Raptors-Cavaliers Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 12, 2012
Less than a week ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers were on a six-game slide and a playoff spot seemed out of the question. Three impressive wins later, a postseason appearance hardly appears out of reach. The Cavaliers look to extend their run to four for the first time in two years Tuesday night when they host a Toronto Raptors team that's already beaten them twice. New Orleans and Washington were among the teams Cleveland (16-23) couldn't beat during a six-game skid, so stops in Denver and Oklahoma City last week only figured to make it worse. Surprisingly, the Cavaliers won both before returning home to rally past another Western Conference team with a winning record. After trailing Houston by as many as eight late in the third quarter Sunday, Cleveland scored 37 points in the fourth to run away with a 118-107 victory. "What I like most is just our ability to compete for 48 minutes, no matter what's going on in the game," said guard Kyrie Irving, who had 16 of his 21 points in the final 4:14. "They make their run, but we continue to get stops and continue to execute on the offensive end of the floor." The Cavaliers, who haven't won four straight since an eight-game run March 8-24, 2010, trailed New York by four games for the East's final playoff spot last week. Now the Knicks, Cleveland and Milwaukee are in a tight three-team race. "I sit and look at (the standing) all the time,'' coach Byron Scott said. "I know the teams in front of us and what they're doing, I know the team that's right behind us. So I know we have a golden opportunity.'' Irving's play late in games has been the catalyst. His 9.1 points per game in the fourth quarter since Jan. 27 are an NBA-best, and he's averaged 10.2 in the final 12 minutes of Cleveland's five games this month while shooting 75.0 percent (18 of 24). The frontrunner to be named the league's top rookie hasn't done much to impress against Toronto (13-28), though. Irving has averaged 9.0 points in the Cavaliers' two losses in the series, missing 20 of 25 shots from the field. The Raptors have had Cleveland's number since LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents elsewhere two summers ago. Toronto has won four of the five meetings, three by at least 15 points. The biggest reason for the Raptors' success was Andrea Bargnani, who averaged 22.3 points on 54.1 percent shooting in the four wins while sitting out the lone loss. The Cavaliers won't be happy to see Bargnani back on the court, but his return after missing 20 games with a calf injury hasn't equated to wins for the Raptors. Bargnani had eight points in a 105-86 loss at Detroit on Saturday, then scored 11 as Toronto fell 105-99 at home against Milwaukee on Sunday. "We know how good he is and I need him back, everybody needs him back, and when he gets back to the level that he was at we are going to be a very dangerous team," guard Jerryd Bayless said. Bayless scored 16 points Sunday while starting for Jose Calderon, who's day-to-day with a sprained ankle. Regardless of which player starts opposite Irving on Tuesday, the Cavaliers will want to pay close attention. Calderon has averaged 17.5 points and 14.0 assists in Toronto's last two visits to Cleveland, while Bayless has put up 38 points in 48 minutes in two games against the Cavs with the Raptors.
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