The Raptors will look to build on Sunday's ugly win over the Hawks, when they take on the immensely disappointing Cleveland Cavaliers in the Buckeye State tonight. The Raps have won their two previous meetings against Mike Brown's team this season (yes, Mike Brown has not been fired yet), and with the Cavs missing star-man Kyrie Irving -- out with a bicep injury -- there's no good reason why the Raps shouldn't sweep the season series.
The Bulls kept up the pressure on the Raps last night with a win over the suddenly unwatchable Indiana Pacers, effectively tying the Raps for 3rd in the standings (the Bulls have played 2 games more, however); and it's crucial that the Raps keep beating the Eastern Conference dregs in order to secure what could be a vital home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs.
And boy do the Raptors have a dreg-filled schedule.
10 of the remaining 13 games for the Raps -- including tonight's tilt -- come against teams well under .500. This week, after tonight's Cavs game, they face the Celtics twice, and the Orlando Magic. If they're unable to hang onto 3rd place in the conference, the Raps only really have themselves to blame. Casey's boys have done the hard work, contending with one of the more difficult early-season schedules in the NBA, and now they have to finish the job.
But on to tonight's opponents...
Back in October, there was a sense of optimism surrounding the Cavaliers not felt since LeBron James graced the Q. The team had drafted first overall in the summer, but despite those gaudy lottery ball-induced celebrations, Dan Gilbert was adamant that his team would make a big push to the post-season, and avoid another trip to the draft lottery.
General manager -- well, now ex-general manager -- Chris Grant, made a splash in the off-season, signing Jarrett Jack in free-agency and taking what seemed to be a low-risk, high-reward punt on Andrew Bynum. With Irving expected to make another jump in his development, and the intriguing young players on the roster -- Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Anthony Bennett -- expected to complement the incoming pieces, this appeared to be the most talented Cavaliers team since 2009. On paper, at least.
Cliche alert: Games aren't played on paper.
As it turns out, Grant severely overpaid for Jack, and while Bynum did turn out to be low-risk from a financial stand-point, he proved to be very high risk when it came to team-chemistry. Otherwise, Irving has been disappointing, Waiters has been disruptive, Bennett has been a disaster; and the return of Mike Brown has done nothing but reinforce the notion that he couldn't coach a decent offense even if the '96 Chicago Bulls fell into his lap.
And despite panicky trade-deadline moves for Luol Deng (he ain't re-signing in the summer) and Spencer Hawes, the Cavs are still mostly awful -- losers of 7 of their past 10 games. Keep watching 'dem lottery balls, Mr. Gilbert.
Here are 3 keys to tonight's game
Move the Ball
Tonight's keys have a very general-feel about them, and that's because when you're facing a team that's 27-44, you really shouldn't have to adjust to anything they do, because...well...the Cavaliers don't really do anything particularly well.
That includes defense.
Mike Brown built his reputation as a defensive coach, but the Cavs don't play defense very well -- they currently rank 19th in defensive efficiency. If the Raps do what they've been doing on offense for the majority of games since the Rudy Gay trade -- which is move the ball effectively -- they should have no trouble scoring against the Cavs; especially inside, where Hawes does a fantastic matador impersonation.
One additional point: DeMar DeRozan needs to be especially careful not to let the ball stick in his hands tonight. Luol Deng may have one foot out of the state, but he's an extremely effective one-on-one defender, and iso-ball won't work well against him.
Get out to shooters
The Cavaliers aren't a great outside-shooting team per se, but with Hawes at the 5 (he's a 40% 3-point shooter this season) it creates some match-up problems for the Raps. In their last game against the Cavs, Casey stuck the more-mobile Amir Johnson on Hawes, to protect Jonas Valanciunas, and he may have to make that switch again. Overall, the Raps are just going to have to be very cognizant of Hawes stepping-out on the pick-n-pop, where he can be very effective.
Late game execution
DON'T PUT JOHN SALMONS ON THE FLOOR IN THE LAST TWO MINUTES OF A GAME
While the Raps' overall 4th quarter play has been strong all season, their execution late, in close games, has been pretty atrocious, and it's something they're really going to need to clean up by the time the playoffs roll around. Making free-throws down the stretch are, of course, essential; but Casey also needs to figure out some effective go-to plays to run with the game on the line. Clear-outs for DeRozan just aren't going to cut it.
If tonight's game comes down to the wire (although it really shouldn't) I'd like to see Kyle Lowry with the ball in his hands, and constant motion from the other 4 guys off the ball.