TORONTO â€” The Toronto Raptors got the three-day break they were hoping for. They’re going to need it.
The team ended its opening-round series against the Bucks with a roller-coaster 92-89 victory in Milwaukee on Thursday night.
Now, they face a familiar foe in Cleveland in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Monday at Quicken Loans Arena, where Toronto couldn’t win a game in last year’s playoffs.
“You still have to win on the road, winning in Cleveland is difficult,” coach Dwane Casey said. “We know what we’re facing. . . we’ve got a couple of days now to review what they’re doing.”
The Raptors, who took a beating in a tough, physical series with the Bucks, held an optional practice back in Toronto on Friday. It was a chance for players to get much-needed treatment ahead of the next round.
The Raptors were intent on capturing Game 6 to avoid stretching out the opening round another couple of days. A massive late-game meltdown almost cost them the opportunity. But despite a red-hot Bucks team that was fuelled by the deafening crowd in the Bradley Center, the Raptors held on to win.
Back in Cleveland, awaiting their opponent, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue held a Game 6 viewing party for his coaching staff and about 60 members of the Cleveland organization.
Casey hopes the experience gained can help Toronto in Cleveland.
“We’ve got to learn from it, that’s the most important thing, knowing how hard it is to win on the road,” he said. “Our veteran guys should know it but to close out a series on the road in a hostile. . . great crowd here, great environment. And once they woke up and got back in it, they were great. We have to learn from it.”
Serge Ibaka, who was acquired from Orlando at February’s trade deadline for precisely these big-game moments, struggled offensively in Milwaukee. He had just six points in a Game 3 blowout loss to the Bucks, and seven points, on 2-of-7 shooting, on Thursday night.
“It’s human nature,” Casey said of the Congolese big man. “He needs to see the ball go through the basket. I know it sounds simplistic. He’s playing well at home and I wouldn’t say not playing well, but not shooting the ball well on the road. He’s still giving us rim protection, and those kind of things, rebounding.
“It’s a thing where, if you see that ball go through the hole a couple times early in the game. . . hopefully we get him going early, to get his confidence there. That’s what we need to do.”
Whether or not Ibaka finds his shot on the road, the third-seeded Raptors could put up a lot of points against a second-seeded Cavaliers team that was tested in their first-round series with Indiana, but managed to find a way to win. The Cavs tied Houston for the worst first-half defence in the league.
Cleveland won the regular-season series against the Raptors 3-1, but three of those games were in the first six weeks of the regular season, before Toronto’s roster included Ibaka and hardnosed defender P.J. Tucker. Their fourth meeting was the regular-season finale in Cleveland. Toronto won, but LeBron James didn’t play, while Casey used his starters sparingly.
Cleveland routed Toronto in its three playoff games at home last season, but the Raptors were missing Jonas Valanciunas for most of the series with a sprained ankle.
The Cavaliers have won seven consecutive playoff games and 11 straight since James returned to his hometown team.
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Cleveland, then the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 on Friday and Game 4 next Sunday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press