Raptors-Cavaliers matchup holds major short & long-term implications

LeBron James discusses Friday's No. 1 vs 2 Eastern Conference tilt, says it's exciting for the fans in Toronto and exciting for the league in general.

Cavs no measuring stick despite Friday’s stakes

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are set for Friday’s marquee matchup in Toronto, and the game could have major implications for how the Raptors approach the rest of the season. With a win, the Raptors would be just two games back of the top seed and own the tiebreaker. With a loss, they’ll be four games back and without it.

That top seed isn’t a stated goal, mind you, but a loss Friday could essentially end any earnest chase of the Cavs.

“I don’t think it’s gonna determine who we are, because we’re a work in progress,” head coach Dwane Casey said Thursday. “I’m worried about the next possession.”

Any matchup with Cleveland is going to draw major attention. That’s even more true with the Raptors firmly entrenched as the two-seed in the East, six games clear of the next closest team. There’s a clear feeling that Toronto is the second-best team in the East but opportunities to prove as much have been rare.

The current 17-3 stretch for the Raps was preceded by two losses to Chicago and one to Cleveland and has included another loss to the Bulls. The schedule hasn’t been soft, necessarily, but only a win against the Clippers stands out as a comparably difficult matchup to the one they’ll face Friday.

“Yeah, it’s a measuring stick, what else y’all want? LeBron James, yeah, it’s LeBron, what else?” Kyle Lowry joked after Thursday's practice. “Honestly, for us, it’s just another game. The media hypes it up to be. No, it’s just another game. Last night was a measuring stick for us, too. Every game we play is a measuring stick for us.”

The Raptors might not overreact to the outcome either way, but here’s guessing the fan base takes a loss poorly, especially with the next major challenge (Atlanta) two weeks away.

The league’s toughest pick-and-roll?

A fully-healthy Cavs team can boast perhaps the deadliest pick-and-roll attack in the NBA. Employing LeBron James certainly opens up a lot of options, and when there’s another ball-handler like Kyrie Irving around plus an other-worldy pick-and-pop option in Kevin Love, there’s no shortage of different high and side options to throw at a defense.

“It starts with James," Casey said at shootaround Friday morning. "He’s one of the most intelligent players in the NBA. You can take one thing away from him and he’s going to find the other hole to go into to hurt you with. It’s a great challenge for us, to have to do multiple things in a pick-and-roll scheme.”

James’ willingness to pass is the primary weapon from those sets, and Love is also exactly the type of frontcourt player the Raptors have struggled to contain in recent matchups. Stretch bigs are a major challenge for the Luis Scola-Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt, and there’s no big stretchier than Love, a 36-percent 3-point shooter who’s also willing to put the ball on the floor or make a pass, himself.

Factor in Irving and the ability to seamlessly roll one pick-and-roll into another with those three, and there isn’t a great strategy to stop them beyond working your tail off and crossing your fingers. When those three share the floor this season, the Cavs are scoring 113.9 points per-100 possessions, a rate that would rank ahead of even the Golden State Warriors.

As good as the triumvirate is, James remains the priority.

“Depending on who’s guarding him, at times you can probably switch,” Patrick Patterson said Friday. “You always want to keep a bigger body on LeBron.”

That’s something Patterson’s improvements on the defensive end could really help with. He’s shown an ability not only to switch onto guards – important for the Irving-Love action – but to handle some bigger small forwards like Carmelo Anthony.

That could allow Patterson and James Johnson, who will draw the James assignment, to switch James-Love actions without needing to scramble back to their original checks. It’s certainly not going to snuff out that attack, but Patterson could be a big defensive factor in a potential playoff series.

Candy & Nuts

Johnson draws the James assignment because DeMarre Carroll remains sidelined. The Raptors won’t have a good feel for how their defense could hold up against a healthy Cavs squad, and as good as Johnson can be, there has to remain a hope that a healthy Carroll can have a bigger impact slowing down James.

“Ifs and butts, candy and nuts," Casey said when that notion was floated to him. "We don’t have DeMarre so we gotta go with who we’ve got. The next guy’s gotta take the challenge.”

For as much as everyone will want to draw conclusions from the three-game season series between the two sides, they’ll go the whole season without seeing each other at full strength— Irving and Valanciunas missed the Cavs’ first visit back on Drake Night 3 and Carroll will have missed the last two.

Plus, here’s guessing that Casey and Tyronn Lue both hide their hand a little bit, just in case these teams meet again with higher stakes.

Winner gets Joe Johnson?

Seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson will clear waivers Saturday evening, freeing him to sign with a contender. The Cavaliers are believed to be the favorite but the Raptors are among a handful of other teams expressing interest.

Maybe Friday’s winner will have the inside edge on landing the vet? Perhaps he’ll watch from the rafters, waiting to pick Black and White (the Cavs, obviously) or Wolfpack (the Raptors, again, obviously) based on how the game plays out.

“Damn sure wouldn’t want to play against him,” DeMar DeRozan said Friday. “He’s a great talent. You leave that up to the front office to make that decision if it best fits us, but you can never deny talent.”

DeRozan, by the way, will be playing in his 500th career game.

“Watch next year, I’ll have a grey hair,” he said.