Raptors look to make another statement against LeBron, Cavaliers

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) fouls Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) as he goes to the net during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Wednesday night’s game has been circled on the calendar for a long, long time.

Simply put, the tilt between the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers is one of the most important — if not the most important — Raptors game to date this regular season.

Amid a franchise-defining 2017-18 season, the Raptors have accomplished everything you could want. They’re in first place in the conference, by a healthy margin, and rank in the top-five on both ends of the floor. Their best players are routinely stepping up and DeMar DeRozan is a top-five MVP candidate (read that sentence again). They’ve harnessed the deepest roster they’ve had into a versatile group that can grind it out when they have to, or keep pace with explosive offences like Houston and Golden State. And, like legitimately good teams do, they’ve proven they can pull out a win in games where they probably had no business winning, like Tuesday’s ugly contest versus Orlando.

By every measure, this version of the Raptors should be the favourites to do something the team has never done: reach the NBA Finals. And yet, one team — well, one player — stands firmly in their way. A Raptors win on the Cavs’ home court on Wednesday won’t change that but, like Toronto’s victory over the Houston Rockets two weeks ago, it would be a statement to be sure.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers are in the midst of one of their wildest, soap-operatic seasons we’ve seen. For a player and franchise that lived through the Delon West experience, that’s really saying something.

After hitting a prolonged speed bump and the failed Isaiah Thomas experiment, the Cavaliers reinvented themselves at the trade deadline, bringing in four new rotation players while getting younger and more athletic in the process.

James has responded with some of his best basketball. Since the deadline, LeBron is averaging 30 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10 assists, shooting 54 per cent from the floor.

The Cavs are just 10-7 in that stretch as they work to integrate Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and George Hill into the lineup, but are coming off an impressive win versus the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night.

None of those players were on the team the last time the Raps and Cavs met back in January at the Air Canada Centre in what was one of the more dominant victories Toronto has had this season, winning by a whopping 34 points, 133-99. And that was without Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka in the lineup.

Nationally televised in the U.S., it was a breakout game for the Raptors’ second-unit, which has since become a clear differentiator between Toronto and just about everybody else. Cleveland was flat-out embarrassed in that game, in which most possessions more or less felt like this:

But with James rolling on all cylinders and a Cavaliers team motivated to show their previous meeting was a fluke, expect a much closer contest on Wednesday.

Here’s a closer look at Wednesday night’s big game:

Projected starting five

Raptors: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Cavaliers: George Hill, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Jeff Green, Kevin Love

Injuries and notes

The Raptors will not get a full-strength Cleveland team on Wednesday, making it harder to gauge how they truly compare to their Eastern conference foes.

Kyle Korver will miss the game due to family matters, while both Tristan Thompson and Rodney Hood are listed as questionable. Meanwhile, the Cavs will be without Nance Jr. — he’s been great when on the floor — as the big man is set to miss his fourth straight game with a hamstring injury, as well as swingman Cedi Osman. As mentioned, Cleveland will have Love back in the lineup, who returned to action on Monday after missing 16 games with a broken hand and scored 18 points in 24 minutes.

Cleveland will also be without head coach Tyronn Lue, who stepped away from the team on Monday for an undetermined length of time as he deals with personal health issues.  

For the Raptors, DeRozan is expected back after sitting out Tuesday’s game in Orlando. It’ll be interesting to see how backcourt mate Lowry will fare after carrying a heavy workload Tuesday night in DeRozan’s absence. Point guard Fred VanVleet is questionable and could miss his third straight game due to a right hand contusion, and his absence has certainly been felt.

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Player to watch

Raptors: DeRozan. Fully rested, DeRozan should be as motivated as ever following Sunday’s frustrating loss in which he was centre stage for a controversial end-of-game foul call. DeRozan has consistently been the Raptors best player this season and has stepped up in big games like this one.

And it’s not necessarily his scoring that will make the difference.

It’s only a one-game sample, but DeRozan averages more assists versus Cleveland this season than any other team with eight. When DeRozan is an active facilitator — which often comes as a result of extra attention from defenders, something he has struggled to handle in years’ past and particularly against the Cavs during their last two playoff matchups — the Raptors benefit. Toronto is 25-5 in games in which DeRozan registers six or more assists this season.  

Cavaliers: James, obviously. On Monday, “The King” dropped a very regal 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. It was LeBron’s third triple-double in his last four games. James appears reinvigorated by his new-look lineup, and with so many rotation players slated to miss Wednesday’s game expect James to look to take control early.

Raptors rookie OG Anunoby will draw the defensive matchup on James. Good luck with that.

Key matchup

Love vs. Valanciunas: Valanciunas has been playing the best ball of his career, averaging 14 points and nine boards over the past month, scoring in double figures in all but three games over that span. With Love defending him, the Lithuanian big man should have no problem controlling the offensive glass, converting on opportunities at the basket and potentially getting his Cavs counterpart into foul trouble. That would bring in the inexperienced 21-year-old Ante Zizic onto the floor, another matchup the Raptors’ front court could exploit.

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Of course, Love’s ability to stretch the floor could cause issues against Valanciunas and the Raptors. Cavaliers forward Jeff Green will already force Serge Ibaka to step out to the perimeter to cover him, taking some rim protection insurance away from the Raptors when Valanciunas is working to keep Love from doing damage from outside. It’s not an ideal defensive matchup for either starting centre.

X-Factor

Pascal Siakam: Siakam was a beast the last time these two teams met, scoring 16 points in 23 minutes on 7-of-10 shooting, while chipping in eight rebounds and four boards for good measure. As he often is for opponents, Siakam was simply too much to handle and his combination of speed, size, swiftness, hustle and power simply overwhelmed Cleveland. With elite athletes like Nance Jr. sidelined, Siakam should have an opportunity to help break the game open once more, and don’t be surprised to see him assigned to James for stretches defensively.

The Cavaliers are slight betting favourites heading into Wednesday’s game, which tips of at 7 p.m. ET live on Sportsnet One.

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