The Toronto Huskies (wait, are they the Raptors again now?) still have a case as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference at 7-2. The Atlanta Hawks (7-2) and Charlotte Hornets (6-3) are both off to excellent starts to the 2016-17 season, but the Raptors — for once — have the benefit of the doubt for having been there before. After all, they were the second seed in the East last year and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tonight’s opponent, however, is why discussions over second-best in the East are essentially moot at this point: the Cleveland Cavaliers are far and away the best team in the conference until proven otherwise, and no one — no matter how second-best — is close to breaking into their single-occupant top tier.
The Raptors know this well. They lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals in somewhat embarrassing fashion last year (Games 3 and 4 notwithstanding) and then lost to them again at the Air Canada Center during this season’s opening week.
Tonight, they head to Cleveland; a place where they have not won a basketball game since November 22nd, 2014, back when LeBron James was still figuring out his new teammates, and the Raptors were relying on eventual Sixth Man of the Year winner Lou Williams.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Raptors try to exorcise their Believeland demons tonight:
The Third Part of Toronto’s Big Three
We know that DeMar DeRozan, the NBA’s leading scorer (going to keep calling him that every chance I get until he’s not), will get his. Kyle Lowry is also likely to put up big numbers in some capacity.
The big question with this matchup is always, “Who else is going to step up?”
When you face a team like Cleveland, whose “Big Three” of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love is obvious from the jump, it’s hard not to think of who your team counters with. DeMar is playing like our LeBron (no really, he kind of is), Kyle is our Kyrie, but where is the Love?
During the Eastern Conference Finals last year, DeRozan averaged 23.0 points per contest, while Lowry chipped in 20.2. Patrick Patterson and Jonas Valanciunas were tied to be next in line with 7.5 points per game apiece. Valanciunas, coming off an injury, only played 17.9 minutes in the two games he played that series, but it’s hard to win basketball games when you only have two guys playing effectively and the defence can focus all of its attention on them.
Game 1 of this season series was no different when it came to the All-Star backcourt getting theirs, as DeRozan put up his requisite 32 points and Lowry amassed 17. Valanciunas got 10 points and 17 boards, though, and was a big factor in 31 minutes. No one else scored in double-figures for the Raps, but things stayed competitive until the final buzzer with DeRozan, Lowry, and JV all having solid performances.
Valanciunas has played with minutes in the low 20s since his return from a knee contusion, but this would be the perfect game for him to get those early-season reps back in, with floor time in the 30-minute range and the touches that went with it.
If he doesn’t step up, it’s clear that someone else will have to in order to keep this matchup with the defending champs competitive.
Guarding the Three-Point Line
The Cleveland Cavaliers are second in the NBA in three-point attempts per game (35.7) and sixth in three-point percentage (37.1%). That kind of shooting efficiency is a big part of the reason why they have the Association’s second-best offensive rating of 112.7 points scored per 100 possessions (trailing only the Golden State Warriors’ 115.5).
In the one game that Cleveland has lost this year (to the Atlanta Hawks a week ago today), they shot only 26.2% from long range, hitting only 11 of their whopping 42 attempts.
When the Cavs beat the Raps back at the end of October, they hit 12 of their 32 attempts from three-point distance (37.5%), as compared to the Raptors hitting just four of their 16 attempts from long range (25.0%).
Beat the Cavaliers at the three-point line and you stand a much better chance of beating them on the scoreboard by the final buzzer.
Bringing Up Bebe
I don’t know if you noticed, but we like Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira around these parts. In fact, we have an entire column dedicated to him.
Now, it just so happens that Bebe is actually playing some pretty inspired ball as of late. Over his first four games of the season, Noguiera is averaging 8.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and 2.5 blocks in 25.8 minutes per contest, while shooting a rather hilarious 88.2% from the field and 75.0% from the line. It’s a small sample size, but those numbers equate to an excellent player efficiency rating (PER) of 25.0, which places him second on the team to only DeRozan’s 31.5, and would place him in the top-20 for the whole league if he had played enough games to qualify up to this point.
Anyway, Bebe isn’t really a big key to the game, but it’ll still be fun to see if he can keep this hot start going. Some people took the loss of Bismack Biyombo pretty hard, but it turns out that Bebe might actually be ready to absorb his role and minutes.
Where to Watch: TSN 1/4, 7:00 p.m. EST