Raptors bearing down on Cavaliers as playoffs approach
Long after the Cleveland Cavaliers fired coach David Blatt in an attempt to stabilize a team that just couldn't get on the same page, many of the same issues continue to plague them under new coach Tyronn Lue.
And while the Cavs try to figure out how to use Kevin Love, try to shore up their defense and find the consistency they need to make a real run at a title, the Toronto Raptors have put themselves right in Cleveland's rearview mirror as the playoffs approach.
The Raptors (48-21) have won four straight games and seven of their last eight and are just one game back of the Cavs for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors have weathered injuries to key players like Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll and James Johnson, all the while relying on their continuity to get them through.
''It hasn't been easy at all, dealing with injuries, key players being out,'' All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan said last month. ''It's definitely been tough. Just to get through it, stay afloat after that, it's an accomplishment.''
The Raptors are doing more than just stay afloat. With DeRozan and Kyle Lowry forming one of the league's best backcourts, and coach Dwane Casey and the rest of the staff plugging in Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson to help overcome the injuries, the Raptors have been in the No. 2 spot for most of the season.
''We've always been a team to overcome adversity,'' DeRozan said. ''That's what the coaching staff has always preached. We've got guys that don't complain. We take what's given to us and make the most out of it.''
DeRozan and Lowry have set an aggressive tone for the Raptors offense, with DeRozan leading the league in points off drives to the basket, and the two are averaging more than 15 free-throw attempts per game.
Ultimately, the Raptors know the playoffs are all that matters. They have only won one playoff series in franchise history.
''The buy-in, the chemistry, the continuity has been good,'' Casey said. ''We still have a lot of room for improvement and some growth to be had. We're where we want to be right now offensively and defensively.''
Things to watch this week:
FREAKIN' OUT: Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo's breakout season has reached a zenith with four triple-doubles in an 11-game span, and he came one assist shy of his fifth on Tuesday. Coach Jason Kidd has the 21-year-old running the Bucks offense, and he is flourishing in a role GM John Hammond saw for him when he drafted the Greek Freak in 2013.
SKIDDING CELTICS: Boston lost four in a row before getting a gimme against the 76ers on Sunday and has fallen to fifth in the East. The Celtics host Orlando and Toronto this week before starting a five-game trip out west with a game at Phoenix on Saturday.
WOLVES OFFENSE: Minnesota may have the third-worst record in the West, but they have quietly had one of the league's best offenses over the last 25 games. Interim coach Sam Mitchell has emphasized an up-tempo style, and the new starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng is scoring more than 116 points per 100 possessions.
RUSSELL'S RUN: Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell has had a challenging first season under hard-nosed coach Byron Scott, but he opened March with a 39-point game and was looking to try to snap Towns' run of four straight Western Conference rookie of the month awards. He's shot just 27 percent in the last three games, the typical ups and downs for a 20-year-old point guard.
CLIPPERS AT WARRIORS: One of the league's most spirited rivalries is renewed on Wednesday when Golden State returns home from a three-game road trip to host the Clippers.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Bismack Biyombo, Raptors: 16 points, 25 rebounds, 42 minutes in a double-overtime win over the Pacers on Thursday. Biyombo was one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2011 draft. He went seventh overall and spent his first four years in Charlotte, struggling to gain a foot hold in the league. He landed in Toronto this season, and Casey has helped him realize his potential as a defensive beast while he fills in for the injured Valanciunas.