What this game means is ultimately quite subjective. It can mean a lot, or it can mean nothing at all depending on what you value. The Raptors are locked into the three seed and will meet the Milwaukee Bucks in round one — that’s that. If the Raps one up the Cavs tonight, the two teams will finish with identical records, but the head-to-head tiebreaker favours Cleveland who will subsequently finish in the two seed. What does this mean? The Raptors would then lineup with the Cavs for a second round rematch in the post-season.
On the flipside, if the Cavaliers beat the Raptors, and the Boston Celtics lose tonight (against the Bucks), then it is Cleveland in the first seed. This could matter because it means the earliest the Raps and Cavs would meet in the post-season would be the Eastern Conference Finals. The optics of winning two playoff series and getting to the ECF for the second straight year are sexy, and ticket sales also reap the benefit — I get it. But the Raptors will most likely have to take down Cleveland at some point if they want to crack the Finals, so why not just get it over with?
There has been a whirlwind of chatter suggesting that maybe, just maybe the Cavs are throwing games to set up this date with the Raptors in round two, but I just can’t get there. Cleveland has faced off with the Pistons, Celtics, Bulls, Hawks (twice) and Raptors en route to their previous two NBA Final appearances and came back from 3-1 down to beat one of the greatest teams of all time. I really don’t think they give a crap who is at the other end of the court.
As a result, this is a weird one because of the circumstances at play. LeBron will be sitting (shocker), as will Kyrie Irving. But the Raptors may want to play their dudes in order to iron out the kinks before the playoffs commence with Kyle Lowry still fresh off returning to the lineup. This game may end up resembling a Raptors team practice with the Cavs bench unit showing up to help them out.
Here are a few things to consider for tonight:
The Cavs’ Poor Defense is a Real Thing
Cleveland has been horrid at protecting their hoop since the All-Star break, posting the second worst defensive rating in the Association (111.1), with only the Lakers being worse. The Raptors on the other hand, since bolstering their lineup, rank fourth defensively since the break and have re-established themselves as a very serious contender in the East. After the Cavs blew a 26-point lead in the fourth quarter against Atlanta over the weekend, I think there may finally be cause for genuine concern.
Things have gotten so rough for Cleveland that they actually share the same defensive rating on the entire season as... the Brooklyn Nets? It’s hard to believe and part of it may just be boredom on the Cavs end, but as these bad habits sneak into the team’s fabric, they can become difficult to undo. Not to make this a complete numbers game, but it’s interesting to note that dating back to 1996, no team has won the title with a defense in the bottom third of the league. Right now, the Cavs rank 22nd. In fact, all of those title teams have all been in the top ten, except for the 2001 Lakers who finished 19th.
Reps, Raps, Reps, Raps
The Raps need more reps. Lowry is indeed back, but in order to rekindle the team’s chemistry before he went down — particularly with new teammate Serge Ibaka — it’s going to take practice. Kyle stormed back onto the scene dropping 27 points with 10 assists in 42 minutes in the Raptors monster comeback in Detroit last week. His next two games were good, but not the Kyle Lowry that we have known over the past several seasons. Tonight’s contest, assuming the Raps deploy all their troops, will be a good opportunity for one final tune up before the post-season begins on the weekend.
To get a better idea of how the Raptors lineups look heading into the post-season, both with and without Lowry, have a look at Daniel Hackett’s piece, here
The Raptors Continue to Prove Their Elite Status
Although at times it didn’t feel like it, 2017 brought another season of great success for basketball in Toronto. Through all the ups and downs, injuries and trades, the Raptors managed to hit the 50-win mark for the second straight season for the first time in franchise history. Both the defense (9th) and offense (6th) are in the top ten across the association — a testament to the depth and personal of the this year’s edition.
The Raps have posted a record of 156-90 over the last three seasons and only the Warriors (206), Spurs (183), Cavs (161) and Clippers (159) have won more games over this span. Now, with arguably the greatest roster that the franchise has ever compiled, the Raptors may be staring down their best chance to crack the NBA Finals and dare I say it, win an NBA title.
Where to Watch: 8pm, TSN