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Toronto begins major gut check in Cleveland: Preview, start time and more

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The good and fun Raptors have not been so good and fun lately — massive tests in Cleveland and at home versus Boston tomorrow will serve as a barometer heading into the playoffs.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The current version of the Toronto Raptors is awesome by any measure. They’re 55-21 with six games left to play this regular season. They’re the best version of the team in franchise history, one deep with talent, a balanced blend of youth and veterans, and above all, the kind of continuity that idyllic franchises like the Spurs have possessed in spades for years.

So why are Cavs fans laughing into their fist whenever the Raptors are brought up as contenders to the Eastern Conference throne? Why are Celtics fans crowing like ginger gargoyles that feast on a collective goo brewed of insecurity and inadequacy?

Despite recent playoff successes, including a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015-16, Raptors fans still feel the weight of being a ‘lesser’ franchise in the NBA. An expansion team. A team that has never been to an NBA Finals, much less been considered a legitimate contender for the NBA title.

And as much as that sentiment might be met with a huge ‘FOH’ from the collective Raptors Twitter-verse, the reason it stings so much is that it’s largely true.

This team hasn’t won, or done, shit.

What we need to accept is that there’s nothing wrong with that.

Raptors fans as a whole have long had a little brother mentality. It trickles through a variety of Plinko-like twists and turns before it arrives to NBA fandom, but it’s borne of a sensitive touchstone of the Canadian identity — that is, that we’re America’s little brother. The two issues are one and the same. You see it in every tin-foil wearing nutjob that claims the NBA as a league doesn’t want the Raptors in the Finals, that the refs are instructed to call their games differently, that free agents (still) have no interest in coming North. These claims are either downright asinine or easily applicable to other NBA franchises, but fans don’t see that. They’ve wanted to be the big brother so badly, for so long, that they can’t see what’s happening right in front of their face.

The Raptors are growing up.

Don’t believe me? Think about where this franchise was five years ago. Think about the standards we had as fans. Think about the expectations and the results. Now consider where all of those things lie today.

Tonight against Cleveland and tomorrow against Boston might mean a lot; they may also mean very little. Toronto hasn’t looked great recently — they’ve struggled to impose their will on the opponent, teams are starting to use playoff defensive strategies against their new offense and the bench mob has looked downright inexperienced at crucial junctures.

That’s what these games are for. To get those reps, to play in front of what is sure to be a playoff-like atmosphere in Cleveland and a raucous home-crowd against the Celtics, go out there, and take care of business. Or, completely fuck it up! Either or.

I repeat; that’s what these games are for.

When Toronto got swept by the Wizards in the playoffs a few seasons ago, it was a seminal moment for the franchise. Everyone and their brother thought Dwane Casey was a goner; many thought one or both of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were potentially out the door as well.

That team was undefeated against the Wizards in the regular season.

These games might mean a lot; they might mean nothing at all.

This is less a game preview and more a plea for sanity, but here are your details and keys tonight against the Cavaliers.

Where to Watch:

TSN 4/5 at 7pm

Lineups:

Toronto Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas

Cleveland — Jose Calderon, Rodney Hood, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr.

Injuries:

Toronto — none

Cleveland — George Hill (ankle — out), Kyle Korver (day-to-day)

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Get Ready For A Shoot Out

This game is going to be a high-scoring one. Since the Cavaliers revamped their entire team at the trade deadline, they have the NBA’s third best offensive rating at 112.8. Your number one team in that same time period? The Toronto Raptors, at 114.5. Cleveland still rates as a middle of the pack defensive team in most categories, a marked improvement from where they were before the deadline, but still, far from elite. The Raptors have been a top defense all season long. Getting stops when they need them and making the most of their opportunities on offense will be the key to out-gunning this high octane Cavaliers offense.

Atmospheric Pressure

I’m usually bigger on numbers than the disdained ‘intangibles’ but I also believe experience matters immensely in the NBA. The atmosphere the next two nights is undoubtedly going to be electric. For young Raptors like OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl, it will be their first real experience playing a major role in games of any significance in the NBA. On the cusp of the playoffs, this meat-grinder of a back-to-back will have the potential to serve as a trial by fire for the Raptors youth.

Play Hard, And Then Just Chill

Whatever happen, it’s all going to be fine, babies. You’re all grown up. Come on and get into the front seat, buckle up and enjoy the ride.