TORONTO (AP) — The Toronto Raptors seem to have everything lined up in their favor heading into their postseason matchup against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They’re rested. The Raptors feel they are ready. They have home-court advantage.
But they’ve been confident before heading into a playoff showdown with James and have come up short — twice.
“Gotta go through the best to get to that trophy,” All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan said. “Every step of the way we’re going to come across somebody.”
The Raptors open their second-round playoff series at home to James and the Cavs on Tuesday night. Cleveland has eliminated Toronto in two straight postseasons, including the 2016 conference finals and a second-round sweep last year.
This time, however, Toronto is the top-seeded team in the East after a team-record 59-win season. The Raptors have been off since a Game 6 victory over Washington last Friday night finished their first-round series, while James and the Cavs were pushed to the limit in grinding out a Game 7 win over Indiana on Sunday.
That’s a stark contrast to 2016, when Cleveland had eight days of rest before facing a Toronto team that had played consecutive seven-game series. Or last year, when the Cavs got a week off while waiting for Toronto to complete a six-game victory over Milwaukee in the opening round.
“They’re coming off a series where they were banging and bumping for seven games,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think our energy has been great. I think the days off will definitely have helped us a little bit.”
James, meanwhile, has shouldered a heavy load for the Cavs, scoring 40 or more three times in the first round. He played 43 minutes in Game 7, and was briefly forced off the court in the second half because of leg cramps.
Nevertheless, Raptors coach Dwane Casey expects James to be fully fresh once tip-off time arrives Tuesday.
“I don’t believe he’s tired,” Casey said. “He’s on a mission. I’m not saying he’s a lying man, but I don’t think he’s tired.”
These Cavs don’t have All-Star guard Kyrie Irving anymore, either, while Toronto has flourished with a new emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting.
“We have a great opportunity ahead of us to show how good of a team we’ve been,” Lowry said. “We’re ready.”
DeRozan agreed, saying there’s “no question” the Raptors are better equipped to face Cleveland than in years past.
“I feel it,” DeRozan said. “We all have that confidence in ourselves.”
Some other things to watch in the series between the Cavaliers and the Raptors:
Lowry and DeRozan started resting before their first-round series with the Wizards was even over. Lowry played 31 minutes in the clincher, and DeRozan 33, as Toronto’s deep bench took over in the fourth quarter. The reserve unit was bolstered by the return of guard Fred VanVleet, who had missed all but three minutes of the first five games because of a sore right shoulder. Pascal Siakam led Toronto’s bench with 11 points in Game 6 as the Raptors outscored Washington 29-14 in the fourth.
“That’s the type of intensity that we need from every quarter, every time we step on the floor,” Siakam said. “That’s what we want, just being able to wear down our opponent and playing physical.”
HOME SWEET HOME
The Raptors matched Houston with an NBA-leading 34-7 home record during the regular season and won all three home games against Washington in the first round. Toronto’s two wins against Cleveland in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals came north of the border, and its only win in three meetings with the Cavs this season happened at home, a 133-99 win on Jan. 11.
“They’re a very tough team that plays well at home,” Cavaliers forward Kevin Love said. “They’re another team, like Indiana, that can play a number of different ways. They have bigs that are somewhat unorthodox and can play inside or outside, pick and pop. They have a lot of guards, especially those two guys out front in Lowry and DeRozan, that are going to be very tough to stop.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue used four different starting lineups against the Pacers, but the one he went to in Game 7 might stick for a while. Lue started Kyle Korver alongside James, Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith — the four remaining players from Cleveland’s 2016 championship team. The move was as savvy as it was desperate, but it worked. Now Lue, who has used 34 starting lineups this season, has something to fall back on if things don’t go as planned against the Raptors.
“We’ve been in situations before,” James said of the Game 7 starters. “We’ve played big games before so that’s a comfort starting the game.”
Back spasms sidelined Cavs guard George Hill for three games against Indiana, but he returned in Game 7 and sparked Cleveland. Hill attacked the rim and finished with 11 points — nine on free throws — and had six rebounds and three assists while playing the final 19 minutes. He gives the Cavs not only another ball handler to take pressure off James, but a dependable veteran who has been through playoff battles with San Antonio and Indiana. The 31-year-old has played in 87 postseason games, starting 75.
“George is a really good player,” Lowry said. “He’s been doing this a long time. Having a healthy Hill helps them.”
Hill had one of his best games with Cleveland against the Raptors on March 21, scoring 22 points.