Courtesy: IG Raptors

According to the latest basketball lines, Thursday night is just another game, perhaps a second-round showdown at best. We know better. As the Toronto Raptors visit the Cleveland Cavaliers, we get to watch not only an Eastern Conference Finals rematch, but an Eastern Conference Finals preview at the same time. The Raptors have emerged as Cleveland’s likely top foil, and surprisingly, that’s playing a part in a larger Toronto-Cleveland rivalry.

Because yes, we care about the Raptors a great deal, but with four preseason games and nearly two weeks left before the season opener, some attention is understandably being paid to the Toronto Blue Jays. Those Blue Jays will follow the Raptors into Cleveland on Friday to kick off their ALCS series, the first time ever that two cities have squared off in both the NBA and MLB semi-finals in the same year. Consider the Raptors among those rooting hard for their Toronto sports counterparts.

“It’s great, at some point in time every sport city, town, state, they have their moment, their run, and it’s a cool thing to be able to witness and be a part of, and I think later on when we really look back at it, it’ll be a cool thing. I didn’t even know that was a first time something like that had happened, so it makes it even that much better,” DeMar DeRozan said Wednesday. ” Sometimes you want to get out of your element of being so caught up, and stressed over your own job, you want to be able to cheer on somebody else’s profession, in your own city, and watch them perform instead of you worrying about the preparation, you going against your own opponent. Now we get to sit back, relax and enjoy.”

“Just to see how the city gets behind their team, we feel like the Blue Jays are kind of like our brothers, we want them to go as far, or further, than we went,” DeMarre Carroll added. “I think the biggest thing for us is we have to stick together and I feel like one team, one country.”

The basketball game tips off at 8 p.m and does not appear to be televised in Canada. The baseball games don’t begin again until Friday, conflicting with the second half of the Raptors’ weird preseason back-to-back. Check out Blue Jays Republic for your needs on the baseball side.

To help set the stage, I reached out to Justin Rowan of Fear the Sword, surely as he donned his usual black hat. Or a Blue Bombers jersey, whatever that is.

Blake Murphy: Before we talk basketball, I need to know: You’re from Winnipeg (sigh) yet you’re a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, so…does your loyalty land with the Jays or Indians for this series?

Justin Rowan: My loyalty is with the Jays. I’m a Cavs fan because I’ve been one since I was young. I’m not really a baseball guy, but I’ll pull for the Canadian team in the playoffs. A man can only handle so much misery, so I only subject myself to one Cleveland sports team.

Blake Murphy: When is J.R. Smith getting signed, how much is he signing for, and how weird will it be when Terrence Ross realizes his full potential as J.R. Smith North, they go head-to-head, and get sucked into some weird vortex trying to shoot the same ball from half at the exact same time?

Justin Rowan: I think J.R. gets signed right before the season, similar to what happened with Tristan Thompson last year. The Thompson situation looked even bleaker than this one at this time last season. I think Smith signs for four years, $52 million. As it would be halfway between his asking price of $15 million a season and the Cavs offer of $11 million on a back-loaded deal. With regards to Ross, I have to say it’s nice to see him come into camp looking like he’s added to his game for the first time as a Raptor. He seems more confident putting the ball on the floor and attacking, which is a great sign.

Blake Murphy: At the risk of upsetting people – your specialty around here – do you anticipate a Raptors-Cavaliers rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals this season?

Justin Rowan: I would say the Raptors are the favourite to face the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals again. This Raptors team has the ability to add on the roster they had during last years run with a fully healthy DeMarre Carroll and maybe even an improved Jonas Valanciunas. The Boston Celtics are right there on that same tier, but they don’t have the same experience and I won’t give them the benefit of the doubt until I see take down Toronto. Other teams have an outside chance as well, such as Indiana who is improved and went down to the wire last season with the Raptors. But Toronto is still the favourite in my mind out of the second tier teams.

Blake Murphy: Is Jordan McRae set to become this year’s Norman Powell or Josh Richardson? I know playing time might be tight, but he’s good. And how excited are you about sparkplug Kay Felder, who plays basketball like Twista’s rap come to life?

Justin Rowan: I think Jordan McRae will be the Jamal Crawford for the Cavaliers this season. He’s a long guard with the ability to put the ball in the hoop and went off for 36 points and 7 assists in a game last season, filling in for Irving. Kay Felder is also exciting, as he does possess a lot of poise for a rookie. However, I think the Cavs will be careful bringing him along. The biggest key is that they take care of the ball. But either player will likely play in the same sheltered role Dellavedova played in, alongside LeBron James with three other bench players.

Blake Murphy: I tuned out when the Cavaliers got down 3-1 in the finals to a 73-win team with the first ever unanimous MVP but can safely assume how it all ended. Will the city of Cleveland ever win a title?

Justin Rowan: Hard to say, last year seemed like a really good opportunity. But there’s simply no team that comes back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. With Kevin Durant in Golden State, it looks pretty bleak.

Blake Murphy: This is unrelated to Raptors-Cavs, but Justin and I recently wrote companion articles on whether or not the Raptors should explore the trade market for Kyle Lowry. You can check Justin’s out here and mine out right here.

Raptors updates
It stands to reason that with a back-to-back scenario in the preseason, some Raptors are going to be taking one of the next two nights off. My instinct is that they’d take the road game off, as they have but a single home preseason game, but the Raptors may prefer to play their top guys against actual NBA competition. Head coach Dwane Casey also paid lip service to going through the process of a back-to-back as a preparatory exercie, though one imagines this doesn’t extend to the more veteran players.

“We have to get the mindset practice in,” Casey said Wednesday. “How do we prepare mentally? How do we prepare physically going into a back to back. That’’s what preseason is for even though it doesn’t mean anything. Creating winning habits is what it is all about.”

That leaves Jared Sullinger as the only big question mark we can speculate on. Sullinger missed the team’s last two preseason games with a sore foot, and while it sounded minor initially, he was still unavailable at practice Wednesday (this is fairly standard procedure, but was a moderate surprise after more than a week off). Sullinger will probably only play in one of the two games, anyway, so don’t be too excited if he winds up sitting out Thursday.

As for the others, here’s a best pass, without accounting for any potential shake-up since the last game.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph, Fred VanVleet, Brady Heslip, Delon Wright (shoulder)
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Drew Crawford
SF: DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross, Bruno Caboclo, E.J. Singler
PF: Jared Sullinger, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam, Jarrod Uthoff
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Lucas Nogueira, Jakob Poeltl, Yanick Moreira

For reference, here’s how the minutes have shaken out so far:

Known commodities: Patterson 62 (20.7/game), DeRozan 55 (18.3), Valanciunas 55 (18.3), Joseph 52 (17.3), Lowry 38 (19), Carroll 34 (17)
Getting acclimated: Sullinger 23 (23)
Competition 1: Siakam 58 (19.3), Nogueira 42 (14), Poeltl 36 (12)
Competition 2: Powell 59 (19.7), Ross 50 (16.7)
Competition 3: Crawford 52 (17.3), VanVleet 47 (15.7), Singler 18 (9), Heslip 9 (9), Uthoff/Moreira 0
Other: Caboclo 29 (9.7), Wright 0

Cavaliers updates
The Cavs are taking it super-conservative in the preseason, which means no LeBron James in this one. The team rested all five of their starters on Monday, so it stands to reason that the others will be back in this one, though Tristan Thompson is nursing a sore foot. Here’s a best guess at how things shake down, keeping in mind J.R. Smith remains unsigned:

PG: Kyrie Irving, Kay Felder, Jordan McRae, Toney Douglas, Mo Williams (retired)
SG: Iman Shumpert, DeAndre Liggins, Markel Brown
SF: Dahntay Jones, Richard Jefferson, John Holland, Mike Dunleavy Jr., LeBron James (rest), Eric Moreland (waived)
PF: Kevin Love, James Jones, Jonathan Holmes
C: Tristan Thompson, Chris Andersen, Channing Frye, Cory Jefferson

The line
You’re not gonna believe this, but the line for a preseason game that involves a back-to-back is off the board. Raptors by 150, Jays in 6.

  • miro

    Trying to figure out the Brady Heslip signing. No news!

    • BlakeMurphy

      I’m not sure what you mean? He was signed along with 5 others to compete for the final roster spot. The team’s probably not going to make a firm decision until Oct. 24, when they have to.

      • miro

        I see, it was sitting on the raptors page like it was fresh news, but it’s actually dated in Seotrmber. My bad , the reference to Tuesday in the piece probably confused me.

        Thinking about it. I wonder if they will sign Van Van for the immediate need , keep Heslip in D league, then when Delon is back, waive Van and sign Heslip as a potential offensive grace of God chance player for the remainder. This offering both players some legitimate time with the big club for their respective careers.

        • BlakeMurphy

          It’s definitely a possible approach. My gut is VanVleet has the job – they’re really high on him – but carrying 4 PGs would seem superfluous once Wright is healthy and shooting remains a little thin.

          • miro

            Yes, the point I was making is that players can be waved, right? Vv can be waived when Delon returns, leaving 3 PGs. Which means they could then sign whoever. If the team is set ,or no other player is better and available. Heslip offers the right kind of ability for specialty end of offense and foul situations

            • BlakeMurphy

              Yeha, exactly. Totally plausible, with little $$ cost of doing so beyond risking whoever you cut getting claimed or signed later.

              • miro

                If something like this were considered , then there is the hope that they would find a game or two to execute Heslip with sufficient time before the allstar game and attempt to get him into the 3 point contest. The more he is broadcast as sharp shooter the greater the utility into the playoffs.

                • BlakeMurphy

                  Probably not, to be honest. I doubt he’ll play enough to get on the radar. Maybe if it were in Toronto again.

              • leftovercrack

                Hey Blake, I am not suggesting, hinting, implying or anything that Lowry be traded – I hope they re-sign him when he opts out – but is Corey Joseph considered to have starting-level PG talent? Could he be a legit replacement if Kyle is gone?

                • BlakeMurphy

                  It’s unclear. Last year was the most he’s ever played, and there were times he didn’t look like a starting caliber PG on the offensive end without Lowry. He’s maybe the best backup in the NBA, but right now he’d probably be a below-average starter. If he could add the 3…

                • leftovercrack

                  That seems about right. I love Lowry, and he has saved this franchise, but paying max money or close to it for someone’s 31-to-36 years. That scares me

        • BlakeMurphy

          It’s definitely a possible approach. My gut is VanVleet has the job – they’re really high on him – but carrying 4 PGs would seem superfluous once Wright is healthy and shooting remains a little thin.

        • n8

          Keep in mind that it’s still very likely that Vanvleet spends a lot of time in the D league even if he gets signed, he’s only an insurance policy. Ujiri has to manage both teams, and the 905 are without a starting point guard at the moment, lest they decide to give Heslip that role full time

  • Mike$

    Want to see more of Bruno. He’s looked like a real NBA defender the last few games. WIsh james was in so we could see a stint of pascal on him.

    First time the starters have been together since the opener, excited to see how the Bigs rotation looks. Another early hook for JV, to get him back in the second unit?

    • bizzy

      too bad he still looks lost on offence, like dragan bender bad.

  • Paul

    BTW It’s airing on TSN 1 & 4 at 8PM

    • BlakeMurphy

      That’s a new development! Thanks.

  • bizzy

    terrence ross is out due to a sore knee

    • BlakeMurphy

      Yuuuup. Update coming in the pre-game notes, but deemed it not worth it’s own post during preseason. Good opportunity for Norm to reassert!