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Hobbled Raps face huge task as NBA titans descend on the ACC

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Thursday, January 11, 2018 – Page B11

Ordinarily, this would be a great test for the Toronto Raptors, an opportunity to gauge their new-found offensive philosophies against the best the NBA has to offer, in consecutive outings.

First up is LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers - the Raptors' nemesis, having dumped them out of the postseason the past two years.

They play Toronto at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night.

Next up, on Saturday, also at the ACC, will be the Golden State Warriors, whose run-and-gun three-point mentality has revolutionized the game and put them in the NBA Finals the past three years - each time against Cleveland.

Featuring a starting five that is the envy of the league, anchored by artistic point guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors won the title in 2015, and again last year, with the Cavaliers prevailing in 2016.

And with the NBA's best winning percentage - a 33-8 record heading into Wednesday night's game against the L.A. Clippers - the Warriors are not showing any signs of slowing down.

With the Raptors off to one of their best-ever starts, what better way to test their prowess than against two of the NBA's powerhouses in consecutive games?

Problem is, the Raptors are not expected to send their best unit onto the floor, so using the upcoming games as a litmus test for their own progress will be difficult.

All-star point guard Kyle Lowry is not expected to play after suffering a bruised tailbone in a nasty fall during Monday's game against Brooklyn.

Lowry missed his first game on Tuesday, when the Raptors were sluggish during a 90-89 setback against the Miami Heat, just the second time in 16 games this season Toronto has been defeated at home. It is not known how long Lowry will be out.

The Raptors also learned on Wednesday night that they will be without starting forward Serge Ibaka for the Cleveland game. The league announced that both he and Heat forward James Johnson have been suspended for one game without pay after they exchanged punches and were thrown out in the third quarter of Tuesday's contest.

The NBA also fined the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan $25,000 (U.S.) and the Heat's Goran Dragic $10,000 for an altercation at the end of the game, during which DeRozan attempted to forcefully shove Dragic with an open hand.

Depleted lineup or not, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said he likes what he has seen this year from the Raptors, who have embraced the three ball like never before in reaching a record of 28-11.

That is good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference, 21/2-games better than the third-place Cavaliers (26-14), which adds even greater emphasis to Thursday's game, the first of three regular-season tilts between the two clubs.

The Raptors come into the game as the NBA's third-highest-scoring team, averaging 111 points an outing. Of that average, 30 per cent come from three-point shots. That's a marked increase from the 24.8 per cent of overall scoring from long-distance shots last year.

This season, Toronto is fourth over all in the NBA in three-point attempts, averaging 31.9 a game. Last season, Toronto finished 22nd with an average of 24.3.

"They're different [from last year]," Lue said of the Raptors after a Cleveland practice at the ACC on Wednesday. "They've got a lot of young guys who are playing well. But just for the most part, offensively, I think they're doing a great job of moving the basketball, moving bodies. Defensively, also they're pretty good.

"It's kind of a makeover for those guys, but they really look good playing the game."

After reeling off wins in 18 of 19 games from Nov. 11 through Dec. 13, the Cavaliers have stumbled and lost six of their past nine, including a 127-99 shellacking at the hands of Minnesota on Monday, their worst loss of the season.

"It's been a rough stretch for us," said Lue, whose team has played eight of its past 10 games on the road.

Cleveland point guard Isaiah Thomas is still far from top form, playing in just three games this season after sustaining a hip injury. Thomas came from the Boston Celtics during the off-season in a big trade involving Kyrie Irving.

Thomas, who learned on Wednesday that he had been fined $20,000 after he struck Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins in the face during Monday's game, said Lue does not have to tell the Cleveland players they are performing poorly.

"We watch film and you can just see it," he said. "He doesn't have to say anything. Film doesn't lie.

"We've got to be the aggressor on both ends of the floor. I think when we do that, we're a tough team to beat, no matter who we're playing."

Given how Cleveland has scuttled Toronto's playoff drives the past two years, Toronto guard Norman Powell said it would help the Raptors' psyche to win on Thursday.

"I think it's important for us," he said. "We haven't seen them yet, so it's going to be a good game for us to see where we might have to adjust, because they might be a team we face again in the playoffs.

"It's going to be a good test for us coming down to the midpoint, close to the all-star break."

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