The Toronto Raptors visited Cleveland two weeks ago and laid an embarrassing 110-93 beating on the Cavaliers at The Q, so whether the players will admit it or not, there will be an element of revenge on the Cavs’ minds as they roll into Toronto after sneaking out of New York with a win on Thursday.
The game in Cleveland against the Raptors was worse than the lopsided final score indicates. LeBron James and company had just lost three games in a row and started out like a desperate team by building a 24-6 lead in the opening 7.5 minutes, however, from there Toronto outscored Cleveland 104-69 and the term ‘fragile’ was an excellent descriptor of the Cavs’ effort. James was subbed out with 6:20 left in the fourth quarter as the Cavaliers were trailing 97-79 and Kyrie Irving came out two minutes later with Head Coach David Blatt waving the white flag early. There was no fight left in his team long before the game ended.
Both teams anticipate a different kind of contest in Toronto on Friday.
The Raptors have reached the unofficial first quarter mark of the 2014-15 season with a franchise-best 15-4 record. The last time Toronto had a winning record through the first 20 games of a season was 2003-04 when they started 12-8. The frequently lottery-bound Raptors have historically averaged 7.8 wins through their first 20 games.
These are not the lovable losing Raptors of years gone by, however. Head Coach Dwane Casey won Coach-of-the-Month last December after the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento brought a useable bench to Toronto and he has just won the award again to start this season. Casey becomes the first coach in team history to win the award twice. The Raptors were a franchise best 13-4 in October/November this year.
Casey has enjoyed a relatively healthy roster since last season, but when DeMar DeRozan went down with an adductor tendon (groin) injury a week ago, he knew the Raptors would be missing their All-Star for a significant stretch of games. DeRozan will be out at least 4 weeks.
However, Toronto went 2-1 on their just completed three game Western Conference road swing without DeRozan, averaging over 120 points per game. Greivis Vasquez has stepped in as the starting shooting guard and averaged 16 points on 51.3 percent shooting from the field and 5.7 assists. Kyle Lowry scored a career-high 39 points against the Jazz and has averaged 31.7 points and 8.7 assists over the past three games. Scoring hasn’t been much of an issue without DeRozan so far.
In their first game against Cavaliers, it was DeRozan who held James to just 15 points and helped turn the Cavaliers best scorer into a passer, but that happened because Casey didn’t have the option to use James Johnson. On Friday, Johnson will be available and Casey has to be hoping the better defender can do at least as good a job as his All-Star scorer did on James.
The Cavaliers have been a tough team to figure out this season. Chemistry issues were to be anticipated, but the Cavs have been like Jekyll and Hyde. 1-3 to start the season, then a 4 game winning streak followed by a 4 game losing streak and now a new 5 game winning streak. Not that the recent wins over the Bucks and then the Knicks by the smallest of margins has been exactly awe-inspiring.
James did win the most recent Eastern Conference Player-of-the-Week award after leading the Cavaliers to a 3-0 week. He averaged 25.7 points, 8.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals. This is the second time he has won the award this season and the 47th time James has earned Player-of-the-Week accolades in his career, the most in NBA history. James can and has put the Cavaliers on his back more than once already this season.
Much like the first battle between these two teams, it will be the Raptors superior depth – even without DeRozan – versus the Cavaliers Big Three of James, Irving and Kevin Love. Toronto is 9-2 at home this season and has sold out every game. It will be a tough environment for the Cavaliers to get their revenge in, especially if they are still feeling fragile.
Prior to Friday’s game Toronto Raptors President and General Manager Masai Ujiri will honor his hero Nelson Mandela alongside some of the world’s biggest sports icons including Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley among others. On the first anniversary of Mandela’s passing, The Giant of Africa will be an evening-long celebration of the late former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize winner while supporting the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Ujiri’s not-for-profit organization, Giants of Africa.
“We knew that team was going to come out of the gate roaring and they did,” said Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey. “We didn’t give in. We sustained our focus and our defensive disposition and just kept playing and that is what you have to do against a good team.”
Kyle Lowry scored 27 points and handed out 13 assists in the Raptors’ win in Sacramento. It’s the second time in Lowry’s career that he scored at least 27 points and 13 assists in a game. The only other player in Raptors history with two games like that is Damon Stoudemire who did it twice during the 1996-97 season.