Cavs Game More Important than Raps Letting on

TORONTO - Kyle Lowry was the first Raptors player to address the media after his team's first formal practice in their shiny, new training facility on Thursday and - with their most anticipated game of season on deck - he knew exactly what we were there for.

"Cleveland Cavaliers, what else y'all want?," joked an especially chipper Lowry, hoping to speed up the proceedings by preemptively tackling the topic of the day. "Yes, this is a measuring stick for us, yeah, what else y'all want? LeBron James, what else? Yeah, it's LeBron. What else? What else?"

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

"I had an egg white, sunny-side up, four of 'em; had some potatoes with some spinach."

What do you think of the match-up with Cleveland?

"It's a measuring stick," he answered with a laugh, before putting his game face on and dismissing the popular narrative. "Nah, man. Honestly, for us it's just another game. For us, I think it's just a game to just get better. I think the media hypes it up to be, 'Oh, that's a measuring stick'... No, it's just another game for us."

Apart from the fact that egg whites cannot be prepared sunny-side up, he's got a point: Friday's contest against the first-place Cavaliers, who sit three games ahead of Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings, will be hyped to the moon.

Yes, some will call it a measuring stick game, but isn't it?

"I don't even think it's a measuring stick," Toronto's All-Star point guard continued. "The reason I'm saying it like that is because it's kind of annoying. Because everybody says, 'Oh it's...', no, it's not. It's another game for us to get better, it's another game for us to go out and try to win. That's what we have to do."

Lowry isn't alone. As expected, the Raptors are downplaying this as "just another game". What else are they supposed to say? But even if they're not admitting it publicly, they know it's a whole lot more than that.

For starters, it'll be the toughest test they've faced in a while. The Cavaliers come to town as the East's best team, a tier above everyone else. They're the bar. The Raptors last saw them in early January, a 122-100 loss - the most points they've given up and their most lopsided defeat of the season. It wasn't exactly a fair fight - Toronto was in Cleveland on the second night of a back-to-back after a disappointing and physically taxing loss to the Bulls at home but, even with that in mind, it was an unmitigated disaster.

Since then, they've won 17 of their 20 games - the first time they've accomplished that feat in franchise history. Only Golden State (19-3) and San Antonio (18-3) have better records over that span. However, they've faced just six winning teams and only one of them - the Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers - even come close to the calibre of Cleveland.

In that sense, Friday's game probably means more to us than it does to the Raptors themselves. How good are they? How good can they be? We won't know until the playoffs start, not for sure, but a match-up like this should give us a pretty good indication of where they're at and how they stack up against the heavyweights at this point in the season.

"The game should be a challenge for us, but it's not going to determine our season," Dwane Casey insisted. "It's one game. You can't look at one game, win or lose, and say that's going to determine our season. Either way, it's not going to determine how much we need to continue to improve, continue to be hungry, continue to fight and stay focused. It should be fun. It's a challenge, but it's not going to be something that defines our season, who we are."

As Casey notes, judgment day is at least a month-and-a-half away and, if these teams do happen to meet in the playoffs, both figure to look a lot different by then. The Cavs just added stretch-four Channing Frye in a trade with Orlando and could have more veteran help on the way. Joe Johnson, recently bought out by Brooklyn, will clear waivers on Saturday and, although he'll have several suitors (including the Raptors according to reports), Cleveland is believed to be his likely destination. Meanwhile, Toronto is still missing the injured DeMarre Carroll, who was brought in with match-ups like this in mind. Carroll held LeBron James to 24 points on 6-of-16 shooting earlier this season and - without him - it's hard to read too much into Friday's showdown. 

League-wide, many believe Toronto is the lone team that can challenge Cleveland for top spot in the conference and, perhaps, even give them a run in the Eastern Conference Final. Locally however, people are a bit more skeptical, which is perfectly understandable given how little they've done with so much regular season success over the past couple years. Even internally, there's been a sense that nothing matters until they prove their worth in the playoffs. 

"I know outside looking in, that's probably what everybody's hoping for or thinks that we're hoping for," said James Johnson, who will draw the James assignment with Carroll sidelined. "But really, we have our mind set on bigger and better things. People expect us to be top one or two and we expect it for ourselves, but now we have to look past that because it didn't get us nowhere the last two years."

"We can't worry about measuring sticks because we still haven't got out of the first round of the playoffs," Lowry added. "We thought we were this and that, but we've still got to take our time and get better, one game at a time."

But, as we know, last season's flameout can be traced back long before their first-round sweep. Most will point to their cratering defence or one-dimensional offence, which became more predictable as the year went on, but the biggest red flag may have been their record against playoff-calibre competition - they lost 10 of their last 11 games versus winning teams.

They've been a lot better in that regard this year, with wins over almost all of the league's elite, including the Cavs, who they defeated at home on Nov. 25, albeit without Kyrie Irving in Cleveland's lineup and without Jonas Valanciunas in theirs. The only top-12 NBA team they haven't beaten is Golden State, though both of their losses to the Warriors were by five points or fewer. Overall, they're 16-10 against teams at or over .500, the exact same record as Cleveland's (again, only Golden State and San Antonio are better). 

How they fare in those match-ups leading up to the post-season should be telling. As the year goes on and the playoffs get closer, games will begin to get more and more important but, as far as late-February contests go, it probably doesn't get much bigger than this.

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