Cavaliers face another key test against Raptors
CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers say they still don’t quite know how good they can be or even who they really are heading into the postseason, because they have yet to play a game with a full group.
But whatever they’ve been doing lately, and whoever they are, it’s working. Count the Raptors among the teams to learn it firsthand.
Cleveland has won eight of its last nine and six straight at home, including a stunning 132-129 win over Eastern Conference-leading Toronto on March 21 at Quicken Loans Arena on a night where the Cavs were missing five rotation players because of injury (and coach Tyronn Lue for personal health issues).
The two teams play again Tuesday in Cleveland. The Cavs are a half-game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers for third in the East.
“I think when it comes down to the postseason, we can be pretty good,” LeBron James said Sunday after the Cavs beat the Dallas Mavericks 98-87. “I mean, I think so. But we don’t know. Listen, we lost our starting point guard last game, so we’re trying to get everybody acclimated.
“Our head coach is still out and it’s going to take him a little time to get back as well, so I don’t know what we’re capable of doing. We haven’t played a playoff game together.
“We got four guys you know from our championship team, myself, J.R. (Smith), Tristan (Thompson) and Kev (Love). We got some playoff experience, but you don’t know. It’s a new season and we’ll see what happens.”
James, who posted his 17th triple-double this season Sunday despite going 5 of 21 from the field, was referring to a sprained left ankle suffered by point guard George Hill last week that kept him out of Sunday’s game.
Hill could miss the game against the Raptors, as could Kyle Korver (sore right foot), who didn’t play in the last game against Toronto, either.
The Raptors are healthy, but they have their own concerns. Namely, their hold on first place in the East is in jeopardy.
Toronto, which is just 3-3 in its last six games, holds a two-game lead over Boston for first. The Raptors play the Celtics on Wednesday in Toronto. It’s a tough back-to-back, one that could mean a tie atop the East if it goes poorly for the Raptors.
Toronto has the fourth-best bench in the NBA, which is averaging 41.7 points per game. Coach Dwane Casey has been relying on those reserves (CJ Miles is tops at 10.1 ppg and Fred VanVleet is next at 8.8 ppg) to taper the minutes of his two top stars — DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
The idea is to have DeRozan and Lowry rested to play super-sized minutes in the playoffs — where they’ve been knocked out by the Cavs each of the last two seasons.
“I think it’s going to make a big difference, even if it’s something psychological, knowing that we didn’t play that many minutes,” DeRozan said, according to the Toronto Star. “So if it’s called for us to go out here and play big minutes at a high level, we’re going to be able to do it and still feel fresh, and be able to do it the next night if need be.”
Lowry is the Raptors’ season franchise leader with 223 3-pointers in 2017-18. He scored 24 points in the last game against the Cavs; DeRozan added 21 but struggled to shoot in that game.
“You see it in Kyle’s shooting, in DeMar’s floor scoring down the lane,” Casey said. “It’s a no-brainer. The question was: Was the second unit going to hold up and make sure they take care of business? And they did, and they have. That allowed us to do that. If they hadn’t, their rate would be up to win games. They’ve done a good job of that.”
The last time the teams played, James had 35 points, 17 assists and no turnovers. No one had done that since the NBA started keeping track of turnovers in 1977-78.