The two Eastern Conference favorites will meet Wednesday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Toronto Raptors. It’s a game that holds plenty of significance, even if there is seemingly nothing on the line.
In terms of seeding for a potential playoff series between Cleveland and Toronto, Wednesday’s contest means very little. The Raptors are 11.5 games ahead of the Cavaliers with 11 games left on the regular-season schedule, and they are five games ahead of the Boston Celtics for the East’s best record.
Toronto blew out Cleveland 133-99 when the teams had their only meeting this season at Air Canada Centre on Jan. 11. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them have another easy win in Wednesday’s rematch.
“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said via Cleveland.com. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”
By just about every measurable statistic, Toronto is the better team. They are fourth in both offensive and defensive efficiency, making them the only NBA team that ranks in the top five in both categories. The Raptors shoot a higher percentage from the field, grab more rebounds and dish out more assists than the Cavaliers. Toronto has a more balanced starting lineup and a more effective bench.
DeMar DeRozan missed Tuesday’s win over the Orlando Magic with a left thigh contusion, and Fred VanVleet is questionable with a right hand contusion. It’s unknown if either player will suit up at Quicken Loans Arena.
Several key Cavaliers are dealing with injuries, even after Kevin Love returned in Monday’s 124-117 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. The All-Star played his first game since missing a month and a half with a broken left hand, scoring 18 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Cavs status update for tonight: Tristan Thompson (ankle) is questionable; Rodney Hood (back) is questionable; Cedi Osman (hip) is out; Larry Nance Jr. (hamstring) is out. Kyle Korver is not with the team after the death of his younger brother, Kirk.
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) March 21, 2018
Kyle Lowry made the All-Star team for the fourth straight year, and DeRozan is having the best season of his career. If James Harden wasn’t putting up historic offensive numbers, the Raptors’ shooting guard would be a legitimate MVP candidate.
The same, of course, can be said for LeBron James, who remains the best player in the world. He’s somehow putting up some of his career-best numbers, averaging a triple-double over his last 19 games.
James is the sole reason why Cleveland might have the best shot at winning the East and returning to the NBA Finals for yet another matchup with the Golden State Warriors. A stand out performance in a win against a healthy Toronto team could go a long way in proving that the Cavs are still the team to beat.
That’s essentially what James did a year ago when Cleveland and Boston met late in the regular season.
With the Cavaliers and Celtics fighting for the No.1 seed in the conference, James put up 36 points on 22 shots with 10 rebounds and six assists in a 114-91 rout at TD Garden. It didn’t matter that Cleveland lost their final four regular-season games and forfeited home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was clear that James wouldn’t be defeated by Boston in the playoffs, and Cleveland cruised past the Celtics in five games.
With 12 more wins than Cleveland, Toronto is favored to win the East at some online sportsbooks. That would’ve seemed like a near impossibility at the start of the season, given James’ seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and the Raptors’ recent postseason failures.
Having a strong regular season won’t mean anything if the Raptors can’t get the job done in the playoffs.
After Cleveland and Toronto finished the 2016-2017 season with the exact same 51-31 record, the Cavaliers swept the Raptors in the second round. Kyrie Irving shot less than 38 percent from the field, and Kevin Love only averaged 12 points per game. None of it mattered because the Cavs were led by No.23.
“If we had LeBron on our team, too, we woulda won,” DeRozan told a reporter after Game 4 when asked about the sweep. “We could say that all day, time, everything, but we didn’t. It happened. We got swept. It’s gonna be one of them long summers for us.”
If James and the Cavs can take care of DeRozan and the Raptors, it might be a sign that Toronto is headed for another long summer.