Gameday: Cavaliers at Raptors, Dec. 5

Title: Gameday: Cavaliers at Raptors, Dec. 5
Date: December 5, 2014
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This Raptors pre-game broke down the Raptors’ Dec. 5 contest against the Cavaliers.

The Toronto Raptors will look to take a second game from the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, tipping off at 7:30 on TSN from the Air Canada Centre.

It shouldn’t need refreshing, but on Nov. 22 when the team’s last played, the Raptors flipped a 24-6 deficit at The Q in Cleveland, ultimately turning a road game into a home game. The start was shaky, but the Raptors showed they can hang and, in particular, can score against what’s still a developing Cavaliers defense.

That game caught Cleveland at the end of a dry spell, marking their fourth consecutive loss and dropping them to 5-7. Since then, they’ve found their groove, winning five in a row. The last two wins were somewhat shaky and point to the Cavs not having all of the kinks ironed out yet, but this team’s ceiling has once again been established, and it’s appreciably higher than that of the Raptors (sorry). Without DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors could be in tough for a repeat.

That’s not to say it can’t happen, and the Raptors are even four-point favorites. It’s just not going to be easy, which you probably didn’t need this pre-game to tell you. It’s LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and more, of course it wasn’t going to be easy.

DeRozan’s absence looms not just because of his ability to score, stretch a defense (not with shooting necessarily but with his ability off the ball – more on this another time), but also because of his defense. DeRozan may only be an average or slightly above-average defender overall, but he fits Dwane Casey’s scheme well and very rarely makes mistakes. In a system that’s predicated on quick rotations, early help, and sometimes chaotic recovery, attention, IQ, and effort go a long way. In the last meeting, DeRozan guarded James for some stretches, too, doing about as well as could be hoped.

Personally, I’d be starting James Johnson for this one and tasking him with checking LeBron early. I understand the preference to have a set starting five, but sometimes a match-up is just so striking that you need to adjust. This is one of those cases, as I’m not sure you want to open the game with Terrence Ross as the only player on the floor capable of guarding James. If I’m David Blatt and I see that, I’m immediately putting Ross in pick-and-rolls, specifically guard-James pick-and-rolls, looking to flip James onto one of four mismatches (maybe three, depending on how you picture Amir Johnson hanging in for more than a play or two).

Greivis Vasquez has been solid and the starting lineup at present leaves one of James or Love to cover Ross or a guard, which is an exploitable edge, but James is the best player in the world and kind of gets to dictate the match-ups.

Another area the Raptors may be able to make headway is inside. Love, Anderson Varejao, and Tristan Thompson are all fine players, of course, but the team lacks rim protection and is just average rebounding, despite Love’s prodigious numbers in that area. Short of keeping opponents off the 3-point line (a little better than average) and off the free throw line, the Cavs aren’t a particularly special defensive team. The free throw line is an issue considering how much of the Raptors’ offense comes from the stripe, and it will put a little extra pressure on shot-makers to knock down their open looks earlier in the clock, since Cleveland isn’t going to bail out with fouls much.

On the offensive end, Cleveland is just deadly because of talent. Blatt has maybe simplified things since early-season communication issues posed a problem, and the Cavs are still relying on talent and an ability to get to the line (they’re just behind Toronto there). That’s an easy strategy with the talent they have on hand, but don’t mistake “good players playing well” for a lack of creativity. Blatt is smart and creative, the team has a lot of willing and able passers (they also have Dion Waiters), and any pick-and-roll involving James or Love is deadly. The Raptors have been hurt by shooting bigs who can pop off of screens and above the 3-point line, a move that runs contrary to the Raptors’ defensive principles, and both Love and James can do that effectively, plus they can make the next pass or put the ball on the floor.

And so there’s good news and bad news here. The Cavs are playing much better but still not perfect. DeRozan is out but the team has found a footing without him. There are mismatches but they exist both ways. It seems a daunting task but the Raptors are still favorites. Your boy will be in the house but beers are $15. And so on.

The Raptors currently rank as the league’s No. 2 offense and No. 15 defense, while the Cavs are No. 6 and No. 16, but it’s still too early to evaluate based on full-season metrics when things change so quickly this early (it’s worth noting that team performance starts to stabilize around 20 games though, so we’re nearly at a sample worth paying attention to). Anyway, what you think of this came will depend in large part whether you think Ross and Johnson are up to the LeBron task, and if the cracks Cleveland showed the past two games manifest on the second night of a back-to-back. Let’s be optimists. It’s Friday.

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