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Raptors host Cavaliers in playoffs rematch: Preview, start time, and more

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The Raptors have been brimming with intensity all week, but will they bring it to the court Thursday night?

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It could be the most highly anticipated game of the season. It could be the reason why the team has looked shaken up since Monday’s game against Brooklyn. However, it most definitely is the first nationally televised game of the year for the Raptors – a home split against the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

So what happened this week?

Kyle Lowry’s injury, Serge Ibaka’s suspension, DeMar DeRozan’s fine: none are related, but they all play into Thursday night’s game against a team that has become the biggest road block for the Raptors over the course of the last three seasons.

Earlier this week, fans were neurotically awaiting the Cavs game - the first true test of Raptor mettle this year. Following the suspension and injury, however, most fans are chalking the next two games up as near-guaranteed losses that will ultimately help instill some humility in an otherwise over-exceeding roster before the playoffs arrive.

If DeRozan has any say in the matter though, we’re in for a real treat tonight. Still, it’s a shame we won’t get to see two fully healthy Eastern Conference contenders battle it out in what is likely a preview to an eventual playoff series this coming spring.

Here are your details for tonight’s game:

Where to Watch:

Sportsnet, 8:00 pm

Lineups:

Toronto – Delon Wright, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Jonas Valanciunas

Cleveland – Isaiah Thomas, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love

Injuries:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry (OUT - Tailbone) Serge Ibaka (OUT – suspension)

Cleveland – Derrick Rose (OUT - ankle) Iman Shumpert (OUT - knee)

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Anxious Raptors

The energy surrounding the team leading up to this weekend’s two marquee match-ups is palpable — not only on the floor, but in the locker room as well. If anyone on the team said they weren’t thinking about the games versus Cleveland and Golden State, they’d probably be lying.

Tuesday night versus the Heat was a prime example of the eruption of emotions: starting forward Serge Ibaka was ejected and subsequently suspended after exchanging punches with James Johnson in the third quarter, while DeMar DeRozan was smacked with a $25k fine on Wednesday for his involvement in what can only be described as a “spat” with Heat guard Goran Dragic after the final buzzer sounded.

DeRozan’s frustrations were plenty evident following Tuesday’s game as well, as described by TSN reporter Josh Lewenberg. Unfortunately, the unchecked aggression harbored by the team’s leadership ultimately cost them its third best player, whereas Kyle Lowry may still be sidelined with a bruised… butt. It’s very possible DeRozan will be the only star on the floor for Thursday’s highly anticipated game, which is the first match-up since Cleveland defeated Toronto in last year’s Eastern Conference semi-final.

Hopefully Thursday night will feature a tamer Toronto team, but if the past two games are any indication, the Raptors have been thinking about this match-up with Cleveland all week. Let’s hope they can show up and show out with as much energy as they’ve expended since Monday.

Missed Opportunities

You wouldn’t necessarily know just from the outward looks of things — but in the numbers, Toronto’s effort in the post has been terrible the last two games. And by terrible, I mean giving up 20 offensive rebounds on Tuesday night, and 119 rebounds combined to Brooklyn and Miami. Sure, the Raptors have missed a lot more shots than usual over these two games, but their rebounding deficiencies are that much more apparent when they stop making shots.

When the Raptors’ shots aren’t falling, rebounding continues to be an issue. Ibaka isn’t, and has never been, a strong rebounder, and Dwane Casey is relying on various small-ball lineups more and more (possibly indicating preparation for playoff rotations), magnifying Ibaka’s deficiencies. Meanwhile, the team’s best rebounder, Jonas Valaniunas, doesn’t always fit on the floor, give his defensive deficiencies elsewhere.

Like Cleveland, whose issue this season is again on the defensive end, Toronto has a problem that can’t be immediately fixed without changing some personnel before the trade deadline. Be certain that Ujiri is aware of this problem, and that he aims to do something about it if he wants this team to succeed in the playoffs. Until then, defensive rebounding will be a serious weakness for the Raptors.

The Importance of Point Guard Experience and the Unseen Impact of Kyle Lowry

Last season when Lowry went down with a wrist injury, the Raptors cruised to a 15-7 record without him. Most importantly, DeRozan looked comfortable on offense despite the general’s absence — something that didn’t ring true on Tuesday.

Following the loss to Miami, DeRozan made a jarring statement: “I mean, the whole game is completely different without Kyle. It’s everything. Everything.”

He goes on to say it’s not an excuse, but the point was made with that sentence: DeRozan wasn’t comfortable (he shot 10-29 from the floor), which was entirely opposite of last year’s stretch when he shared the floor with Cory Joseph. The reason is simple, but so important: Joseph was able to move the defense in a way that Delon Wright — for as talented as he is — isn’t able to do at this point in his career.

Lowry can occupy the attention of multiple defenders in order to create space for DeRozan to either drive, or get his shot off. There were a few times in the Miami game that Wright performed his action on the offensive end, and then stopped moving in order to ball-watch. It completely buckled the offensive flow and often left a second defender breathing down DeRozan’s neck.

It’s a fair critique of both Wright and Fred VanVleet that outlines just how important experience is at the point guard position, whether it’s as a starter, or a backup. And when both are inexperienced, it occasionally poses a huge problem.

Tuesday night illustrated just how important Lowry is to the team’s functionality, even when his shot isn’t falling. Everything Joseph did last season during that 22 game span was done with Lowry’s duties in mind, which begin first and foremost with creating opportunities for DeRozan. The loss to Miami perfectly showcased the limitations of young talent and the unseen impact of a veteran.