Coming off six consecutive wins, including a 44-point dismantling of the Atlantic Hawks on Saturday night, the Toronto Raptors are flying high. The team is 14-6, behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, which makes the upcoming clash a doozy. Coming into the season, almost everyone who didn’t have a 416, 647 or 437 area code thought the Cavs would easily be the best in the East, coasting to the Finals. But, after suffering three-straight losses, the Raptors may have joined the discussion.
Tonight’s battle won’t prove everything, but it will give the Raptors a chance to respond to two early season losses at the hands of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the rest of their championship defending cohorts. Both previous games were settled by four points or less, but the Cavaliers found a way in both instances — a trend coach Dwane Casey will try to buck during the later stages of tonight’s game.
Here are some things to look for:
The Raptors are having fun on offense
The Raptors beat the Hawks by a franchise-best margin of victory, the product of a 57.6 per cent shooting night. The offense was coming quick and easy, led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who have both had stellar campaigns a quarter through the season. This team has basically approached the offense the same way over the last three years, but the players seem to be reaching a new level of ability to execute the game plan.
It’s all about variety for the Raptors. With DeRozan in the folds as a star, isolation sets will always be a key part of the offense, but it’s important to mix in a lot of passing and motion when he doesn’t have the ball. Lowry has always been a good distributor, but he seems to be getting better, which has created more opportunities for the distance shooters, like DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson, who have, in turn, been knocking down shots at a sturdy rate. Against the Cavs, the Raptors will face a better defence than they are used to, so the key will be to try to stay the course.
Get JV involved
Looking at the Raptors’ last few games, it’s hard to find too many areas for improvement, but Jonas Valanciunas could certainly use a few more looks on offense. The starting centre went for just two points and five rebounds against the Hawks, on a night where practically everyone took off. For the season, he is averaging 12.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, right around his totals from the year before. But besides the numbers, JV seems to be more confident, sure of his shot and aggressive around the hoop.
If the Raptors can get the young centre involved, the entire offense stands to improve. Starting power forward Pascal Siakam isn’t on the court to score, but it’s important the bigs are getting points in the paint, so the guards have space to do their work. Against the Cavaliers, it will take as many strong offensive possessions as possible to overcome pure star power.
Where is the real J.R. Smith?
One of Cleveland’s best scoring threats has gone cold this season, but as a main emotional catalyst for the team, a renewed J.R. Smith could spell a return to form for the whole squad against the Raptors. Last season during the playoffs, Smith became a symbol for perseverance, overcoming past problems to win a ring in Cleveland, and score like a beast while doing it. He averaged 12.4 points per game last season, but early this year he is down to 8.1. Without him, the Cavaliers are missing some of the punch that used to surprise opposing defences.
Smith can get hot in a second, making contested shots from beyond the arc or around the basket. The Raptors have been sturdy defensively this season, but a high-level Smith performance could be a real challenge. It’s important to not let him get going, which starts with tight defence along the perimeter. When the Cavs do score in bunches, let it come from James and Irving, because they are going to find ways to be effective anyways. The Raptors should focus on silencing the players, like Smith, who can push the Cavaliers over the top.
Where to Watch: 7:30 pm on TSN2