TORONTO – For two consecutive years, the Toronto Raptors have run into a roadblock in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
On the heels of their most successful regular season in franchise history, the Raptors set their sights on a long post-season run that they hope takes them all the way to the final.
They’ll have to go through Cleveland once again to get there. DeMar DeRozan says bring on the Cavaliers.
“Gotta go through the best to get to that trophy, every step of the way we’re going to come across somebody. So why not the guy that’s been in the finals the last X amount of years,” DeRozan said. “Why we don’t want to be the team that knock that team off? That’s what it’s all about.
“As a competitor you want to be in the moments, you want to thrive in the moments, and we have the opportunity again to be able to do that.”
Two days after dispatching the Washington Wizards in six games in the opening round of the playoffs, the Raptors watched the Cavaliers edge the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 on Sunday, then held practice at Biosteel Centre to prepare for Cleveland.
There’s been plenty of talk about the Cavs being Toronto’s bugaboo – they eliminated the Raptors the past two seasons with not much trouble.
But Raptors coach Dwane Casey believes his team is better built to face the Cavs, or any other NBA team, this season.
“We feel like we are,” Casey said. “We feel very confident with our second unit, playing them, going against whoever, Whether it’s Cleveland, Indiana, whoever it is. I thought it eventually showed the other night.
“You’ve got to have that type of confidence to go against anybody – not just Cleveland, not just Boston, not just Philadelphia. You’ve got to have supreme confidence in yourself, what you do, in your teammates at this time of year.”
After last year’s sweep by Cleveland in the second round, the Raptors reworked their style of play with a focus on better ball-sharing, and the development of the bench. The second unit was among the league’s best in the regular season, and closed out Friday’s Game 6 victory in Washington.
“I just think that this time of year, we have a really good team, and we’re really balanced, and we have a good chance to keep competing and advancing,” said backup guard Fred VanVleet. “It’s a new year. Those past experiences are in the past, and it’s a new year, a new team, feels different, looks different, and we’re going out there to make the outcome different.”
VanVleet was a key piece of Friday’s win, returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all but three minutes of the series’ first five games.
VanVleet felt the effects after the game.
“Sore. Really sore. Really sore,” VanVleet said. “It’s just kinda one of those things, but a lot of discomfort, like I said, it’s part of the journey, nothing serious, there’s no long-term implications. But it’s just one of those things that’s gonna bother me for a little bit. A lot better today. Did some more treatment, get ready for Tuesday.”
There are a couple of other obvious differences in this meeting with Cleveland than past years. The Raptors have homecourt advantage for the first time, and have lost just seven games at the Air Canada Centre this season.
“The way we’ve been playing at home has definitely been a crutch we’ve been leaning on to understand how high our confidence could be,” DeRozan said. “The energy that we feed off, it’s big. All year, you fight to be No. 1 for that homecourt advantage, and you kind of use that to your advantage.
“For us to have Games 1 and 2 at our place is something we can definitely run with, and understand that we’ve been great all year. Why’s it need to stop now?”
The Raptors also have the benefit of two more days of rest than Cleveland, plus a strong bench that afforded Lowry and DeRozan some much-needed rest while James logged heavy minutes in the Cavaliers’ seven-game series. He played 43 minutes despite battling leg cramps in Sunday’s 105-101 win, and scored 45 points.
Toronto had played a lung-busting 14 games in 2016 before they finally met the Cavs, who’d had eight days between series to rest and rehabilitate. Last season, the Cavaliers had a week off before facing the weary Raptors.
“Rest is definitely always beneficial,” DeRozan said. “Usually we always been on the back end of it, had a day to prepare to get ready for them. They’re coming off a hard-fought series, but still in all, we gotta go out there and be prepared, understand what we got to do, how great we feel when we play at home, and stick to what we know.”
Game 2 is Thursday at the Air Canada Centre, then the series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday and 4 on Monday, May 7.