Kicking off the 2018-19 season with a rematch versus the team that knocked you out of the playoffs the year before would normally be a white-knuckle affair for everyone involved — the team that lost, that won, and fans from both sides.
The Raptors will be doing just that Wednesday night against the Cavaliers, but without the shadow of LeBron James looming over the court (and the first opener that won’t feature one of Dwane Casey or DeMar DeRozan in almost a decade), it’ll be a wildly different atmosphere at Scotiabank Arena.
That said, this game will still hold a certain level of clout despite the absence of two of the greatest Raptors ever and King James. It’s opening night! Raptors fans have enough to be excited about with the arrival of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (not sure if you heard about them yet), whereas Cavaliers’ fans will be a little more subdued with Kevin Love as the sole breadwinner on the floor. Like the dog-days of 2012, Love will attempt to lead a broken roster full of misfits to the playoffs.
The game kicks off at 7:30pm in downtown Toronto at the aforementioned (and newly named) Scotiabank Arena. Yes, the game is in Toronto, but the Raptors no longer play at the Air Canada Centre. After 20 years, the arena gets a new moniker too — so get used to it.
Let’s take a look at tonight’s details:
Where to Watch:
TSN, 7:30pm (EST)
Toronto — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas
Cleveland — George Hill, J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
Toronto — Delon Wright (thigh, questionable)
Cleveland — J.R. Smith (elbow, day-to-day)
Toronto comes into the game with a few question marks: the starting lineup; the rotation; how Nick Nurse approaches the offensive workload — these questions aren’t exactly identity-breaking, but the answers to them are still unknown. There’s been speculation in the Raptors’ media circle as to what Nurse plans to do with long-time starting centre Valanciunas. In an interview with Michael Grange last week, Nurse suggested the starting position of the seventh-year centre (along with a few other positions) would be match-up dependent.
While it sounds good in theory, to be flexible and ready for anything, it also worries me. In sports, players thrive best when there is little question surrounding their role or place on the team. They come in, know their job, do their job, and practice to get better at that job.
If Nurse has discovered a way to stay flexible while also cementing each individuals’ role on both offense and defense, then shoot — I’m all for it. But if this aspect of coaching has gone overlooked in Nurse’s early days, then that’s something I hope is corrected quickly.
Vocal Leadership More Important Than Ever
Alternatively, if end up with players who clash on the floor because their roles overlap in some way, then Kyle Lowry — the teams most vocal and emotional leader — needs to step up immediately to correct the imbalance in the locker-room. For most of his time in Toronto, the team has been a solid foundation whose players knew their place in the scheme of things. Lowry has rarely (if ever, to my memory) had to act as mediator in a locker-room dust-up. I’m hoping he’s ready if this happens because it’ll be up to him and nobody else.
Side note: I think we’ve seen a lot of growth from Valanciunas so far early on this season. He seems vocal, aware of his role and especially aware of his ability to impact a locker-room. If Lowry is unable/unwilling to be a vocal leader, Valanciunas might have the desire to step into such a role. This would really demonstrate another level of his growth as a player.
Who to Watch on Cleveland
Aside from Kevin Love and the usual suspects on the Cavaliers side of the court, there are a few new faces in Cleveland that will be getting some burn in the absence of LeBron James. Collin Sexton was the eighth overall selection in June’s draft and he had himself an impressive training camp scoring the ball. He shot 57 percent from deep in three games, including a fifteen point outing against the Boston Celtics.
While Sexton won’t be starting, he’ll likely become a key figure in the Cavs rotation this season, being their lone lottery pick in five years. He’ll be sharing the floor with a very young bench unit that includes Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman and David Nwaba. Nance had his moment in last year’s dunk contest, and Osman’s popularity has been growing since last season’s sporadic appearances next to James where he hit threes at a great clip. But the guy flying under the radar is Nwaba, who spent last season in a Bulls uniform.
Nwaba, a free agent acquisition, put up respectable numbers off the bench and looked the part of a budding athletic wonder. His 6-4, 210 pound frame allows him to roll to the rim with power, and he has little problem finishing around the basket thanks to this strength. These two guys will be bright spots on a rebuilding Cleveland squad, and it’ll be interesting to see how they develop over the season.