It feels like a very big week. Or at least a big back-to-back. The Toronto Raptors have slipped a little of late, and while they remain adamant that there is no panic and that these sort of things happen – four losses in seven games without two straight defeats is hardly an end-of-the-world scenario – all eyes are on them as they visit the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday. The Raptors just lost to the Cavs, and they just lost to the Boston Celtics. Their lead atop the Eastern Conference is down to two games with another meeting with Boston coming back in Toronto on Wednesday. Not only are the Cavaliers their usual good test for a Raptors team trying to find their stride for next weekend, but the win now matters a great deal more than it seemed it would two weeks ago.
“(Will it) make or break our season? No,” Dwane Casey said at shootaround.
And he’s right. Win here and the Cavaliers may fall to the four-seed, anyway. Lose, and maybe they lock up No. 3 and the Raptors risk falling to No. 2. In terms of playoff paths, tomorrow’s game against Boston will determine more. Still, the Cavaliers game feels big, because every game against the Cavaliers is big. They are the measuring stick, even when they themselves have been found wanting – fair or otherwise, the fanbase will probably grow a little more anxious about the team’s playoff prospects if they make it two losses to Cleveland in short order with a Boston loss mixed in. And it would be hard to blame them, even with the knowledge that a season’s worth of performance is a team’s best playoff predictor, barring injury.
The market is not fretting the Raptors’ recent stretch, at the very least. That’s notable, given the market’s pessimism about the Raptors for most of the year, but it probably isn’t going to make Raptors fans sleep any easier.
Raptors are now 8:5 to win the East, behind Cavs (13:10) and ahead of everyone else. Also 19:2 to win it all (4th).
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 2, 2018
Tuesday is important. All games against elite teams are important, if not for their result than for evaluating the performance in qualitative terms and learning from it ahead of a potential playoff rematch. The Cavaliers are not at full strength, the Raptors are well-rested, and the visitors are a slight favorite. For some, this is a lose-lose – beat the Cavaliers and it’s just another regular season game, lose and it’s the same old Raptors. For the Raptors, the next two games are a good opportunity to affirm what their play has been suggesting all year: That they’re a threat to the Cavaliers. Yes, even if it’s just a late-regular season game.
The game tips off at 7 on TSN 4/5 and TSN 1050. You can check out the full game preview here.
Toronto has the benefit of full health and ample rest this time around. Their last loss to Cleveland came in a schedule alert game, the Raptors on their fifth game in seven nights, the second night of a back-to-back, and so on. They were also down C.J. Miles. There are no such caveats here, as the Raptors have played just one game in the last six days and have a clean injury sheet. No excuses, and all of that.
There aren’t many rotation questions to ask here. The Raptors will be deployed as they always are. There are questions about the specific matchups and the tactical approach, though, and all eyes will be on Dwane Casey to see what type of adjustments he makes, if he decides to show his hand and make many at all. There are no “good” ways to defend LeBron James, but the Raptors can do better limiting him than last time out, when he posted an historic 35-point, 17-assists, 0-turnover game. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka split time on him in that meeting, and the team’s natural centers may have more of a place in this game than on March 21 because the Cavaliers have Larry Nance and Tristan Thompson back. They are better and deeper with those two, but they’re also a better matchup for the Raptors’ starters (though Jonas Valanciunas on Jeff Green was an in-game adjustment that worked out well last time, anyway).
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
905: Malachi Richardson, Alfonzo McKinnie, , Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller
It should be no surprise to anyone at this point that the Cavaliers aren’t at full strength. They just don’t seem to operate that way. While they have Larry Nance, Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, and Cedi Osman all back from the injured list – none of those four played last time these teams met – they’ll be without George Hill here due to an ankle injury. Hill torched the Raptors a few weeks back, shooting perfectly on contested looks. He’s such a good fit around LeBron James at both ends, his absence will be felt here.
The Cavaliers could be without Kevin Love, too, as he’s questionable with an illness (there seems to be a lot of that going around the NBA right now). Love sitting out would fundamentally shift the frontcourt dynamic, and while it certainly improves Toronto’s chances of winning, they may prefer to get those reps figuring out how best to defend Love, especially when he’s at center.
Cleveland is also getting Kyle Korver back here. Korver has missed seven games in a row due to the passing of his brother and then a foot injury. His shooting and gravity off the ball are obviously big factors in Cleveland’s offense, and he raises their offensive ceiling even higher. He’s shooting 44 percent on over eight 3-point attempts per-36 minutes. Lethal.
UPDATE: Per our pal Eric Koreen, Korver is a game-time call, not a sure go (which was per Fred McLeod earlier). Kevin Love will play despite missing shootaround.
PG: Jose Calderon, Jordan Clarkson, London Perrantes
SG: Rodney Hood, J.R. Smith
SF: Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, John Holland
PF: LeBron James, Cedi Osman
C: Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson Ante Zizic
OUT: George Hill
- Raptors 905 won their second-round series against Westchester on Monday and now await an opponent. They’ll visit either Erie or Fort Wayne in the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday at 8 p.m. Lorenzo Brown, Malcolm Miller, Malachi Richardson, and Alfonzo McKinnie are all on assignment.
- Over at The Athletic, I wrote about a pet Cavaliers play that gave the Raptors some trouble in the last meeting and should be familiar from recent playoff series.
- I also wrote about the tactical adjustments the Celtics made on Saturday, which will be worth monitoring tomorrow.
- Kyle Lowry seems quite pleased with Villanova’s championship victory last night, which he was in attendance for.
- This is an incredible stat:
Via Synergy, Fred Van Vleet has defended the 16th most shots at the rim, non-post-up, this season.
He’s allowed 87 points on 111 possessions, which is the second best points per possession mark, league-wide, with at least 100 possesssions defended.
No.1 is Delon Wright.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 3, 2018
- Chris Mannix over at Yahoo Sports spoke to executives about potential first-time NBA head coaches on their radar for this summer, when as many as 11 jobs could be open. Nick Nurse was mentioned more than any other name, while Jerry Stackhouse and Rex Kalamian also received votes. All three are integral to the Raptors’ organization, but the challenge of sustained success for a franchise is that other franchises will want to hire away your good people. That’s just a reality, and you want your people to go on to succeed, too. It becomes incumbent on the team, then, to continue to find and develop these talented people to keep the pipeline full.
I would be pretty shocked if both Nurse and Stackhouse aren't heavily in the rumor/interview mill this spring. Nurse has been a head coach in waiting for some time, and it's hard to imagine a more emphatic start to a career than the one Stack has had with 905.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 3, 2018
The Raptors are 1-point favorites with a 222 over-under.