TORONTO — First place in the Eastern Conference will be at stake Monday night when the suddenly struggling Cleveland Cavaliers play the surging Toronto Raptors.
The Cavaliers (13-5), who have lost three in a row, still lead the Raptors (14-6), who have won six straight, in winning percentage, .722 to .700.
This will be the third of four meetings this season between the Eastern Conference finalists from last season and the second game at Air Canada Centre.
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The NBA champion Cavaliers have won the first two meetings this season — 94-91 on Oct. 28 in Toronto and 121-117 on Nov. 15 in Cleveland. The fourth game will be played April 12 in Cleveland.
“We played them twice already and it came down to the wire,” said Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan, who scored 21 points Saturday night in the 128-84 win over the Atlanta Hawks at ACC. “It's fun when you go up against teams like that, so we're looking forward to Monday.”
The Cavaliers did not play Saturday after losing to the Bulls in Chicago on Friday and to the Los Angeles Clippers at home on Thursday. The losses started Tuesday against the Bucks in Milwaukee.
The Cavaliers were outrebounded in all three losses, allowing a combined 176 points in the paint.
Forward LeBron James said the honeymoon after winning the NBA championship is over.
“You've got to play the game the right way,” James said. “You've got to battle every night like we ain't won nothing. Last year is last year and, after ring night, it's over with.
“Now it's a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over and it's time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint on Friday) is ridiculous. We've got to man up. Everybody.”
James has made a total of 20 turnovers himself in the past three games, including eight on Friday in nearly 45 minutes. He scored 27 points and distributed 13 assists against the Bulls. He has at least 13 assists in a game six times this season.
James played so much from necessity.
“Right now, we're using LeBron way too much,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “When we have games like (Friday) and we're not clicking on all cylinders and he has basically to make every play — Kyrie (Irving) wasn't on his game (Friday) like he usually is — LeBron had the ball in his hands as much as he did, that's what we had (to do) to try to win the game.”
The Cavaliers' faltering bench is expected to receive some help Monday when guard/forward Mike Dunleavy returns after missing the previous two games under concussion protocol.
The shooter was injured Tuesday in Milwaukee but showed no signs of a concussion until Thursday.
Defense, however, is the key. “I've got to come up with some better schemes or something,” Lue said. “It's not just schemes, it's better one-on-one defense.”
The Raptors are coming off the largest winning margin (44 points) in franchise history after outscoring the Hawks 42-14 in the fourth quarter on Saturday.
The Raptors have been facing a string of teams that are either struggling or without key players, or both.
Kyle Lowry, who scored 17 points and added eight assists and eight rebounds on Saturday, was asked if the game against the Cavaliers would provide a test for the Raptors.
“I don't think it's a test,” the point guard said. “You all asked me that the first game of the season that we played them. I think it's just another regular-season game for us and a team that we always want to be better than. But we want to be better than every team in the NBA at the end of the day.”
The Cavaliers are 4-3 on the road this season and the Raptors are 8-3 at home.
James averaged 24.5 points, .548 shooting (17 of 31), 8.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists in the first two games against the Raptors.