively, given Kevin Love’s versatility at the five, James’ omnipresence, and some more shooting than they’ve had in the past with Calderon and George Hill in the backcourt.
PG: Jose Calderon, London Perrantes
SG: George Hill, Jordan Clarkson
SF: Jeff Green, J.R. Smith, John Holland
PF: LeBron James, Okaro White
C: Kevin Love, Ante Zizic
OUT: Cedi Osman, Larry Nance, Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver
- Raptors 905 close out their four-game west-coast trip tomorrow. They’re 2-1 so far on the trip, securing at least one home playoff game, though it presently looks like they’ll fall into a one-and-done first-round series. Nigel Hayes, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Malachi Richardson remain on assignment.
- Will and I will be at Hoop Talks next Wednesday. Get tickets, come say hello.
— Hoop Talks (@HoopTalksLive) March 19, 2018
- DeMar DeRozan is getting that SLAM cover treatment. Hell yeah.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 21, 2018
- It came with a great video from the SLAM team:
The Raptors are 1.5-point underdogs with a 226 over-under. I know some will bristle at being a slight underdog when the Cavs are down a few pieces, but this is a major “schedule alert” game for the Raptors in pretty much any way you want to slice up the calendar – 3rd-in-4, 5th-in-7, 10th-in-16, and so on. We tend to underrate the impact of accumulated fatigue. UPDATE: The line started moving around 5:30 and the Raptors are now 1-point favorites.