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Raptors hit the road for one-game trip, take on Cavaliers: Preview, start time, and more

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The Raptors are looking for eight straight wins, taking on the lottery-bound Cavaliers who are trying to navigate a post-LeBron world.

NBA: Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers: Preview, start time, and more David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Following the excitement of Thursday’s win over the Warriors, the Raptors have their toughest test of the season, facing the self-proclaimed powerhouse of the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers, who sit at 4-17.

The fact is the Cavaliers haven’t had anything come easy to them this season, as they are depleted and low on talent. They traded Kyle Korver for Alec Burks and two second-round picks last week, and J.R. Smith is no longer travelling with the team. Given their situation, the Cavaliers will be focused on the development of Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton, both of whom are playing well.

The Raptors, meanwhile, might just be looking to escape with a win tonight as their schedule turns to loftier opponents — the Nuggets, 76ers, and Bucks — next week. They still have things to tighten up of course. They gave up 17 offensive rebounds to the Warriors on Saturday, and six alone to Kevon Looney.

Here’s something to keep an eye on: Pascal Siakam is 12 for his last 23 from deep. If he can consistently knock down that shot, whoa boy.

Here are your details for tonight’s game.

Where to Watch:

TSN, 8pm EST

Lineups:

Toronto - Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka

Cleveland - Collin Sexton, Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson

Injuries:

Toronto — Norman Powell (out - shoulder)

Cleveland — Kevin Love (foot - Out), J.R. Smith (not with team), Sam Dekker (ankle - out), George Hill (shoulder - questionable), David Nwaba (knee - questionable)

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Talent Disparity

The talent disparity in this game is stark. How many players on the Cavaliers right now would play in the Raptors rotation? Cedi Osman? He could play in the Norman Powell/C.J. Miles role. Tristan Thompson? You might prefer him over one of the Raptors big men. Other than that the Raptors are far and away the more talented team.

But for what the Cavaliers lack in talent they make up for in hard play. They don’t play with the lethargy of the Wizards or Jimmy Butler-led Timberwolves. Cedi Osman brings it every night and David Nwaba has made an NBA career out of being pesky. Everyone plays hard with the possible exception of Tristan Thompson.

Thompson is hardly contesting anything at the rim this season. In a game against the Thunder this past Wednesday, Thompson, hanging around the rim, tracked a blow-by from the top of the key, and instead of rotating over to contest the shot he paused, seemingly calculating what effort he could muster, and stood there to box out his man. Easy layup. His block rate is way down too. He is averaging 0.4 blocks per 36 minutes, the lowest of his career.

Collin Sexton’s Recent Play

The Cavaliers rookie, Collin Sexton, is starting to find success, averaging 18.5 points a game since moving into the starting lineup on November 7th. He’s flashed NBA skills, blowing past defenders with hesitation dribbles, and laying the ball in softly at full speed — really hard to do.

After dropping 29 points in a win against Houston last Saturday, coach Larry Drew had encouraging words for Sexton. “I think Collin is starting to open eyes as far as his ability to make shots on the perimeter. The scouting report on him was to go underneath him on the screen-and-roll and he’s proving everybody wrong.”

If there is anything to criticize it’s that the math of an NBA game hasn’t registered for Sexton yet. He takes an alarmingly number of long twos and isn’t quite sure what to do on defense. That will come with time. There were good reasons for the Cavaliers to select Sexton 8th overall. He will be alright.

Raptors’ Bench Unit

The bench unit — Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas — and one other player, usually C.J. Miles or Kawhi Leonard, has not fared well this season. Their play may very well improve as the season goes along but there does look to be a structural weakness.

The most important facet of the bench unit, the Valanciunas/VanVleet pick-and-roll, has produced very little. When VanVleet initiates as the pick-and-roll ball handler he is generating 0.95 points per possession — a poor number.

Despite the poor production, it is not hard to rationalize why Nick Nurse uses the VanVleet/Valanciunas combination so often. He loves to run open-sets with the bench, emphasizing dribble handoffs and drive-and kick. So naturally VanVleet, a player who is fast, compact, and can get into the paint, will be relied upon. The problem, however, is when VanVleet gets into the paint. He doesn’t have the chemistry with Valanciunas to drop pocket passes and he doesn’t have the size to pass over players to find three point shooters.

A simple fix might be to give Delon Wright more time as the lead ball-handler. Wright can get into the paint nearly as well as VanVleet and once he is there he is probably the team’s best player at finding open shooters. If the bench continues to look bad, Nurse will certainly feel the need to tweak that unit. He could look to play Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam more often but switching the roles of Wright and VanVleet — at least a little bit — seems like the natural first step to help the bench unit.