Raptors ride seven-game win streak into Cleveland
Nearly seven months ago, the Toronto Raptors saw the best season in team history come to a crashing halt when the Cleveland Cavaliers completed a four-game sweep of Toronto in the second round of the playoffs.
Losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs for the third straight season resulted in two massive changes, the firing of coach Dwane Casey four days after the playoff loss and the trade of DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs on July 18.
On Saturday the Raptors visit Cleveland, the site where Casey and DeRozan participated in their last games for the team, and the state of both teams is starkly different.
The Raptors replaced Casey by elevating Nick Nurse from his assistant coaching role and sent DeRozan to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Under Nurse, the Raptors are on pace to exceed the team-record 59 wins from last season. They are a league-best 19-4 and enter on a seven-game winning streak after a thrilling 131-128 home win over the Golden State Warriors in a nationally televised game on Thursday in which they withstood a 51-point performance by Kevin Durant.
"I think that when a team gets kind of into overtime like that on some tough shots or whatever, it's a lot of times that team will feel sorry for themselves and not come out and play. We didn't, we went and scored four on them and that's what I told them in the locker room, that I was proud of them for that, to take the emotional punch there in the gut, and take a few deep breaths there at the end of the game and go back out there and play the overtime the way they did."
Leonard scored a season-high 37 points on 14-of-24 shooting. He is averaging 25 points and Thursday was his fifth 30-point game of the season.
"We were able to make shots, we were able to get some stops in overtime," Leonard said. "It's a building block for us, and I'm happy we got the win."
Pascal Siakam added a career-high 26 and his presence on both ends is helping the Raptors get off to their best start in team history. Last year he averaged 7.3 points in 20.7 minutes and now those figures are up to 14.8 in 29.7 minutes.
"I think his confidence just grows by the day, by the game," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said of Siakam. "He's an ultra-talented player and he's going to be a really good player (for) a long time in this league."
The distance between Toronto's home court to Cleveland's homecourt is nearly 300 miles, and the teams are separated by a significant distance in the standings, making it unlikely the teams will not meet in the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Last season, James scored 29 points to help the Cavaliers complete the sweep and get to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Since that series ended, all of Cleveland's starting lineup from that night is either not on the team or injured.
James went to the Los Angeles Lakers, Kevin Love is recovering from left foot surgery, George Hill is recovering from a left shoulder injury, J.R. Smith is not with the team as the Cavs try to trade him and Kyle Korver was traded to the Utah Jazz on Thursday.
Of the Cavaliers who appeared in Game 4 against Toronto, only Cedi Osman, Jordan Clarkson, Tristan Thompson, and Larry Nance Jr. remain on the team.
As a result of James leaving and Love's injury, the Cavaliers are off to a 4-17 start. They began the season with six straight losses, leading to Tyronn Lue getting fired, and are 4-11 under Larry Drew.
The Cavs absorbed their latest loss when they allowed 53.3 percent shooting and 39 third-quarter points in a 128-95 loss at Boston.
"I thought they really out-dealt us." Drew said. "We had moments in the first half where I thought we played well, but there were just some plays where we just got out-toughed, and that was the most disheartening thing about this game. They're a good team, but hopefully we can learn from this type of a game because we have another one tomorrow night against a team that is very, very similar."
It was the fourth time Cleveland allowed at least 120 points and eighth time it allowed at least 50 percent shooting.
"They came out, made shots, got to the rim -- really did what they wanted to do with no resistance," Thompson said. "At the end of the day, it's on the starters. You've got to be ready to go, me included."
Alec Burks scored 15 points in his debut for Cleveland after being acquired from Utah for Korver.
The teams opened the season against each other on Oct. 17 when Lowry scored 27 points and Leonard had 24 points and 12 rebounds in a 116-104 win at Toronto.
Updated December 1, 2018