Whether the Toronto Raptors are in a better place than the Cleveland Cavaliers is not even a subject for debate.
Toronto comes to Cleveland tonight for a game at Quicken Loans Arena boasting the best record in the Eastern Conference, 53-18, and has won nine of its last 10 and 19 of its last 21. The Raptors have the third-highest scoring offense and third-rated defense in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Cleveland is 11.5 games back of Toronto, standing 41-29, and though it has won three of its last four, is only 5-5 in its last 10. The Cavaliers have won nine of the last 10 against Toronto in Cleveland.
A victory by the Raptors tonight would eliminate the Cavaliers from earning the top seed in the East. A year ago, Cleveland entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed behind Boston, yet reached the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season, sweeping Toronto in the second round in the process. Two years ago, the Cavaliers beat the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2.
“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 the majority of the year,” LeBron James of the Cavaliers said. “They know what they want to accomplish, they know who they are at this point in the season and obviously, we’re trying to figure that out.”
What is known, though, is that James will answer the bell for the Cavaliers, as he has in all 70 games this season the only Cleveland player to do so. He has never played in all 82 games in his first 14 NBA seasons.
“What is known is that I’ll be available, so we got a chance,” James said at shootaround Wednesday morning at the ream’s facility in Independence regarding their prospects come playoff time.
While coach Tyronn Lue is away from the team to address some health issues (Larry Drew will serve as acting coach) and Kyle Korver will not play tonight after the death of his younger brother, Kirk, on Tuesday, the Cavaliers are slowly getting healthy.
Five-time All-Star Kevin Love returned from a 21-game absence because of a broken left hand Monday night in a win over Milwaukee. Tristan Thompson (right ankle) and Rodney Hood (lower back) have ben upgraded to questionable for tonight’s game, while Larry Nance Jr. (right hamstring) and Cedi Osman (left) hip are both out.
All of which means the Cavaliers, who trail second-place Boston by 6.5 games in the East and lead Indiana by only a half-game with a dozen regular-season games to go, are in uncharted waters for them.
“This year is a totally difference challenge for us,” James said.
Maybe so, but the fact remains, until a team proves it, all roads through the East lead through LeBron and the Cavaliers, who have reached three consecutive NBA Finals, winning the title in 2016.
James, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, led both teams Monday night in points, rebounds (12), and assists (10) for the 51st time — passing the late Wilt Chamberlain as the all-time leader in such games. He’s averaging a triple-double over the last 18 games.
Despite all of the narratives mentioned here and otherwise, the sharps on Las Vegas are in agreement.
Cleveland is a two-point favorite tonight.