Cavaliers vs. Raptors Game Preview: Eastern Conference Heavyweights

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(Toronto, ONT) – In the buildup to the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were virtually the odds-on favorite to win the Eastern Conference and reach the NBA Finals. According to many experts, only the Chicago Bulls stood in their way.

However, after five weeks, it’s the Toronto Raptors who hold the best mark in the conference, having won 15 of their 19 games. Only one of those victories sticks in the minds of the Cavaliers: the embarrassing 110-93 loss at Quicken Loans Arena on November 22, where Cleveland started out holding a 24-6 lead before dropping their fourth game in six days.

Since then, the Cavs have won five in a row, including last night’s 90-87 thriller over the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Now, for the second consecutive night, the Cavaliers get a chance at revenge when they travel to Toronto to face the Raptors in a 7:30 pm E/T clash.

Toronto is back home, where they’re 9-2 on the year, after a three-game road swing out West. That stretch began with an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, but the team bounced back with wins over the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. Kyle Lowry was the main source of offense against the Jazz, pouring in 39 in the 123-104 win.

The Raptors lead the conference and are second in the league in scoring, averaging just under 110 points per game. For their sake however, Toronto might want to try focusing more on defense, since last night’s game for Cleveland was the first time the Cavs won a game scoring less than 100 points.

In that earlier win over the Cavaliers, three Raptors did most of the damage. The trio of Lowry, Lou Williams and DeMar DeRozan combined for 79 of the 110 points, with Williams scoring 36, including hitting all 15 of his free throws.

For the season, those three pace the Toronto offense, but are averaging 54 points per contest in contrast to their previous effort against Cleveland. One key absence tonight will be DeRozan, who is out with a groin tear.

On the boards, the Cavaliers will want to neutralize Raptor center Jonas Valanciunas, who leads the team in rebounding with 8.4 per game, including six double-digit efforts.

The Cavs’ Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving appear to be rounding into form, although James mentioned after last night’s game that he’s been suffering from a sore elbow for a while, and that it flared up during the game. James struggled from the field for much of the contest, connecting on seven of his 17 attempts for 19 points, while dishing out a season-high 12 assists.

However, two of James’ baskets came in the clutch: a three-pointer with 3:54 left to give the Cavaliers the lead for good at 86-85, followed 28 seconds later by a dunk off an Irving steal.

James commented about his performance saying, “I felt out of rhythm. I feel like I didn’t play a great game, and to be able to make an impact when you’re not in rhythm is always great.”

Love cooled off from a scoring standpoint last night, but still managed to rack up his ninth double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds. In the three previous games, Love had averaged 25 points per contest.

Irving has been even hotter, averaging just under 30 points per contest in the past three games. He’s coming off a season-high 37 against the Knicks last night.

Explaining his output on Thursday night, Irving said, “It was just about staying focused and doing whatever it took to win the game.”

Mike Miller will be on the sidelines tonight after being diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms following a blow to the head from New York’s Amar’e Stoudemire last night. Miller had jump-started the sluggish Cavaliers on Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks with a pair of three-pointers and a key block.

Miller’s absence will weaken a bench that was already a problem. In just the past two games, the team’s reserves have been outscored 67-22, a continuance of what’s been a season-long problem.

With regard to the Raptor bench, the Cavaliers need to keep an eye on Patrick Patterson, who’s scored in double figures in each of the last four games.

Notes: Throughout the game, the Raptors will be honoring the legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his death. The team will wear special shooting shirts, with the team also showing videos of Mandela’s life throughout the game.

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Brad Sullivan is a lead writer for Cavaliers Nation. He has spent much of life in the Cleveland, Ohio area, and has remained a Cavalier fan from their 1970 beginnings through the return of LeBron James. While that fandom was sorely tested during the Reign of Error known simply by one word, Stepien, that overall historical perspective will be part of his writing for Cavaliers Nation in the months ahead.