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Cavaliers-Raptors preview: Toronto won't be intimidated vs. Cleveland

By The Sports Xchange
Cavaliers-Raptors preview: Toronto won't be intimidated vs. Cleveland
Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry. UPI/John Angelillo | License Photo

The Toronto Raptors spent most of the season chasing the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Starting Tuesday night, the Raptors will take the first step proving they are the best in the East. All they have to do in their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals is derail the Cavaliers' high-speed train that has steamrolled its opponents this postseason.

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The conductor of that locomotive, of course, is LeBron James.

James and company have yet to taste defeat this postseason, as they dispatched the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in consecutive 4-0 series.

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The Cavaliers, who are making their second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference finals, are the ninth team in NBA postseason history to start 8-0, and they are the first team to do so since the 2012 San Antonio Spurs.

However, the Raptors, led by an All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, pose a serious threat -- at least that is what James is saying.

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James said Lowry is one of the top four point guards in the league. He also praised DeRozan.

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"They're two All-Stars for a reason," James said Sunday. "And that's the reason that they're in the Eastern Conference finals, because they're two All-Stars. They're All-Stars for a reason. They wouldn't be in this position without them."

In the regular season, DeRozan led the Raptors at 23.5 points per game; Lowry tallied 21.2 points per game.

However, against the Miami Heat, whom the Raptors dispatched in seven games to get to this point, DeRozan and Lowry struggled -- and that is being polite.

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Together they shot a horrid 59-of-162 (36.4 percent), yet Toronto still beat Miami.

The slump didn't shake the Raptors' confidence. Toronto won two of three games against the Cavaliers during the regular season, beating Cleveland by four points on Nov. 25 and by two points on Feb. 26 in a game in which Lowry scored 45 points. Both of those contests were in Toronto.

The Cavaliers beat the Raptors by 22 points on Jan. 4 in Cleveland.

Toronto coach Dwane Casey knows the current bunch of Cavs is a lot different than the version his team saw in the regular season.

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"In my opinion, (the Cavaliers are) probably the best team in the league right now as far as playing basketball, playing together, playing both ends of the floor and shooting the 3-ball," Casey said during a conference call Monday. "In my heart, I feel like LeBron James is the best player in the NBA right now. They didn't ask me for my vote, so I didn't give it to them."

James' postseason scoring is down, and for only the second time in his career, he is not leading his team in scoring. His average of 23.5 points per game trails Kyrie Irving's 24.4 clip.

Since Tyronn Lue took over as the head coach, the Cavaliers have been moving the ball around more and pressing the action much more than under previous coach David Blatt. Ball movement has created more open shots, and the Cavs are knocking down their 3-point attempts at a record rate.

The Cavaliers have made at least 12 3-pointers in an NBA playoff-record eight consecutive games. They also have connected on at least 20 3-pointers on three occasions this postseason, including an NBA-record 25 in Game 2 of their last series against Atlanta on May 4.

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Individually, the Cavs have several players shooting above 40 percent from long distance. Reserve Channing Frye (57.1 percent, 12-for-21) leads the posse of long-distance gunners. Irving (53.8 percent, 28-for-52) isn't too far behind. Richard Jefferson (53.3 percent, 8-for-15), J.R. Smith (50.8 percent, 31-for-61), Iman Shumpert (46.2 percent, 6-for-13) and Kevin Love (44.4 percent, 28-for-63) round out the list.

Missing from the group is James. Still, his impact is felt in almost every other facet. He is averaging 7.3 assists and 8.8 rebounds per game this postseason.

The task of slowing down James falls on a familiar foe -- Toronto forward DeMarre Carroll.

Carroll was with the Hawks last season when the Cavs also swept the Hawks out of the playoffs. Carroll won't be intimidated, but he has a healthy respect for "The King."

"It's great, just to be able to get the opportunity again," Carroll said Sunday. "These moments, these times don't come often. So I feel like, just to be able to get out there and play against, I feel like he's the best player in the world, it's a great opportunity."

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While the Cavs' offense is hitting on all cylinders, it is Cleveland's defense that rescued the team in tight games this postseason.

Cleveland has held the Pistons and Hawks under 100 points in six of the eight playoff games.

Smith gets kudos for his offense -- 12.3 points, 3.8 rebounds this postseason -- but it was his defense on Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver that drew raves.

Toronto believes it has the right mix to break down the Cavs' defense, and the Raptors' offense starts and ends with Lowry and DeRozan.

While DeRozan leads the Raptors this postseason at 20.3 points per game, it was Lowry who provided the spark against the Heat.

Lowry broke out of dreadful shooting slump just in time, setting up a showdown with their Lake Erie neighbors to the south.

The Raptors will be without starting center Jonas Valanciunas for Game 1 and possibly for Game 2 on Thursday night. Valanciunas sustained a sprained ankle in Game 3 against the Heat.

"He's still limping around, but getting therapy 24/7, so we will see," Casey said Monday.

Bismack Biyombo will start in place of Valanciunas. Biyombo gave the Cavs fits during the regular season and matches up evenly with Cleveland starting center, Tristan Thompson, a native of Canada.

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"He is who he is and I am who I am, and we're just going to go out there and have fun," Biyombo told the Toronto Sun.

Toronto has dropped both Game 1s of the playoffs this year, so while losing on Tuesday won't be a death knell, the Raptors know they will have to steal one win in Cleveland.

And with more than a week off, the Cavs might come out rusty providing, the upstart Raptors the opportunity they need.

But then again, Cleveland has yet to lose any game this postseason.

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