I didn't think the Cavs were going to be this good.
Prior to the start of the season, I had them as the third seed in the East when all was said and done, behind both Boston and Orlando. I just wasn't a believer in the Shaq acquisition, and I thought head coach Mike Brown would have a tough time coaxing enough offence out of the "Jamesettes."
On opening night, my analysis seemed to ring true as the Raps put on an offensive clinic against the Cavs in a 101 to 91 win. Cleveland looked lost offensively, and saying that Brown's sets looked "plodding" might have been a compliment.
However right now, the Cavs are having the last laugh.
They're only 3 games worse than their franchise-setting win record through 42 games from last season, sitting atop the East with a 31 and 11 record. Right now, with injuries plaguing Boston and problems in Orlando, there's no question the Cavs look like the team to beat in the East.
So what happened?
Cleveland started 0 and 2 on the season, and even after six games were a mediocre 3 and 3. But as Raps fans have seen, sometimes it just takes time to get players, especially new ones, on the same page. Shaq hasn't been dominant, but Cleveland has learned how to effectively rotate him in and out along with the Cavs' other bigs like Ilgauskas, Varejao and Hickson.
The rich really do get richer eh?
All that being said, it's therefore hard not to think about how big a win tonight then would be for the Raps; a veritable coup in fact, especially after such a solid win over Dallas on Sunday.
So how does Toronto get it done?
Well, for this morning's "3 keys," we're going to stay primarily on the defensive end...
1) Defensive Intensity.
Like Jordan and Bird in their primes, you know Lebron is going to get his. It's just a question of how many.
However teams have had success against the Cavs this season when they've limited Lebron's teammates looks and forced James to go one-on-five. Yes, he's strong, athletic and talented enough to will his team to victory single-handily, but the Cavs are at their most dangerous when he's mixing it up; getting to the rim for his own points while dishing and dropping dimes, finding open looks for scorers like Mo Williams and Delonte West.
Therefore it's going to take another excellent defensive effort by the entire Raptors team to help get a W. Cleveland gets knocked for being a poor offensive team but in reality they are the 6th most efficient offensive team in the league, only two spots behind Toronto. So make no mistake, this club can light it up, and it'll be up to TO to hold the fort, which also means being tough on the glass against a very active rebounding Cavalier team.
In fact, I'm looking at this game as Hedo Turkoglu's big chance. He showed in the playoffs that when he wanted to, he could use his size and length to bother elite scorers like Kobe Bryant, and I'm hoping he'll pick up the torch in this capacity this evening against Mr. James.
2) Ball Pressure.
After dissecting the Cavs' 11 losses this season to find a common trend, one thing jumped out at me - turnovers. Cleveland is averaging nearly 19 turnovers a game in their losses, a staggering number considering on the season they're averaging about 14 and a half, and even that's a bit on the high side considering the league average.
It makes sense though. Despite Lebron's passing ability, this team really has no true pass-first point guard, and while they're an efficient team offensively, this isn't a pure scoring group along the lines of Golden State or ahem...Toronto. So if Toronto can force turnovers and prevent Cleveland from getting into its sets, suddenly the Cavs might have trouble scoring. Outside of Lebron, the rest of the Cavs are fairly streaky and with exception of maybe Mo, aren't pure scorers. This is echoed in the fact that unbelievably, Cleveland's third-highest scorer on the season is Shaq, at just over 10 points per game!
After that there are SEVEN Cavs who average between 5 and 8 points a game!
If the Raps can keep pressure on Cleveland's ball-handlers and make the Cavs work deep into the shot clock, this only bodes well for a third straight win.
3) Play to Your Strengths.
While it's great to emphasize defense in the first of the two keys to tonight's match, let's not get it twisted, this still is not a great defensive club. What this Toronto team does best is score, and does it mostly thanks to jump shots and Chris Bosh's ability to draw fouls.
So one thing I don't want to see is a Raptors' team that gets away from that tonight trying to play the Cavs' game.
Even in their loss to Indiana, the Dinos' identity shone loud and proud;
"you might score on us, but you better put up some friggin' big numbers because we're going to bomb away on you all night."
Cleveland is one of the best defensive teams in the league (4th most effecient currently) but they aren't as good defending the 3-point line. Let's see Toronto use this to their advantage tonight, and get out and attack like they did against the Mavericks.
Yesterday I touched on the idea that fans saw the fulfillment of potential in Sunday's win over Dallas.
Tonight I'm hoping to see another big step in that direction.